Secrets of the Blue Ridge: That Good Ol’ String Music
Ever hear anybody mention the “big bang” from way back in ’27? No, not that one that some claim caused the world to commence spinning, but the one that started the country music records to spin down in Bristol in 1927.
Well, it seems like so many other best-kept secrets, word had leaked northward to some of the record producing big shots in New York City (oh, no—here we go again) that some mighty sweet sounds were coming out of our Appalachian hills. A couple of years earlier, a few of the more enterprising fellows from down south had already slipped up north to be recorded, and, wouldn’t you know it, the first million-seller was hatched from the genre of music that the uninitiated referred to as “hillbilly” music. That lucrative tune, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” was based on a real-life, tragic train wreck near Danville.
The Big Apple had been slow to catch on to what the Southern Mountaineer had known for a long time: rural string music was being performed and appreciated by everyone, from Grandma all the way down to Junior and his little sister.
In the hills of central Virginia during the early 20th century, one didn’t have to venture far to enjoy a tune. Acoustic music could be played anywhere, from a soft fiddle lullaby beside the cradle, to a rhythmic string band providing a welcome distraction at a community corn-shucking, to rousing all-night square dances held in farmhouse kitchens or front parlors.
Louise Wood Austin grew up in a house that her grandfather had built beside the mountain road leading from Sugar Hollow to Jarman’s Gap.
“The front part of the house-—my grandfather had it built especially for square dancing,” Louise said, “and they used to have a lot of square dances in there; and even after I was a child, I can remember they had square dances… My father used to call the figures.”
Music traditions and skills were routinely taught by the older family members to the younger ones who showed interest and aptitude. “Rattlesnake Jim” Blackwell and his brothers were proud members of a musical family in western Albemarle County.
“My daddy James Harvey Blackwell was a fiddle player and a banjo player, too,” stated Jim Blackwell of Sugar Hollow. “He didn’t take a back seat to anybody on the fiddle or banjo, either one. He could get in there with the best of them. But now, he didn’t play by chord, he played by ear. He’d hear a tune a time or two, and he had it. He’d pick it up.”
The musicians’ love of the tune was complemented by their admiration of the older instruments and respect for the elders who passed them down.
During a visit some time ago, after performing spirited renditions of “Golden Slippers” and “Rose of San Antone,” Jimmy Daughtry, another son of the Blue Ridge Mountains, left the room where we sat and returned carrying a different banjo than the one he had just played.
“I’ve got my grandfather John Henry Daughtry’s banjo,” said Jimmy. “He carried that through the Civil War; said he used to play around the campfires and entertain the soldiers. He gave me that in 1926 in July. We went to visit him. He was on his deathbed and when we got ready to leave, he called his son and told him to go get his banjo and his watch, and to give me the banjo and my brother his watch. It had a resonator on the other side, Daddy said, when he was a kid, but I don’t know what ever happened to it. I never did see it. But isn’t that something? Bird’s-eye maple, I think. He couldn’t get a seal skin big enough for it and he sewed that [head] himself there around that hoop. And he had whittled out the keys up there, too.”
Mrs. George Crenshaw of Earlysville honored her daughter Lottie with a memorable party at their home in May 1911. Guests from Free Union, Earlysville, Proffit, Ivy Depot, Rio, and Charlottesville “arrived about 7:30 p.m. and left about 11:30.” Refreshments were enjoyed to the musical backdrop furnished by a “stringed orchestra from Free Union” composed of two fiddles, a mandolin and a guitar. No doubt the family’s guests were as charmed by Miss Lottie as they were entertained by the talented group of young men from Free Union.
Speaking of charmed, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, George Foss was performing as a trumpeter in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra, but whenever he had a break in his schedule, he lit out for central Virginia. His memoir From White Hall to Bacon Hollow chronicled an area of the Blue Ridge long recognized for its rich musical traditions.
Mervin Sandridge became one of Foss’s most enjoyable acquaintances during his many forays into the mountains of Albemarle and Greene Counties. Mr. Sandridge, an accomplished string musician himself, related some of the listening habits of folks just before radios became readily available.
“My mother used to play the banjo, and my daddy, he used to play the fiddle,” reminisced Mervin. “And when the telephone first come out, they’d go somewhere, you know, and set down and play on the telephone. Let people listen at ’em. Like a party line. Sort of like their own private radio station. That’s right. There wasn’t a radio, you know. They’d go where somebody had a telephone, and they’d set down and play over the telephone, you know, for ‘em to hear it. And ev’rybody along the line would pick up and listen. Well, it was when the first telephones come out, you know.”
It’s a rare individual, indeed, who does not enjoy some form of string music: strummed, plucked or bowed. The disciplined ones, usually with the patient instruction of a mentor, learned to entertain themselves, and later, when enough courage was mustered, they entertained others. The rest of us have traipsed off to be entertained in the living rooms of neighbors, or filed into community buildings to catch the wonderful music of traveling professionals.
So, it seems that big bang down in Bristol just alerted the rest of the nation to what country folks had known all along: that there’s nothing like that good ol’ string music!
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. You may respond to him through his website: SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003–2013 Phil James