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Play of a Fiddle

Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia

Gerald Milnes
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Play of a Fiddle
    Book Description:

    Play of a Fiddlegives voice to people who steadfastly hold to and build on the folk traditions of their ancestors. While encountering the influences of an increasingly overwhelming popular culture, the men and women in this book follow age-old patterns of folklife and custom, making their own music and dance in celebration of them. Shedding new light on a region that maintains ties to the cultural identities of its earliest European and African inhabitants, Gerald Milnes shows how folk music in West Virginia borrowed rhythmic, melodic, and vocal forms from the Celtic, Anglo, Germanic, and African traditions. These elements have come together to create a body of music tied more to place and circumstance than to ethnicity. Milnes explores the legacies of the state's best-known performers and musical families. He discusses religious music, balladeering, the influence of black musicians and styles, dancing, banjo and dulcimer traditions, and the importance of old-time music as a cultural pillar of West Virginia life. A musician himself, Milnes has been collecting songs and stories in West Virginia for more than twenty-five years. The result is an enjoyable book filled with anecdotes, local history, and keen observations about musical lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4767-3
    Subjects: Music, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    No person has had more influence on the folk culture of West Virginia than William Penn. In 1681 Penn began his famous “Holy Experiment,” and throngs of Europeans responded to his promise of religious freedom in a “good and fruitful land.” They flooded across the Atlantic to Pennsylvania (Penn’s woods), arriving at Penn’s City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English Quakers were first, followed by their Welsh counterparts, to join a small number of Swedes and Finns already in Pennsylvania. German Anabaptists arrived in significant numbers and settled beyond the Quakers. Waves of Scots-Irish...

  5. 1 Chills of Hilarity
    (pp. 5-21)

    “When I moved to Wirt County, I got acquainted with an old man who loved music,” recalled Brooks Hardway, an old-time banjo and guitar player from Braxton County, West Virginia. “He told me one day, he said, ‘I was at a fiddler’s contest one time back in the twenties at Clay Courthouse.’ He said there was six fiddlers in that contest, six of the best. Ed [Edden] Hammons was one of’ em, and he said Ed Hammons was a champion fiddler at that day and time. He said there was some old man in that contest that played left-handed, and...

  6. 2 Choking the Goose
    (pp. 22-34)

    Areas of West Virginia with strong fiddling traditions, such as Webster, Pocahontas, Clay, Calhoun, and Braxton Counties, celebrate highly esteemed players. Often these legendary fiddlers account for the musical legacies of those areas and are the sources of many tunes in local repertoires. Even some published sources of nineteenth-century West Virginia history mention prominent fiddlers. Late in the century, William Byrne wrote accounts about many of Webster County’s illustrious characters in his book about fishing,Tale of the Elk. He mentions, for example, “Jack McElwain, then and now far famed fiddler” among the county’s most prominent citizens.²

    Indeed, numerous old...

  7. 3 The Carpenter Legacy
    (pp. 35-44)

    On a rainy night in the spring of 1979 I found myself at a square dance at the old Frametown Fire Hall in Braxton County. I was playing fiddle with a guitar player, Cliff Wilkie, and a banjo player, Ben Carr, who lived nearby. We were making the most of a less-than-adequate sound system by playing as hard and as loud as possible. A mixed crowd of folks was out on the floor. Fire department members sold hot dogs with slaw and chili in an adjacent room. Kids ran, shrieking in the midst of play, in and out of the...

  8. 4 “Upon My Honor”
    (pp. 45-60)

    West Virginia has a folk hero in fiddler Edden Hammons. The mystique surrounding Hammons isn’t found in many published sources; rather it exists in the minds and oral tradition of older people of the region. As a member of the common people, Hammons is talked about, lied about, joked about, admired, fictionalized in print, and generally remembered by his peers as much as were public figures of the region. I’ve heard anecdotes about the man along with praise of his musical ability from Wirt County to the west, Mercer to the southeast, and Randolph to the north. This encompasses a...

  9. 5 Go Ye Forth and Preach the Gospel
    (pp. 61-76)

    To understand music traditions and lore in West Virginia, it is important to survey the religious beliefs and related ethnic backgrounds of the region’s people, especially the early settlers who formed the basis of the culture. Histories of the state’s counties document a strong representation of Pennsylvania Germans and Scots-Irish among the pioneers of the region. These Scots-Irish settlers, or their foreparents, mostly immigrated to America between the years 1717 and 1775 and included many who descended from “covenanters,” or people who bound themselves by oath to Presbyterian doctrine.²

    The “Test Act” of 1704 precipitated the massive immigration to America...

