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Ralph Blizard

Dec. 5, 1918 - Dec. 4, 2004

Culture
State
Tradition
Year
United States Map Highlighting Tennessee
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Tennessee-born fiddler Ralph Blizard focused on traditional music in his distinctive long-bow style, but he also loved to improvise. "You play the way you feel," he said. "It's sort of inspirational when you get into it." Arlington, Virginia, 2002, photograph by Alan Govenar
Ralph Blizard, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Ralph Blizard grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, near the Virginia border, an area rich in traditional music. The 1927 recording sessions in nearby Bristol, Tennessee, launched the commercial country music industry and introduced the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers to a wide audience.
 Blizard’s father, Robert, played banjo and fiddle and sometimes taught singing. At an early age, Ralph took part in jam sessions at his own home and at the home of a banjo-playing neighbor, Amos Dennison. The Carters were among the musicians who traveled to these gatherings.

Ralph Blizard played several instruments, including guitar and mandolin, before finding his true love, the fiddle. “My dad never would let me play his fiddle,” he recalled years later. “He was afraid I’d tear it up, which was a good possibility at a young age. So I slipped and played his fiddle.” Once Robert Blizard learned of his son’s interest in the instrument, though, he was supportive. Soon Ralph was playing at house parties and dances and winning fiddling contests.

At 14, Ralph Blizard was performing with his band, the Southern Ramblers, on radio station WOPI, playing early in the morning before school. The band grew in popularity as it continued to perform on radio and in personal appearances in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.

After Navy service in World War II, Blizard became a regular on the highly successful Saturday Night Hayride program on WKPT. But after he married Mildred Inez Bowman and began raising a family in the early 1950s, he gave up music. He didn’t pick up the fiddle for twenty-five years, but after retiring from Eastman Kodak in 1980, he began playing again, practicing several hours each day.

In 1982, Blizard met and played with the Green Grass Cloggers at a festival near his home. He began performing and winning contests again and formed the New Southern Ramblers. He focused on traditional music in his distinctive long-bow style, though he also loved to improvise. “That’s one of the things I do that I think brings me down to the style of fiddling I do — that it’s variable in its approach to the melody,” he told John Rumble of the Country Music Foundation. “Coming out of your feelings, you play the way you feel,” he said.  ”And you play according to who’s behind you, you see, what they’re doing. They’ve got to be coming forward with what they do, and they put you out there to where you can go ahead and build the number to where it’s an exciting fiddle tune. It’s sort of inspirational when you get into it.”

Bibliography
“Area Fiddle Player Gets $10,000 NEA Grant.” Johnson City Press (June 2002).
Greenburg, Mark. No Title — Sing Out, vol. 39, no. 2. (partial citation).
Igo, Stephen. “Kingsport Native is Nationally Acclaimed Long Bow Fiddler.” Kingsport Times-News (June 2002).
Lilly, John. “Ralph Blizard: Blizard Train.” Booklet (partial citation).
Simmons, Morgan. “Blountville Fiddler Gets National Heritage Honor: Ralph Blizard is 1 of 14 Recipients.” News-Sentinel (July 2002).

Discography
Blizard, Ralph. Blue Highway. BH4591.
_____. Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers. Rounder CD0352. _____. Southern Ramble. Rounder, 2009.

Watch

Ralph Blizard, 2002 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Ralph Blizard answers the question 'How did you get started playing the fiddle?' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard answers the question 'What kind of work did you do?' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard answers the question 'What is the long-bow style of fiddling?' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard plays 'The Sugar Tree Stomp,' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard answers the question 'What kind of fiddle is that that you're playing now?' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, Interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard plays 'The Cheatham County Breakdown.' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002. Interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard plays 'Midnight on the Water,' Roslyn, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar

Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers, 'The Train That Carried My Girl From Town,' Southern Ramble, 1995, Rounder Records Corp., Rounder CD 0352

Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers, 'Don 't Let Your Deal Go Down,' Southern Ramble, 1995, Rounder Records Corp., Rounder CD 0352

Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers, 'Pan American,' Southern Ramble, 1995, Rounder Records Corp., Rounder CD 0352
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Ralph Blizard and the New Southern Ramblers, 'When I Get Home (Gonna Be Satisfied),' Southern Ramble, 1995, Rounder Records Corp., Rounder CD 0352