Buell H. Kazee
Pastor & Folk Singer
By Loyal Jones, 1994
At the head of Burton Fork, Magoffin County, in the the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Buell Hilton Kazee was born August 29, 1900, to Abbie Jane, a ballad singer, and John Franklin Kazee, a hymn singer. The entire family, parents, two daughters and four sons, spent much time singing among a community where fiddles and banjos were common instruments. Buell began picking the banjo at the age of five after begging his cousins for their "old, worn out" one. His style was to pick with thumb and forefinger, picking most of the melody with his thumb. He would hit the thumb string, then the melody string, and would then begin to frail (no melody at all). He learned to pick out the tune with his forefinger, picking down with the back of his nail.
Buell lived his entire life with the conflict between religious and secular music. His mother was condemned by neighbors for letting her six children hold dances, which she was was morally against. Concern for evil and righteousness was part of the fabric of life for the community and the two churches at nearby Mash Fork were at the core. One was a Missionary Baptist (Southern Baptist) church with more revivalistic music and the other was a United Baptist church, which was more rigorously Calvinistic and used unaccompanied "lined-out" singing. Buell learned both types of music, professed a religious commitment at the Missionary Baptist church, Mash Fork, and was preaching by age 17. By the age of 12 or 14 he was picking all of the tunes, hoedowns and ballads that he did in later years, but after he joined the church he felt the conflict with the unvoiced notion that banjos did not go with religion. Eventually, that conflict decreased but he instinctively never mixed his preaching and revival singing with his banjo picking and entertainment. These separate careers kept folks in each "camp" from knowing about the other.
He entered high school at Magoffin Baptist Institute with his eye on the ministry. While there, with his strong interest in music, he became exposed to other traditions by listening to mostly classical records on a phonograph. After high school, he spent a year of preaching and missionary work. At Georgetown College, where he majored in English, Greek and Latin and studied voice, he soon realized that the ballads he was studying in his English course were some of those sung "back home," and his native tales, words and expressions were related to those found in his literature courses. The banjo he had left at home, feeling it would be inappropriate at college, was soon brought to school and he began to give programs.
After college, he went to Oklahoma as a director of education and music at Chickasha First Baptist Church. Finding numerous problems in he church, he came back to Kentucky and soon found a job in Ashland as business manager at a music school. He then opened his own private studio, taught voice and studied with a visiting New York City tenor. He was then called to Cumberland College as voice and Bible teacher.
While in Ashland he was "discovered" by a local music store owner who was also a scout for a New York company. He was taken to New York City and recorded nine records for $40 each, but with expenses he had very little left when he returned to Ashland. He also had to contend with many re-recordings in order to remove his trained vibrato and resonance so he would sound country. He was disappointed that his trained voice was not of interest to the recording company but employed it in most of his subsequent singing, with the exception of folk songs which he sang as natives did.
Buell hoped his recording career would help pay off college debts for voice lessons, but found the flat fee with no royalties didn't much help. Between April 1927 and July 1929, he cut 58 sides, of which 52 were released. He was not willing to travel the country and play county and state fairs or help popularize his music by singing every chance he could. His life's goal was to preach.
In 1928 Buell married, a son was born in 1930 and another in
1933, and in 1940 his wife left him. This brought him "great anguish and embarrassment" and a personal and spiritual dark period, but his strong faith held and the experience made him more humble, tolerant and sympathetic toward others and heightened his sense of tragedy. He reared his sons, both of whom became Baptist ministers in Tennessee, with the help of his high school aged niece and married again in 1950.
After his work at Cumberland College and a southeastern Kentucky Baptist junior college, he considered other secular pursuits, taught private voice students in Corbin and Williamsburg, then ran music and appliance stores with his brother-in-law in Corbin and Harlan. Those stores went bankrupt during the depression, as did the New York recording company, putting an end to Buell's recording career. He began preaching full time and singing at revivals and other religious functions. He served a church in Morehead for 22 years, taught seven years at Lexington Baptist Bible College, served a church in Lexington for 12 years and retired in 1969.
As a traditional person, Buell thought that many church practices and modem preaching were not what scriptures taught and he would scold denominational church members, theologians and administrators. He published two books on religion, was working on a third at the time of his death, wrote an unpublished autobiography and had begun a book on his banjo techniques. He composed songs, an operetta and wrote skits.
After his death in 1976, an effort to make a memorial album of his music was begun by fans, friends and admirers to acquaint many others with this extraordinary man. They are pleased with their memorial tribute.
Loyal Jones was an Appalatian Studies Professor at Berea (KY) College.
[Taken from: "Buell Kazee: Biographical Notes" by Loyal Jones in The Kentucky Baptist Heritage, editor Cheryl M. Doty, Volume XIX, November 1994, Number 1, pp. 17-19; via Boyce Digital Repository. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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