  10. 6 Poor Little Omie Wise
    (pp. 77-86)

    The process by which actual events, music, and legend intermingle is a fascinating facet of West Virginia folklore. Factual origins of music, song, and tales are extraneous to the role stories play in the minds of the folk. Inquiries are made, facts are discovered, memories are shared. These elements come together in some logical way for each person, often fulfilling a psychological need such as affirmation of values. Each person then passes his or her account of the story along to others, and the chronicled history of an event is altered to concur with existent variants of the song or...

  11. 7 Oral Traditions
    (pp. 87-95)

    Just as the Naomi Wise legend in West Virginia is a product of a robust oral tradition, oral and aural traditions support and help create the region’s rich body of spoken lore. Because of oral tradition there is endless lore surrounding fiddle tunes. William Byrne described a chance meeting with “Old Sol” Nelson during a fishing trip on Elk River, circa 1880. He gives us an account of nineteenth-century old-time fiddling in Clay and Braxton Counties, along with fiddle tune names that even then had gathered associated lore and speculation.

    After supper and while we were waiting for good dark,...

  12. 8 Black George
    (pp. 96-107)

    The old-time string music of the South has been influenced by the African American race since the Colonial period. African Americans in the South played fiddles in significant numbers even as or possibly before whites in America took it up as a folk instrument.² As the frontier was shaping up in western Virginia, the Lewis and Clark expedition to the West included three fiddlers, including an African American ex-slave, who mollified the Native Americans with their music.³ Alan Jabbour noted that the entire history of fiddling in the upper South has been an intercultural experience.⁴

    African Americans escaping the bondage...

  13. 9 Dancin’ and Fightin’
    (pp. 108-123)

    An early instance of folk music and dance in central West Virginia was recorded by “Rattlesnake Bill” Dodrill. It occurred at the first meeting of the Free Masons in the region, which took place on Gauley River, now Webster County, at the home of Col. Isaac Gregory, in the year 1800. Accounts of music and dance on the western Virginia frontier are scarce, as most historians of the day were taken with chronicling the Indian Wars and gave little thought to social customs. He noted: “After the meeting the women and children were invited in and all joined in a...

  14. 10 Hard Times and Jo-Heads
    (pp. 124-132)

    Memories of West Virginia’s old-timers abound with stories about the hard times created by the Great Depression. Phoeba Parsons once said it is perfectly okay to be poor, “but it’s awful unhandy sometimes.” Hard times brought ingenuity, however, and didn’t keep musicians from their craft.

    When I moved in 1975 to an abandoned farm in Randolph County, I was struck by the simple living conditions of some neighbors. Of particular interest was a family that lived on a farm just around a small hill and up a hollow. The family consisted of a seventy-year-old man and wife and two grown...

  15. 11 Hog Harps, Waterswivels, and Fence Scorpions
    (pp. 133-146)

    As a fiddler, I admit to at one time subscribing to a bias regarding fretted dulcimers. Although I was aware of dulcimer traditions noted in the literature, I had not witnessed the instruments in traditional settings, as I had fiddles and banjos. The dulcimers I saw were played by younger people who had learned tunes in books from libraries. I had not seen them played by older people, like the fiddlers and banjo players I knew, who had “come by it honest.”

    One night in 1977 a couple of fellows I knew in Braxton County came to the farm to...

  16. 12 The Magic String
    (pp. 147-154)

    The old photograph on the cover of the Library of Congress study of the Hammons family demonstrates turn-of-the-century cultural values deep in the West Virginia hills. Pete Hammons holds a fiddle, an important cultural marker. Paris Hammons holds a gun, significant to self-reliant family ways. Neal Hammonds holds a wind-up phonograph, exploding a myth about cultural isolation in the Appalachian Mountains.

    Several Appalachian music collectors nod to the allegory that early seclusion and isolation are the reasons for the music’s existence. Sharp’sFolksongs from the Southern Appalachians, published in 1932, is a classic example. Before Sharp’s collection was published, Kephart’s...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 155-182)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-193)
  19. Discography
    (pp. 194-195)
  20. Index
    (pp. 196-211)