Remembering ‘Bud’ Garrett
By Tom Rankin and Elizabeth Peterson
Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 12, 14-15
Robert “Bud” Garrett died on November 24,1987. Perhaps appropriately, he suffered a heart attack during his third game of the folk marble game “rolley hole” the day before Thanksgiving.
Rolley hole has been a tradition in Garrett’s home of Clay County, Tennessee, and the adjoining counties of the Eastern Highland Rim for over a century. Through his love of the competition and the fellowship of the game Garrett encouraged its cultural survival. Like many males in his community of Free Hill, a rural black community whose families have been free and landowning since before the Civil War, Garrett learned to play rolley hole as a boy. His involvement in the game continued into his seventy-first year, when he collapsed on the marble yard he had built next to his house in Free Hill.
Characteristic of Clay County is an
abundance of flint, easily gathered in stream banks and road cuts. Garrett and young men like him gathered chunks of this stone, filed the chunks into rough, ball-like shapes, and placed them beneath water falls so the constant water motion could smooth the flint into round spheres for marble playing. Although effective, this method took weeks–even if one were lucky and didn’t lose the marbles to the current. Imagining an easier way, Bud Garrett built a portable machine which could turn out perfectly round marbles in a short time. Unlike the marbles of old, Garrett’s could be produced quickly. He offered them for sale with a guarantee: “If your marble breaks, send me the pieces and I’ll send you a brand new one free of charge.”
For many serious players in and around Clay County, Garrett’s beautiful spheres became the marble of choice for play in the many marble yards which dot the landscape. For all the marbles he sold to players, Garrett probably sold more to his admirers at the folklife festivals he was invited to attend, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in 1986.
Marble making was just one of Garrett’s specialties. Some will remember him for his guitar playing and singing, others for his gifts as a raconteur, or his ability to resurrect dead cars. Bud Garrett did a little of everything.
Born in 1916 in Free Hill near Celina, Tenn., he was known to many in the area through his junkyard business, but his occupational history is as extensive and varied as the stories and anecdotes he told. At various times, he ran his own taxi service, carrying passengers from Free Hill to Louisville and Indianapolis, where many Free Hill natives migrated. He also delivered ice, drove a school bus, operated a cafe and juke joint, ran a record store, worked for a live bait company and served as a notary public. In recent years, he spent most of his time working on cars, making marbles, trading, and entertaining customers and visitors with his music and stories.
Music was a very large part of Bud Garrett’s life. The son of a fiddle player, Garrett began playing guitar as a young boy. He recalls Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” and the common fiddle tune “Boil That Cabbage Down” as two of the first songs he heard as a child. Both songs are emblematic of his musical influences: he absorbed as much from the fiddle and banjo tunes and minstrel songs played at square dances for blacks and whites in the area as he did from the blues he heard in juke joints and on the radio. He performed solo most of his life, usually at parties or at the cafe he once owned in Free Hill. In the mid-fifties he cut a 45-rpm record for the Excello record label in Nashville (“Quit My Drinking” b/w “Do Remember”).
Garrett came to favor many post-war blues standards by bluesmen such as T-Bone Walker and Little Milton, and
white country standards by Merle Haggard and Don Williams, which he often reworked into a slow twelve or sixteen bar blues. His “I Got a Little Place in Free Hill,” an original talking blues improvisation about his homeplace and life in Free Hill, appears on the Tennessee Folklore Society LP, Free Hill: A Sound Portrait of a Rural Afro-American Community (available from the Tennessee Folklore Society, Box 201 Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37212). Garrett performed at such festivals as the Grassroots Festival in Nashville, the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, the Brandywine Festival in Delaware, and the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.
Bud Garrett will be missed.
Tom Rankin is a folklorist and photographer and currently teaches photography at Emory University. Elizabeth Peterson works with the Texas Folklife Resources in Austin, Texas. Bob Fulcher of the Tennessee State’ Parks also contributed to this piece.