Passing Along the Art of Appalachian Fiddling
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 99 10:33:23 -0700
Subject: Passing Along the Art of Appalachian Fiddling
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
Forwarded-by: "Sarah Gowan" <email@example.com>
[Old-time gets so little coverage in the mainstream - thought y'all might
be interested -- S.]
October 10, 1999
New York Times
Passing Along the Art of Appalachian Fiddling
By FRANCIS X. CLINES
ICUT, W. Va. -- The mountain-hollow art of old-time Appalachian fiddling,
long withering under the pressures of youthful emigration and homogenized
broadcast entertainment, is hanging on by a few well-bowed strings here in
a backwoods master-apprentice program. Toe-tapping in syncopation, his
right wrist snapping off bow movements the way other lads ply a curve ball,
14-year-old Jake Krack followed his master, 78-year-old Lester McCumber,
through the popping, tuneful intricacies of "Ida Red."
The lustrous, haunting scrape of the music drifted out toward the
surrounding forest this evening, the sound wreathing the simple McCumber
household as pungently as autumnal chimney smoke. The two were jamming, by
the boy's terminology, or just fiddling, by that of his lean and craggy
master. But the music -- part of an ever-fading pre-Colonial Appalachian
canon rarely written down and "played by air," as the teacher tells his
pupil -- was assuredly alive and well.
"Now that's the original way of playing 'Ida Red,"' the way the old man
who lived down the road -- Senate Cottrell was his name -- played it," the
master instructed, suddenly looking back on his own young tutelage by a
departed local legend.
In the gifted hands of Jake, the fiddling arts of McCumber -- and of
Cottrell, the fiddler French Carpenter and sundry masters before -- now
promises to outlive them all through a new generation. "I'm just having
fun," Jake said, at a pause in the bowing. "Aside from that, my main concern
is to carry on this music into the future. That's my passion: to pass it
forward. Lester always says there's no charge for the lessons, just pass it
This is the underlying passion, as well, of the master-apprentice
program that the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins
has threaded through the hills and hollows of West Virginia. Many young
people historically have been forced to leave this state to find promising
careers, rarely mastering and passing on the Appalachian folk ways of their
elders. But lately, young people searching out uncommercialized, authentic
old music have been showing up on Heritage Center scholarships at the cabin
doors of the aging masters.
Jake is apprenticed to Lester here in Calhoun County just as Phyllis
Marks, a blind balladeer in her eighth decade over in Gilmer County, is
teaching pure backwoods songs of yore, some of them long forgotten but for
the urgings of her talented young student, Helena Triplett. "It's kind of
like they're channeling people who are gone," said Margo Blevin, director
of the Augusta Center, summarizing how the music of departed masters flows
across time to nurture apprentices like Jake. "It's not purist," she said,
emphasizing that the music is always changing. The fiddling had homespun
roots and its heyday was preradio, performed for family and country
gatherings where fiddlers constantly memorized and readapted each others'
new tunes in the tradition of the hollows.
Far from academic, Jake and Lester jauntily connected the generations
by bowing their way through unscripted versions of "Cotton Eyed Joe,"
"Cherry River Line," "Sally Comin' Through the Rye," "Old Joe Clark" and a
half dozen others. Each fresh tune was summoned from memory by the merest
There is no sheet music in old-time Appalachian playing, a naive musical
art with a mournful sound that wanders off freely from the eight-tone scale
and conventional rhythms. Some call it "crooked tune music," perfect for
the crooked roads and mountain crooks of Appalachia. The chord-free,
note-by-note flurries that mark old-time Appalachian tunes date to the
earliest European settlers from the British isles and Germany. Old time was
the seed for modern Blue Grass with its harmonies and orchestration. But it
remains a far older thing unto itself, built around fiddles and banjos and
never a guitar, Ms. Blevin noted. "I've talked to old timers who said the
first Sears Roebuck guitars revolutionized things around here in the 1920s,"
she said. In sticking with old-time fiddling, Jake nimbly handled this
day's lesson. The boy never looked down at his own fiddling. But he played
apace, gravely watching McCumber's slashing right wrist and dancing eyes.
He plumbed the old man's musical memory with a few words of a title.
"Oh yeah," the master exclaimed when the boy wanted more of "Ida Red"
and McCumber suddenly remembered a scrap of lyric to go with their furious
bowing. "I'm in love with Ida Red!" he shouted. "Little bit drunk and out
of my head!"
At the finish, the master grinned across at his insatiable apprentice.
"All I ever learned is in my head," McCumber said. "Jake knows every one
that I know and a lot of good 'uns besides."
Jake, who has been enthralled with fiddling since he was 8 and his
parents encouraged an obvious talent, politely thanked the master and
stressed that he would be back for more.
"We're taking everything that comes to us," he explained of his family's
decision last year to move here from Indiana. They wanted to be near
McCumbers and another master in a nearby hollow, 90-year-old Melvin Wine,
who taught Jake techniques and tunes passed down from the fiddle of his
"I feel part of these people," said Jake, whose father, Reed, is a
fiddle maker, and mother, Dara, a librarian. They moved to a weathered old
farmhouse somewhere east of Chloe and south of Stumpton when their son won
summer fiddling scholarships and honors from the Augusta center. But he
still seemed to need his own place in the hollows near the masters.
"Even more than the fiddling, Jake is learning something about life,
about a special attitude, an appetite for life around here," Mrs. Krack said
of the people in this deeply rural, working-class region. "I continue to be
surprised about where we continue to be led by this." The arrival in the
1970s of Interstate 79, just 10 miles to the east, carried off much of the
younger generation as traumatically as the radio and the guitar made inroads
into the old-time music. Then again, it made it easier for Jake to get here.
"Lester and Melvin are some of the last old-time musicians not
influenced by TV and radio," said Jake, explaining his journey to the
hollows. He vaguely thinks of becoming a naturalist, he said, and cannot
imagine a professional life for himself as an old-time fiddler.
"No, you'd get in a rut, limit the songs you perform, travel one night
to the next," Jake said. Rather, he emphasized that his masters had made
him plainly happy with the music and taught him enough to know that he
eventually must be passing it on.
"We're fools whether we dance or not,
so we might as well dance." -- Japanese Proverb
© 1999 Peter Langston