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Henderson, Vance County, NC
Skills: Public Presentations
“I’ve tried to quit the accordion two or three times, but everyone says ‘Otha, you can’t quit. You’ve got to play,’” laughs Otha Paul Wilkins. Born in 1926 and reared in the North Henderson section of Vance County, Wilkins grew up farming. “I didn’t know about anything except raising sweet potatoes,” he recalls. “That’s what my daddy grew.”
Wilkins studied shape note singing at his church with a traveling representative of the Stamps-Baxter Music Company. “They’d come through to different churches and you had to pay so much to learn to sing with them,” remembers Wilkins. The first time he encountered an accordion was through the wife of a local Church of God minister.
“She said, ‘Brother Paul…why don't you put it on and see if you can play it?’ I put it on and made some noise and she said, ‘Well, you're not quite ready for it yet, but you never know, maybe the Lord will have you play.’ I said, ‘I sure wish He would, that's one thing I want to do. I believe I could learn to play that one day or another.’”
It wasn’t until Wilkins was an adult that he was given the opportunity to learn the instrument. He picked up his son’s toy accordion—abandoned in the wake of the Beatles’ popularity, when “everyone had to have guitars”—on a whim one day.
“I said, ‘Lord, it says on here that it can make good music.’ It wasn't but a little toy, but it started me off and it showed me what to do. I said, ‘You know I don't know nothing about it. You've got to help me somehow so I'll be a blessing to somebody.’ I was sincere…I put [that accordion] on and I said, ‘Here I am, Lord,’ and I put my hands right to the right keys and played ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’”
Over time, Wilkins became a formidable accordion player, adept at playing traditional songs in the genres of bluegrass, country, old-time, and gospel. His repertoire includes songs like “The Kentucky Waltz,” “Corrina, Corrina,” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” “I love those old songs,” he says.
Considered a local treasure among musicians throughout Vance and Warren counties, Wilkins can often be found playing his accordion on weekends at the Norlina Jamboree and the Ridgeway Opry House.