'Sprung Is Here' — for 47 years at Galax convention

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Folk pioneer and bluegrass legend Roger Sprung holds court at his annual jam sessions at the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention.

By April Wright, Reporter

For more than 47 years, 81-year-old bluegrass legend Roger Sprung has graced Galax and the Old Fiddlers’ Convention with his presence.
The banjo master travels from Newtown, Conn., making a stop at the Clifftop Festival in West Virginia before stopping in Galax each year.
Sitting at his own spot behind the convention stage, suspended letters above his tent announce “SPRUNG IS HERE.”
A cardboard sign written in black marker indicates a schedule of jam sessions at his campsite.
“Everyone is invited,” said Sprung. “Good or bad, I don’t care, because you got to start somewhere.”


Sprung started as one of the founding fathers of the folk music revival of the 1950s in New York City.
In 1970, Sprung won World Champion at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Festival with a rendition of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”
In 2009, he was honored by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., as a “Pioneer of Bluegrass.”
At his campsite in Galax, about a dozen musicians gather under his tent to get the chance to jam with him. Here, Sprung commands the jam sessions, and asks onlookers if they would like to join.
“What’s your favorite song?” he asks one festival-goer.
“Something by Johnny Cash,” the person says.
Sprung commands the group to play the bluegrass version of “Ring of Fire,” as he strums his banjo and sings in a soulful voice.
For years, he’s maintained the same spot at Felts Park, selling banjos, inviting all musicians to join him and even offering some music tips.
“If you would excuse me, I have an engagement with another man’s wife,” he tells his group of jammers as he takes a break from the session.     
They all laugh.
“I love to make people laugh,” he says, segueing into a joke. “How do you know a motorcyclist is happy?” he asks. “He’s got bugs in his teeth.”
In 1965, Sprung attended his first fiddlers’ convention in Galax and was a part of the groundbreaking for the grandstand in Felts Park.
He has seen it through its many stages. Years ago, the convention had gotten out of control, but the police have done a good job of cleaning it up, said Sprung.
“The Galax Moose Lodge [sponsor of the Fiddlers’ Convention] has treated me well, playing with others has been fun, and the convention continues to preserve old-time music,” he said, of why he returns each year to compete, camp and jam.
He has won first in the singing competition at Galax, first in bluegrass banjo and second in clawhammer banjo — fellow banjo legend Pop Stoneman was first that year, he said.
Sprung and his band, the Progressive Bluegrassers, bring the audience to their feet during a performance of “Wild Goose Chase.” They are the only band in the history of the Old Fiddlers’ Convention to ever do an encore performance.
When the light on stage signals to fiddlers’ convention contestants, it means their time is up and should wrap up the phrase, said Sprung.
Sprung recalled that years ago, when the light went on during his band’s performance, he placed his hat over the light and finished the song.
“I’m not proud of that,” said Sprung. “And they had to change the place of the light after that, but we brought the house down that year.”
Another year at the convention, Sprung was standing behind his table, selling banjos when he was approached to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” in front of 15,000 people, before the start of the convention.
“It lasted about 90 seconds, and I did okay,” said Sprung. “But that’s one memory I have of being here.”
Sprung said he’s the last person in the world to know he’s famous. He has influenced notable musicians, such as the Kingston Trio and Doc Watson.
“When I’m here, people look up to me,” said Sprung. “’Are you Roger Sprung,’ people ask. It’s nice to be looked up to.”
As a young child, Sprung learned the boogie-woogie style on piano. When his older Brother, George, convinced him to go to Washington Square in New York for a Sunday folk music gathering in 1947, Sprung became hooked on folk music.
“I went down to the pawn shop and bought a guitar,” said Sprung. “And after three months of playing the guitar, I took to playing the banjo.”
But when a friend invited him to a party, he was introduced to the music of Earl Scruggs. He listened to Scruggs records over and over until he adopted and applied his style.
“You can see on the record where I wore it out from listening to it so much,” he said.
Sprung has taught many notable performers, including Erik Darling and Chad Mitchell of the Chad Mitchell Trio.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sprung led jams and performances. His first band was the Folksay Trio, which included Darling and Bob Carey. His next band was The Shanty Boys, which included Mike Cohen on guitar and Lionel Kilberg on washtub bass.
They performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center several times.
Starting in 1950, Sprung began traveling south to collect music from the Appalachian players and to attend music festivals. He fell in with the greats of the old-time music scene and performed with the likes of Bill Monroe to Peter Rowan.
Recently, he performed alongside Willie Nelson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Sprung has recordings with The Progressive Bluegrassers and five of his albums are on the Smithsonian-Folkways label and are considered classics.
When not traveling, Sprung lives with his wife and two children in Newtown.