Banjo Newsletter

September 2005: Old Friends: Margie and Enoch Sullivan
By Murphy Henry

Last week I had the opportunity to see Margie and Enoch Sullivan, from St. Stephens, Ala., play their old-fashioned brand of bluegrass gospel music at a small church near Romney, W. Va. I've known this wonderful wife and husband team since my bass playing days with Betty Fisher but I hadn't seen them play in decades. So when my friend and banjo student Jean mentioned that they were playing on a Monday night, I said, "Let's go!"

We drove over in Jean's pickup truck, and when we got to the church I headed straight for the bathroom. When I came out of the Men's (the Women's being occupied and me being in a hurry), there stood Margie. She looked as stately as ever in her mid-calf lavender-print church dress, holding that well-worn Martin D-28. Not knowing exactly how much I might have changed in Margie's eyes, I walked over and introduced myself. Then we had some hugging and some gushing, and she called Enoch over and we had more hugging and gushing and then Margie said did you bring your banjo and I said no, so she nodded in the direction of their banjo player and said he would lend me his and then I said I didn't bring my picks and she said he would lend me his and what did I want to play. I gave up and said What A Friend We Have In Jesus and she said what key and I said G and then Jean and I went and sat down in the sanctuary where the congregation was already making a joyful noise.

After rousing versions of Jesus Hold My Hand and When The Saints Go Marching In, the preacher introduced the Sullivans and the show was on. Enoch does most of the talking and with his old-fashioned, carefully honed, smooth-as-silk stage patter and his Wizard of Oz-like appearance (it's the longish white hair and moustache), he forges an immediate connection with the audience. They had played this church before and he called many friends by name and asked the audience to give them a round of applause. Then, not wanting to slight the Lord, we gave Him (probably not Her in that setting) a round, too. Enoch introduced Josh Dean, 17, on banjo, and long-time bass player Joy Deville from Louisiana who gave a long, loud Cajun yell right there in the church! Enoch bragged on Josh's playing saying "He picks the banjo like a pig a-trottin'!" (Whatever that means. It seemed positive.) They also introduced me and Margie said, "God bless you, baby, for coming out to see us." Somehow, being called "baby" made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

The singing portion of the program started with This World Is Not My Home followed by Margie doing the song Matthew Twenty-Four. When Enoch asked Margie to say a few words, she stepped up to the plate and delivered like an old-time preacher woman. She would have been powerful in the pulpit.

Several special guests got up before I did including a brave, fairly new banjo player named Lee who played I'll Fly Away. Then it was my turn. Josh had kindly loaned me a set of his extra picks and I had been wearing them ever since, trying to get used to them. They were way too big. Since my fingers are small, I normally cut down the sides of my own fingerpicks to make them fit. (Lynn Morris actually folds the metal over backwards on hers. And, no, I don't like the kid-size picks-the blades aren't long enough.) So with funny-feeling picks and an unfamiliar, albeit good-sounding, Mastertone, I assumed the position behind the microphone. I didn't dare venture up the neck on What A Friend, but did a credible version down low, playing pretty much the same break I teach my students. It was pure pleasure to hear Enoch playing the fiddle-good, straight-ahead, old-fashioned fiddling. Raw and powerful just like I like it. I thought I was done after that tune but Margie said, "Now play a fast one." Ah, yes. I should have done that to begin with. I said, "What about When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder?" "What key?" "G," I said.

Feeling more comfortable with the banjo now, I managed to sneak in a fancy, up-the-neck Scruggs lick which drew some applause from the audience. (Of course, Enoch could have been milking the crowd for applause by motioning with his hand but I prefer to think that it was spontaneous!) Once again, Enoch was really putting the rosin to the strings. I remember long ago at a festival in Bush, La., hearing Enoch explain why he felt it was alright to play up-tempo gospel bluegrass on the fiddle, which is often called the "Devil's Box." "There's no reason the Devil should have all the good tunes!" he said. Amen to that, Brother Enoch! After my guest spot, I returned to the safety of the audience to enjoy the rest of the show.

For the finale, Enoch called all the guests back up. I declined saying I didn't have a banjo. I was sitting in my pew when Lee, the other banjo player, stepped off the stage and walked over to me and asked if I had a capo. I figured he needed to borrow one for the last song. I tried to remember if I had thrown one in my pocketbook, but I had to shake my head no, sorry. Then, for some reason, I reached in my pants pocket and pulled out: a capo. It wasn't mine--it was brass colored and larger than my Shubb. I'd never seen it before and wondered how it got into my pocket. Had I stuck it in my pants at a recent picking party and then washed both the pants and the capo? Then it dawned on me. This was Josh's capo! That's what Lee had been asking for. I had pocketed it when I had strapped on his banjo to play. I was a capo thief! And in church, no less! With a blazing red face, I walked to the stage, purloined capo in hand, to apologize and return it to Josh. Enoch insisted I stay and sing and Joy asked if I wanted to play her bass. Bless her heart. Of course I did. We closed out with a medley of Will The Circle Be Unbroken and I Saw The Light with everyone in the church singing.

It was a joyous end to an emotionally satisfying evening. All I want from music is for it to make me feel something. Margie Sullivan does that every time she reaches down into the depths of her Louisiana soul and pulls out a song. With her low, almost husky voice (imagine Lauren Bacall with a Southern accent) and her no-holds-barred delivery, she packs an emotional wallop.

After the show, the Sullivans were "set up in the vestibule for your convenience." I loaded up on cassettes, CDs, and videos. Margie was kind enough to give me an autographed copy of their autobiography, Fifty Years in Bluegrass Gospel Music. I told Enoch that next time they were in the area, if Josh couldn't make it, to call me. I hope that they do. Have banjo, will travel. Especially to play music with old friends.