Oh Brother, Who Art Thou?

This photo was in my grandma’s (Bessie Cooper) photo album. My aunt had no idea who this man was so I turned to a Wayne County KY FB group to see if anyone could help identify him. The group suggested, and I now agree, this is Dick Burnett, Wayne County traveling musician and my 1st cousin 3x removed.

Before I continue, let me connect the dots: Son of Reuben Burnett and Martha Fairchild, Richard Daniel Burnett was born in 1883. Reuben was brother to Louisa Burnett. Louisa married Henry (Doc) Cooper – the parents of John Cooper who is the father of Bessie Cooper who is my grandma. Got it? 😀

This makes Reuben my 2x great-granduncle and makes Dick Burnett and John Cooper 1st cousins. Ah ha! There’s the close family connection.

“Burnett was born in the area around the head of Elk Springs about seven miles north of Monticello. He remembered little of his farming parents. His father died when he was only four and his mother died when he was twelve. Burnett did say that his mother told him how his father would carry him in his arms when he was only four years old and he would help his dad sing. Burnett’s grandparents were of German and English descent and that particular ancestral influence would be instrumental in forming Burnett’s musical career. At the age of seven, Burnett was playing the dulcimer; at nine he was playing the banjo, and at thirteen he had learned to play the fiddle. Unusually for the time, he also learned the guitar, which was still a novelty in that area.” {1]

“Burnett was …blind for most of his life, he was a full-time traveling entertainer. With fiddler Leonard Rutherford he formed a long touring partnership and a brief recording career in which they sang a number of popular and influential sides with Burnett on banjo …

“As a teenager, then as a married man with a child, Dick Burnett worked extensively as a wheat thresher, logger, oil driller, and oilfield tool fitter. Then in 1907, he sustained a gunshot explosion in his face while fighting off a mugger. Surgeons were unable to save his eyesight, so he resorted to supporting himself and his family by his music.

“Musicians in Wayne County could elicit small change from audiences drawn from people frequenting or passing through the Monticello Courthouse Square. To earn a proper income, Dick was forced to travel to as many different places as he could reach by train or on foot. At other courthouses, at rail stations and on street corners, he would perform to attract a crowd. While other street musicians might place a hat on the ground, he accepted contributions in a tin cup tied to his leg. [1]

I was thrilled to discover there are recordings of Dick Burnett available online. I just couldn’t resist. Here are just a few:

Children of Reuben Burnett and Martha Fairchild.
Front row: Nancy, Celia Bell, Dinah, Ethel.
Back row: John, Abijah, Ed, George, and Dick Burnett