Benson's singing supervisor
by Tom Akstens
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Ermina Pincombe asked, as she turned her guitar around gently in her hands. “And does she ever talk to a ﬁddle!”
Ermina strummed a chord, and the guitar sprang to life, with a sound that was warm, bright and sweet—the kind of rich, complex tone that comes only from a ﬁne old instrument that’s been played a lot. Then she started to sing: “I know he’s away in a far distant land / A land that is over the sea / Go ﬂy to him singing your sweet little song / Tell him to come back to me.”
I recognized the tune as “Sweet Fern,” which the Carter Family recorded in 1929. As she sang the song, I realized how much Ermina’s music reminded me of Mother Maybelle Carter’s, from the quiet intensity of her singing to her stately “church lick” guitar style. Even the arch-top Gibson was similar to the one Mother Maybelle made famous on the Grand Ole Opry.
Ermina ﬁnished with a ﬂourish and broke into a smile that was big enough to ﬁll the room in her tidy little house in Benson. She moved here in 1977 from Wells, where her family settled at the end of the 18th century. (Since then, the 80-year-old has been elected Benson town supervisor seven times.) “I sold my motorcycle to make the down payment on the house. But I’d never part with my guitar.
“I bought her for $101.50 on January 10, 1951, at Tommy’s Music Store, in Johnstown. My mother and my brother and I drove down in my brother’s car. It was so cold the gas line froze up in Hope. But somehow we made it. They had a lot of guitars down there, but the second I played this one, I knew it was the one for me. But I had only saved up $101. I had to borrow that last 50 cents from my brother. I wanted that guitar so bad!”
She began another song: “Go and leave me if you wish to / Never let me cross your mind / If you think I’d prove unworthy / Go and leave me, I don’t mind.”
Like many traditional tunes, this one had made its journey from the British Isles to the Appalachian Mountains, changing along the way, absorbing verses and shedding others. It’s known as “Go and Leave Me” in one incarnation and as “Columbus Stockade” in another. Versions of it were recorded by Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie and even by the 1970s country star Johnny Paycheck.
“By the time my folks got to playing music,” Ermina said, “all the old ﬁddlers and singers were gone, so we picked up songs from records and from the radio. We had an Airline radio from Montgomery Ward. I was nine when my father bought that radio. He was so proud of it. We strung a wire out to the pine tree and, gosh, just like that we could get WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia; WJJD from Chicago; and, of course, the Grand Ole Opry on WSM.”
She inherited many of the songs she sings today from her grandmother, who worked as a cook at Whitehouse, a lodge on the West Branch of the Sacandaga River. “I remember that place so well when my Gramma Craig was there. It was a long drive in my dad’s old Buick down that dirt road from Wells. I would get so antsy to get Gramma’s cookies—she was the best cook in the world. That was 72 years ago.
“I used to love to go to her house in Wells, because she sang all the time as she worked. She was such a hard-working, put-upon lady. She had a hard life, but she was so happy. In tune with her religion. In tune with nature. And she sang all the time.”
Ermina recalled her grandmother and Farel Lambert, a family friend from Tennessee, sitting around the dining room table, singing and playing long into the night. “Farel was a really good ﬁddler. Skinny, though. He had to stand twice to make a shadow. I just loved to listen to them and sing along.”
She began a piece she learned from her grandmother, a story of two young lovers separated by the Civil War: “Their hearts were ﬁlled with sorrow / For they knew that on the morrow / He would go away and join the boys in blue.”
“When he was a young man, my great-great-uncle Abe left for the Civil War,” Ermina said. “He walked all the way to Utica to enlist. Wound up in the Confederate prison in Richmond, for so long that his family gave up on him. When the war ended he walked all the way home. Got home Thanksgiving Day. He was so worn out and broken, only his old dog knew him at ﬁrst.
“There’s always been sadness and parting in the Adirondacks,” she continued. “Young men had to leave home to earn a living. They promised some girl they’d be back, but many times they proved untrue. Some got injured or killed in log jams. My great-uncle Sid Finch drove mules along the Erie Canal. One night the mules just stopped.… Well, when he walked around to the head of the team, there was a body. Murdered. So many things happened to these fellows when they left.”
As we talked into the afternoon, and as Ermina sang and played, I was struck by the contrast between the joy she derives from her music and the shadow of hardship, loss and death that darkens the lyrics of her songs.
While I listened I kept thinking of her story of how she had learned the guitar—how when she was nine she’d stand on a chair to sneak her mother’s guitar down from its peg, play it and carefully return it before her mother came back from some errand. I thought about all those nights of listening around her family’s table, in the era when folks in the mountains had to make their own entertainment after a day of hard work. And I thought of something she said when she ﬁrst welcomed me into her home: “I’m glad you came to visit. Nowadays, there’s pretty much no one around here to play music with me.”
That’s changed a bit now. Ermina was recognized in 2008 with a North Country Heritage Award from Canton-based Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY). Last May she performed with her son David to a packed house at the Edwards Opera House, in a concert with other musical tradition bearers Colleen Cleveland, the Perkins Family, Bill Smith and Don Woodcock. “It took ’em 70 years to ﬁnd me,” she said. “But I’m glad somebody ﬁnally realizes that there’s history in these songs.”
To hear Ermina, visit TAUNY’s award-winning Web site, adirondackmusic.org.