It was during Ashley's medicine show days that he played with Roy Acuff, now known as the King of Country Music. Ashley related the experience to a reporter for the Tennessee paper in the following way:
Just before one summer, the Doc told me he had a neighbor boy who could sing a little and play a little and said he'd like to take him along. He asked if I'd train him, and I said I would. That boy stayed with us two summers and I taught him some songs, and after that he went off on his own and did right well. He was Roy Acuff.
When Ashley was not traveling with the medicine show, he continued his role as the itinerant country minstrel. He took his playing, singing, and comedy acts to small-town theaters and to community schools. He played outside the pay shacks at coal mines and logging camps. When there was a local gathering, Ashley and his music were usually available. He was an outstanding organizer and could always obtain the talents of other local musicians to play in his bands. Whatever amount of money was earned, he insisted on it being divided equally among the members of the group. Although he was the better known member of the group and took care of all the arrangements for the performances, he would never take more for his share than the other musicians received.
Much of his artistry stemmed from the fact that many of his songs and his style were frozen in the time of 1910 before the advent of radio or the recording of rural artists. The music of this era became known as traditional folk music. It was often referred to as the "real thing" or the "source." Since most of the popular songs of the 1960's were drawn from traditional country singers, the music was in actuality the source for those songs. By the early 1950's, traditional music had been overshadowed by country-western and rock music. In the 1960's, there was a great revival of interest in folk music, and many city audiences became enthusiastic about traditional music. The recognition of Ashley's artistry in traditional music was due primarily to the efforts of Ralph Rinzler, a member of The Friends of Old Time Music. The organization sought to make tribute to the source of folk music rather than to exploit it. The following is a summary of an article written by this organization when they were asked to make a statement of their aims and purposes:
The traditional singer had been recorded, romanticized by collectors, journalists, and artists; but only a scant few have received the tribute of appearing before a city audience. One of the purposes of this organization was to bring traditional musicians to the concert stages of the city. In the 60's so much was being made from folk music while so little was being put back into it. Millions were made from exploitation and scarcely a penny spent for tribute. Very little money or acclaim had been channelled into respect for the origional source. The organization knew that many of these performances would appear unpolished but they felt that the traditional musicans had much to offer in artistry if not in 'slickness or presentation.'
It was through campaigns to bring these traditional musicians to the cities that Ashley was rediscovered. The city audiences loved him, and there was a great demand for Ashley's group at clubs and folk festivals throughout the country. Among his appearances in the cities were New York City, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. A man in his late sixties who had spent a lifetime as a professional musician with little recognition finally became recognized as an artist. People marvelled at the strange modal sound that came from his "sawmill-tuned" banjo. He received phone calls and letters from folk music enthusiasts from all over the country. Many of them wanted to come to his home at Shouns to play with him and learn from him. Ashley told them they would be welcome and many of them came. After spending a few days playing with Ashley, and enjoying the hospitality provided by him and his wife Hettie, they went away a great deal wiser about traditional music, and they took with them memories of a pleasant experience in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In addition to being an artist, he was a teacher of his art. He was never selfish with his knowledge of traditional music. He participated in the workshops that followed the folk festivals and taught his songs to anyone who cared to learn them. Ashley, along with Clint Howard, Fred Price, Doc Watson, and Gaither Carlton, taped a program for the Voice of America and made an educational film sequence for the British Broadcasting Service TV Educational Division. He was copied by many musicians, and this emulation did not seem to bother him. He ewas devoted to traditional music (called old-time music by Ashley), even if it meant that he would enjoy less popularity. He staunchly refused to change his music to keep with the times. Possibly, he could have earned more money if he had changed his style to bluegrass or western-swing, but Ashley loved the old-time music. By refusing to change his style, he helped to preserve the music of his heritage. It is doubltful that he was making a conscious effort to preserve his heritage, but the result was the same.
Traditional folk music is a part of America's heritage. It consists of folk songs, lyrics, and instrumental music of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors who settled in the Appalachian Mountains. Many of the songs which Ashley knew were of genuine Irish, Scotch, English, and Flemish derivation. The ballads which he sang often depicted the life of mountain people themselves. The area in which Ashley lived afforded a hard life for many people; but in spite of all the hard work, the area retained British ballads such as "Lord Lovel," "Barbara Allen," "Mattie Grove," and the "Elfin Knight."
Ashley's songs brought together the mountain combination of the struggle for life and the romantic. He delivered his songs and "ballits" with the magic ingredient of personal involvement that the best of traditional singers own. Ashley preferred music that had feeling, and he named as his favorite performers Bill Monroe, Jimmy Rogers, and Mahalia Jackson. Ashley said, "A lot of people in the city are playing old-time music these days. But country people play their feelings and feel their playing. That's the big difference."
It would require a book in itself to discuss even generally the many songs which Ashley sang. He received a copyright for his arrangements of "The Old Man at the Mill," "Tough Luck," "The Haunted Woods," "Omie Wise," and "Walking Boss." The copyright was secured by Stormking Music, Inc. The four songs which are at the top of this page are but a few of the most popular songs he sang and recorded. Two of the four songs appear to be of American origin while the other two are the British origin.
- Tom Clarence Ashley: An Appalachian Folk Musician (Masters Thesis: East Tennessee State University)
- Written by Minnie M. Miller, August 1973