Mac Benford passes

Mac Benford, celebrated old time banjo player, died on February 15 at age 79. He had been diagnosed with a stage 4 lung cancer three years ago.

On noting his passing, his family expressed gratitude for having had this much additional time with him since he had begun treatment. They also shared that he died quickly at home, surrounded by family members.

Mac had been active in old time music since the ’60s, when he developed an interest in clawhammer banjo while a student in college. Following graduation, he moved from Massachusetts to California and began performing with Dr. Humbead’s New Tranquility Stringband and Medicine Show, whose program involved recreations of the music from the stringbands of the 1920s. In 1967, he met Walt Koken and Bob Potts in San Francisco, starting a group called Fat City Stringband. After some time working as street performers there, they began playing back east in Virginia and North Carolina, eventually moving to central New York where they founded the highly influential Highwoods String Band.

Highwoods were a major hit at folk festivals in the 1970s, exposing a new generation to this traditional music style. It’s not too much to say that they, along with the Red Clay Ramblers, were largely responsible for the large increase in popularity for string bands during that time. When they broke up in 1979, Benford formed his own group, the Backwoods Band, and continued working the same circuit, but by the mid-’80s, he began to go out less frequently in favor of spending time with his growing family. Before long, though, the bug bit again, and he was on stage again with the Woodshed Allstars, who had a successful seven year run in the 1990s.

This video finds him on banjo and lead vocal with Highwoods, in their raucous style on perhaps their biggest number, Who Broke The Lock?

A feature-length film on the band, Dance All Night – The Highwoods String Band Story, by Larry Edelman, is available for viewing online at the Folkstreams web site. It includes both performances and interviews with all the band members.

Mac was a noted expert on a variety of old time banjo styles, including clawhammer and the unique finger picking style of Charlie Poole. He taught regularly at camps and workshops dedicated to the preservation of these styles originally native to the Appalachian region.

He will be remembered not only for his virtuosic playing, and fine traditional singing voice, but as a great friend to many in the acoustic music world. A lover of life, he leaves behind not only his devoted family but an impressive company of friends made over 40 plus years touring the country. They will remember his quick smile, dry wit, and friendly face for many years to come.

We have not yet found any information on funeral arrangements.

R.I.P., Mac Benford.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.