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Saving songs of America's hill folk; Collectors record oldies like 'Ground Hog'

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Lawrence Eller brings his log-laden, wooden wheelbarrow to a stop with the help of a homemade brake. Then he straightens up, tall and smiling in the crisp but sunny mountain air, his back to his old tin-roofed smokehouse, now used as a storage shed.

In work jeans, boots, and a camouflage hat and matching jacket, he hollers at Butch, his hunting dog, to sit and be quiet. He greets his city visitors, the ones with the tape recorder, who managed to get him and his brother, Vaughn, together for the first time in a quarter of a century to play old-time mountain music.

A few minutes later, inside the small, modest house, in a sparsely furnished living room Lawrence calls ''scroungy,'' he begins picking his banjo and Vaughn strums his guitar. Then they break out singing, in high-pitched, unvarnished mountain voices, songs from an era gone by, some learned as children from their mother - songs like ''Ground Hog,'' ''My Home is in Charlotte, N.C.,'' ''Weepin' Willow Tree,'' and ''Goin' Down the Valley One by One.''

The music is neither bluegrass nor country; there are no sequined shirts, no background accompaniment, no spotlights. Here in a cramped room on a hill in northeast Georgia, the area featured in the new Broadway play ''Foxfire,'' with only a bare bulb for light, the Eller brothers are again playing and singing the old music they love - in an almost typical setting for them.

The only things untypical are the twin microphones University of Georgia art professor Art Rosenbaum has set up and the Nikon camera his wife, Margo, wears on a strap around her neck as she waits to take another shot.

There was a time, before World War II, when Lawrence picked his banjo and Vaughn played the guitar at the foot of nearby Hightower Bald, where folks would gather for dances in a field. But the dances are no more, and neither are many of the musicians who played and sang the old mountain tunes.


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