Lonnie Ward: Traditional Musician
by Trevor McKenzie
Born in 1928, Lonnie Ward has been a part of the musical traditions of Watauga County, North Carolina, for nearly seven decades. At 83, Ward is accomplished on a variety of instruments including banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, and guitar. Recently, he took up the fiddle after being inspired by the playing of his friend, the late Ora Watson. Ward displays a wide knowledge of traditional songs, ranging from time-tested hymns to old-time breakdowns. Each tune Lonnie decides to pick is accompanied by a look of intense concentration and, more often than not, a wide grin that never fails to capture an audience. Whether onstage or in his living room, Ward is a performer more than willing to encourage others to participate in the musical heritage he has known since childhood.
Throughout the region of Western North Carolina, Ward is noted for playing his dulcimer, an instrument he first picked up around the age of 12. Ward recalls being fascinated by the wife of Ed Presnell, who carried the mail and played the dulcimer. The picking style Lonnie uses in his right hand bares a high contrast to that commonly used by other dulcimer players. The thumb and index finger form a “tickle and pinch” pattern somewhat akin to the guitar “scratch” of Maybelle Carter, producing a wall of sound that provides both rhythm and melody.
The two-finger banjo technique practiced by Ward possesses its own unique sound and represents a tradition formulated by Ward himself. Inspired by the banjo playing of his mother, Kizzie Ida Ward (born 1901), Lonnie developed her two-finger picking into his own style. Among the songs Lonnie recalls being played by his mother are “House Carpenter” and “Baby Mine,” both of which he has kept within his repertoire. He also played and built instruments alongside Beech Mountain “double-knock” banjoist Tab Ward, grandfather of Rick Ward, Lonnie’s nephew, who continues the tradition of his family’s banjo playing. Lonnie delivers powerful renditions of breakdowns, “Sourwood Mountain” and “Whoopee Liza,” as well as hymns and marches such as “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” He transposes this two-finger style to guitar to play tunes ranging from “John Henry” to “Boogie Woogie.”
Lonnie carries on the “Do-Re-Mi” singing tradition of his home region as an active member of the local Baptist congregations along the Watauga River. He first attended Cool Springs Baptist Church as a child where he first learned “Do-Re-Mi” singing. Upon his return from a tour in Italy near the close of World War II, Ward became the singing leader at Antioch Baptist Church, a post he held for over 20 years. An example of Ward’s gospel singing from this time period can be heard on The Traditional Music of Beech Mountain, NC released by Folk Legacy Records in 1964. For nearly three-fourths of his life Lonnie has contributed to the gospel music of his home region and continues to sing in church regularly. Ward has passed music on to his children and has produced recordings of his dulcimer playing and gospel singing alongside his children. Lonnie Ward is a deserving recipient of the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award due to his intense passion for the musical traditions of his home region and the enthusiasm he displays in sharing them with others.
Trevor McKenzie recently received a Master of Arts in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University. He has an interest in the history, artifacts, stories, and music stemming from the rural areas of the upland South. McKenzie regularly performs music on fiddle and other stringed instruments for concerts and square dances.
McKenzie, Trevor. “Lonnie Ward: Traditional Musician.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 58.2 (2011): 20-22.