By Ivalien Hylton Belcher © 1986
Issue: November, 1986
How many of you remember listening to the Carter Family records on an old wind up Victrola? I dare say there's quite a few out there. My Grannie Dollie had lots of the Carter Family records and I was allowed to play them on Sunday afternoons in the parlor.
Back in August, I had the opportunity to attend the Carter Family Memorial Festival at Mace Springs, Virginia. It was just the sort of thing that I enjoy, so I was all excited about going.
Now I don't like a lot of traffic whizzing by me, so I was really glad to get off the busy interstate and head to Hilton, Virginia where Mace Springs is located. Then I caught my breath once again and began to feel at home. I could see beautiful mountains and narrow country roads. Trees full of grapevines were hanging over the road. Small neat farm houses settled in at the foot of rolling hills. As I rode along, my thoughts turned to the people who settled here long ago. How proud they must have been of this land. I could see that a lot of the past is being kept by the present generations.
After winding about thirty five miles up in the mountains, it was my kind of world and I was beginning to feel like myself again.
Upon arriving at Mace Springs, the first person I saw was Janette Carter strolling across the store yard. Joe Carter was sitting on the store porch. The A.P. Carter Store building is now the Carter Family Museum, filled with memories and keepsakes. The building was built in 1945 as a general store. It closed after A.P.'s death, but Janette Carter opened it in 1974 for an old time music show. The store was filled with music until the Carter Family Fold was completed.
When I entered the Carter Family Fold, memories kept coming back. Pictures of Sarah, A.P., Mother Maybelle were hanging on the wall of the stage area. Janette welcomed the crowd and her and Joe began the show by playing and singing some of the old Carter Family favorites. Sylvia Carter Edwards, sister of A.P. Carter was there also and sang some of the old hymns with Joe and Janette. Aunt Syb, as she is fondly called, is the last member of the family of brothers and sisters of A.P. Carter. Even the guitar and autoharp were played the traditional Carter Family way. I was hearing music like I played on Grannie Dollie's old windup Victrola. Mace Springs is the home of the Carter Family and they try to keep the original music there in the valley.
That afternoon and night brought to my ears some of the best old time music I have ever heard in my life. Several fine groups were there and the audience showed a great appreciation of the old time music. A group from Roan Mountain, Tennessee really caught my fancy. They went by the name of The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers. This band featured two brothers, a nephew and his wife. The girl played a bass made from an old fashioned washing tub, rope and a stick. She got more music from her home made bass than most people with a store bought one. When the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers struck up the first tune, I was just flabbergasted. This was music like I had never heard and I thought I had heard music played the old timey way. When they finished their part of the show, they found a shady spot in the store yard and kept playing. When the crowd finally thinned out a little, I approached them, hoping to have a little chat.
"Hey fellows! I'm enjoying your music a lot. How about talking to me while you rest a spell?"
"Yes Ma'am, yes Ma'am. Would love to. Pull up a chair."
"Okay, let's get your names straight."
"On the banjo we have Creed Birchfield and brother Joe playing fiddle. Creed is 82 years old and Joe is 72."
It seemed that Creed would do most of the talking with Joe nodding in agreement. Now Joe was cute as a button in his bib overalls and red string bow tie. I felt at home sitting with these two old timers under the shade tree. That they were chewing tobacco and spitting at my feet didn't bother me a bit.
Creed said, "We just got back from Washington D.C. I tell you, people up there like to talked us to death and I got tired. Then we went to Renfro Valley and stayed two days. They won't let me stay home hardly any." Creed's wife passed away three years ago, so it's good that he has friends and his music.
"Yep," Joe puts in, "They just got us going from one place to another."
"What about the left handed guitar player and the girl playing the wash tub bass?"
"They are part of the clan and mighty fine kids. Why! That gal went to a place other day and took first place and just left those other people wondering how she did it."
Both Creed and Joe Birchfield farmed for a living. Creed worked on Model T cars also. He had the first one up on Roan Mountain, Tennessee. It went 15 miles per hour.
Joe said, "We made our musical instruments over the years. Yep! We have to go now and tune up for the next show. Janette said be there at seven o'clock. Now there's a mighty fine lady, her and Joe Carter too. Mighty nice talking to you, Ma'am."
"Okay, fellows. We wouldn't want to keep the crowd waiting. Hope to see you again soon."
The fields surrounding the Carter Family Fold were filled with old time musicians. One could wander around and then go back to the Fold. While resting, a bowl of pinto beans and cornbread tasted good.
Before leaving for home, I walked up the road to the Carter Family homeplace. In the cool of the evening I stood thinking of bygone days and the memories this beautiful home must hold. Back in the Carter Family Fold, Janette strikes a chord on the autoharp and Joe tunes his guitar. Traditional Carter Family music wafts on the gentle breezes. It touches the soul.
After I arrived home, I got to thinking. My goodness! I didn't even see a police officer or security guard in the crowd. Nor did I see a need for one. People came to hear this fine music and traditions that live on. It was my kind of world, just like home and I hope to go back to Mace Springs, Virginia, home of the Carter Family and feel the special spirit that surrounds and surges through this beautiful valley.