Our neighbors called themselves the Foggy Headed Boys. And believe me. . . they were.
They were a ragtag bluegrass band, loosely organized around the communal household next door to us in Durham, North Carolina.
I didn't know what to make of them. Hippies or Good Ol' Boys? Dead Heads or Duke frat boys? Druggies or seekers? They defied the simple categories I had at my disposal.
I'd never been south of the Mason-Dixon line, so moving to North Carolina in the early seventies provided a heavy dose of culture shock. I got an education that went well beyond that PhD in clinical psychology I was pursuing at Duke.
Durham was a fading tobacco town. The public schools had been desegregated just two years earlier. You didn't have to travel far into the countryside to see billboards for the Klan.
But it was also a college town. A liberal island in the New South, as they called it. It felt like a time warp, as though the sixties had just arrived. Tie-dye, Indian bedspreads, patchouli, communes, food co-ops. . . they had a comforting, if dated, familiarity. Quaint. And jarring, to hear all this delivered in soft, lilting southern accents.
After a few months in a giant, sterile apartment complex, my husband and I found a sweet little cottage to rent, on a Durham street that looked like a country road. We soon met the neighbors in the slightly shabby, two story brick house next door. They were young, friendly, shaggy. It was hard to figure out who lived there, exactly. A bunch of Duke undergraduates, or recent graduates, we soon learned. Plus other assorted characters. They weren't all students. There were regular old working people. A massage therapist. A mostly male scene.
A young married couple, Bill and Betsy, were at the heart of the household. She played the fiddle. He played the banjo, along with a few other instruments. He'd dropped out of medical school and found a job at one of the labs in Research Triangle Park. Conveniently enough, the lab did drug research. . . on THC, the active ingredient in cannabis. So Wild Bill, as they sometimes called him, had access to some of the product.
Then there was Jake, a recent Duke graduate. He came from a long line of Methodist preachers. Within a few years, he'd be at Duke Divinity School. But for now, he sang and played the guitar. He tried to help the band maintain a modicum of decorum. (He drank beer, but as I recall he didn't approve of drugs.)
For awhile, there was a guy who played a washtub bass. Then he disappeared.
That was the core of the Foggy Headed Boys. Others passed in and out of the communal household. . . and the band. Fiddlers, mandolinists, guitarists. Harmonica players. And eventually, my own husband.
They were welcoming to us, their new neighbors. They invited us to their parties. Then they learned Steve happened to have a mandolin. He'd been given the instrument as a gift the previous year, but he hadn't learned to play it. He didn't really play anything. (Neither did I.) But the Foggy Headed Boys were undeterred. They figured they would teach him on the fly. They already had a couple of guys who played mandolin, but they could always use one more.
So Steve got absorbed into their merry band. He learned to play music by ear, seat of the pants, at night and on the weekends. The band played college parties and local coffeehouses, one time at a political fundraiser. There's even a recording, from a local radio station. They weren't half bad.
As for me, I watched the free-wheeling music scene from the sidelines. I felt drawn to it in some ways, but it also made me feel uneasy. I had a handy excuse: I was too busy with graduate school to get involved.
They tried to get me to pick up an instrument. We bought Jake's old dreadnaught guitar, complete with toothmarks from his big old sheepdog Martha. Steve drove up into the mountains to buy me a beautiful handmade dulcimer. I made a few attempts to learn, but I couldn't get the hang of either instrument. And back then I was too self consious to sing. I tapped my foot.
It just wasn't my time to play music. I wasn't open to it, I now realize. That would come fifteen years later, when I felt in love with the Cajun accordion.
But when I look back, I credit my long-ago neighbors, the Foggy Headed Boys, with opening me up for what came later. Those years in North Carolina provided my first exposure to southern culture and to roots music. They offered a picture of a married couple making music together. Of friendships that revolve around music. And to the way making music helps people connect across the divides that too often separate us.
They paved the way for me to find my own version of southern music. And that's what eventually led me back to writing.
For an image of how it all ended up, here's a video from the Louisiana Book Festival, where I talk about my book Accordion Dreams and my first exposure to southern music:
And here's another one from the Festival, where Steve and I are playing a waltz:
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders