Rick Ward is steeped in Beech Mountain and Watauga County cultural lore, and he continues long-established family musical and instrument-building traditions. Some of his gifts were evident when he was very young. He made his first banjo when he was only twelve. His interest in painting began even earlier, around age five, and has continued to the present. The Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone has displayed his self portrait.
Singing, crafts, and plant lore were part of community and family life. Rick sings many of the old ballads that thrived in the Beech Mountain community. His mother sang around the house, in church, and on gospel programs that were broadcast by local radio stations. His maternal grandmother had an encyclopedic knowledge of local herbs and healing techniques. She also made hooked rugs and sent them to wealthy families in New York who would send return packages with clothing and jewelry. From her, Rick learned plant lore, and he also learned to hook rugs.
His style of banjo picking is a distinctive “double-knock” style that his grandfather Tab Ward perfected. Tab Ward was a regionally popular recording artist who frequented the state fair, was featured in Southern Living magazine, and was also known as a storyteller and maker of old-time toys. His toys were marketed and sold at Jack Guy’s Beech Creek store. Rick has fond memories of visiting his grandfather, listening to stories, ballads, and banjo songs. “When the folklorist thing hit hard (in the mid-1960s),” Rick remembers, “People would come from all over to grandpa’s house.” Tab Ward passed away when Rick was a teenager, and Rick felt inspired to study the double-knock style and learn his grandfather’s repertoire from memory and recordings.
Building banjos and dulcimers is a craft that passed on to Rick through his grandfather and his father, N.T. Ward. N.T. learned to build banjos and dulcimers when he was a teenager, and he later learned to make fiddles. N.T. would often use only chisels and a pocketknife to carve his instruments, and he liked to experiment with wood, making fiddles out of dogwood, cedar, cherry, chestnut, and apple wood. “He wasn’t really after the best sound,” says Rick. “It was the wood that intrigued him.” N.T. was mentioned in the Whole Earth Catalog as a dulcimer maker. As a result, he received many letters requesting instruments. Rick, like his father, learned to make banjos and fiddles. Rick makes traditional mountain-style fretless banjos using patterns created by his grandfather and father, and he continues to use groundhog hides for the head of the banjos. Taking a cue from his grandfather, Rick sold his first banjo at Jack Guy’s store.
Seth Swingle – Waraden
“Seth displays a reverence for traditional music of all types. He is a first-rate master musician. His command of the banjo and the African n’goni are beyond his years, while his natural intelligence and goodness of heart inform every note he plays. He is well on his way.” Corey Harris, Blues Musician, 2007 McArthur Fellowship Recipient
Seth Swingle is a musician, a performer and a scholar. His mastery of the banjo has driven his relationship with traditional music since he was 10. The West African n’goni and the kora, a 21 string gourd instrument, have impassioned his relationship with the music and culture of Mali since his teens and where now, Seth is a respected musician.
At 24 he is already known by and playing with noted traditional musicians in the United States such as the late Mike Seeger, Bob Carlin, and Corey Harris. His Mali, West African n’goni teacher, Cheick Hamala Diabaté, continues to be astonished that this young person can not only hear the music he teaches but can play it like a true Malian. Monsieur Diabaté, like many of the master musicians Seth knows and has learned from, comments “he can hear a song once or maybe twice and then he can play it like it is his own.” He is known for his crisp playing and warmth of feeling that emerges no matter the genre of music.
As a testament to Seth’s commitment to immerse himself in the cultures he studies, Seth speaks fluent French and Bambara. He has also studied Moroccan Arabic and Latin.
After many years of studying with Cheick Hamala Diabaté, Seth was honored with the Diabaté name to add to his own, Waraden. Through Cheick’s introductions, Seth has interacted with many Malian musicians such as Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Djelimady Tounkara, Habib Koité, Keletigui Diabaté, and Ali Farka Touré.
In 2011 he was awarded a one-year Fulbright Fellowship to go to Mali to research and expand his musicianship as he studied the kora and the traditions of Malian music and culture. His studies were cut short after six months due to political unrest in the country. Undaunted and eager to further his mastery of the kora, Seth returned on his own in November 2012 for another six months.
As an academic and a musician, Seth has been an invited lecturer and performer at The Banjo Collector’s Gathering in Williamsburg, VA in 2006 and at The Black Banjo Gathering: Then & Now, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina in 2005.
Seth has been entering and winning banjo contests since he was 13 years old. He considers his biggest win the Blue Ribbon at Clifftop for Youth Banjo in 2002. He was the Virginia State Fair Banjo Champion two years in a row, at sixteen and seventeen. He took First Place at the Mt. Airy Old Time and Bluegrass Fiddler’s Convention in 2004, in the Youth Category.
He has performed in concert at such notable venues as The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center, The National Folk Festival, The Ralph Stanley Museum and at Merlefest.
His concerts are lively, engaging musical journeys back and forth from the Appalachian Mountains to the deserts and dusty towns of West Africa. They are peppered with personal anecdotes, informed tales about the culture and the music, its roots and its development and spiced with the virtuoso musicianship of this young talent.
“From the first time I showed him a song on the n’goni, I have been amazed by his ability to hear the music, watch me play it, and play it himself. Seth is young, but he has the mind of the very old.” Cheick Hamala Diabaté, N’goni master, West African Historian, Griot
“Seth Swingle has already had the musical experience of a player twice his age. By the tender age of 20, he has already logged many musical hours studying with teachers as diverse as old time banjo master Mike Seeger and West African n’goni (lute) virtuoso, Cheick Hamala Diabaté. From African roots to American traditions including claw-hammer and three-finger bluegrass, Seth is well on his way to conquering them all.” Bob Carlin, Banjo player, Record Producer