Preston Fulp, born in 1915, was a sawmill worker, a tobacco sharecropper, moonshiner, and blues and old-time guitarist. He made his recordings at the age of 78 and died a few months later in October 1993. Preston weaves stories of his life through both secular and sacred songs. He was the last original Piedmont blues from turn-of-the century Winston-Salem. -Timothy Duffy
How We Helped:
Music Maker Relief Foundation has assisted Preston Fulp with utility and grocery bills, produced his first record, and helped him book shows and performances throughout North and South Carolina. Preston is featured in the book Music Makers: Portraits and Songs from the Roots of America (2004).
Preston Fulp grew up in Walnut Cove, an area just north of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his family sharecropped tobacco. Preston took to music at an early age, starting to play the guitar when he was six. By his teens he was proficient on the violin and banjo and was a singer of both blues and hillbilly songs. He played blues with local musicians such as Wheeler Bailey, Arthur Anderson, Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell. He played hillbilly music with Ernest Thomspon and Vernon Covenant and listened to the 78 records of the Carter Family, and Uncle Dave Macon. Soon he was performing in both styles on Saturdays at corn shuckings, chicken stews, and barn dances. He recalled to me a dance hall he played regularly in neighboring Mount Airy. The black and white people where segregated and he would go to one side of the hall and play mountain music for the whites and then go to the other side and play blues for the blacks. Preston was unique in this ability to perform both styles of music.
Preston often performed at the tobacco auctions in Winston-Salem. There were great events, as it was the time of year that farmers had cash from the sale of their crop. In the fall for three months, the streets would fill with barkers, mooonshiners, soapbox preachers, medicine men and musicians, all hawking their goods. Working all week at the sawmill Preston would make $4.50 and then perform at the auction houses all night Friday and Saturday, often coming home with $100. During the Depression, Preston, seeking better times, hopped a freight. He found farm work throughout the Midwest up into Canada, where he became a friend with a potato farmer. Here Preston stayed and worked in the potato fields and taught his new friend the art of moonshining. Five years later Preston hoboed back to Walnut Cove. While jumping off the last boxcar near his home, he fell and broke his left arm. Frustrated that he could not play guitar, he peeled back the plaster from his fingers just enough to fret the neck, then propped the guitar body on his left knee and continued to perform. He held the guitar in this manner the rest of his life.
By this time the elder blues musicians had drifted off and Preston played hillbilly music with banjo players and fiddlers. Preston never left Walnut Cove again. He married, settled down and supported his family by growing tobacco and working in a sawmill.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina is often considered a prewar center for the blues music that was performed at tobacco warehouses. Today this area is still home to a diverse assortment of blues and blues-related musicians. I asked Guitar Gabriel about older musicians whom he knew and he mentioned Preston Fulp. We found Preston the next day outside his garage. He was happy to see his old friend Gabe and we talked and made music. These beautiful recordings of Preston capture his haunting falsetto voice and intricate East Coast guitar style.
Preston loved music and would spend the spring, summer and fall sitting on a chair in his car-port with his guitar, singing and playing to his grandchildren and neighbors and friends who passed by. A neighboring farmer once told me that when the tobacco-curing time came around his father would get Preston’s guitar out of the pawn shop and Preston would sit and play until daybreak, song after song, singing all the verses. His CD, Sawmill Worker, is a historical musical document of this rarely heard rural-based music influenced by both black and white traditions of the early 1900s.