By Susan M. Thigpen © 1983-2012
Issue: May, 1983
“In the past, when mountain folk gathered, whether at a barn raising or a corn husking, music always had a place. The straightforward style and clarity of mountain music perhaps reflects the character of the American spirit more than any other form of music. It was the crisp, clear notes of mountain music that rang through the hollows and ridges of the Blue Ridge, bringing relaxation and recreation to the lives of the hardworking mountain people and provided the focal point for mountain social gatherings.”
The Blue Ridge Mountains are rich with music and musicians. Every musician I interviewed got their interest, appreciation and musical instruction from their families. They, in turn, are passing this musical heritage on to their children. These people have a real understanding of music in the truest definition of the word. Many make the very instruments they play. Some, like Buddy Pendleton, enter contests and usually win. He is an acknowledged World Champion Fiddler. Others may only play for their own ears to hear but are very accomplished musicians in their own right. If there were any way to actually count them, I bet there would be more and just as good (if not better) musicians in these three counties than in Nashville!
The musicians I have interviewed for this article represent only a few of the many, many music makers in Patrick, Carroll, and Floyd Counties. I only wish time and space would allow me to tell you about them all.
About sixty-five years (or so) ago, Dudley Williams began making music. He said at first, he started with a “Jews Harp” and the autoharp and it lead to other instruments. Today he plays a fiddle, guitar and a banjo but the banjo is his favorite. The banjo he plays is one he made himself. He has also made guitars and autoharps.
At age 76, he still plays with a group called “The Trot Valley Boys.” He says they have been together for the past ten or fifteen years with members coming and going at various times throughout that period. His son, Clyde, plays the fiddle with the group and although she doesn’t play with the group, his daughter, Sadie, plays the guitar. They learned from their father, as he did from his.
Mr. Williams is from Stuart, Virginia. He plays Bluegrass and old time country music. If you ever get a chance to hear him play, it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.
I interviewed only Harold Vass but this story is really about not only Harold, but his father Eldon Vass and his son, Aaron Vass. They are three generations in one family who play music in the same group, “Reva Banks and the Country Folks.” They are from Carroll County, Virginia.
Harold said his grandparents were musicians. His grandmother played the fiddle and both grandparents taught a singing school. He wasn’t sure where the school was held but said he was told they wrote their notes on a piece of material like a bed sheet and hung it on the wall for the students to learn from.
Harold learned to play the guitar when he was only five years old and said his parents told him he was too little to hold up the guitar and play it at the same time so he laid the guitar in a chair and played it that way. He went on to learn other instruments and when asked which ones, he said, “Any of them that are necessary at the time, but I play guitar best.” His son, Aaron, also plays several instruments but mostly, the bass fiddle. Aaron is a senior in high school this year and Harold admires his open-mindedness about all types of music.
I honestly don’t think I have ever seen one person with more love for music than Carlton Harmon. Not only can he play just about any instrument he picks up, but he can play them all well. He is modest about his writing and says it is “only a hobby.” He likes to write about, “Trains, Mountains, lots of things, even one song about the state of Virginia.” When he writes songs, he writes both words and music. “I just hear them in my head and sit down with a guitar and pick them out.”
Carlton’s musical family background included his grandfather, Martin Harmon, who played the fiddle, his father who played the guitar and fiddle, and his mother who played the French harp and the guitar.
When he was a little boy, his father worked in the coal mines of West Virginia and he said there was always a guitar around the house. When he was about ten, he became interested and got his mother to show him a few cords. Pretty soon, he could listen to a song on the radio and pick out the melody. “I was good at picking out the melody but I learned it faster than I did the chords to go with it and then had to learn more chords.”
I asked Carlton to describe the differences between Bluegrass and Old Time styles of music. He described it this way, “Old Time is a medium tempo. Banjos are strummed, fiddles are “sawed” more and guitars are strummed more. In Bluegrass, there is more picking. There are more bass runs, the fiddle is a little smoother with long bow strokes.”
“Many people aren’t really aware of the difference between Bluegrass and Country music. Carlton described the differences as this, “Bluegrass is similar but different from country music as “Beach” music is similar but different from Rock.”
Carlton said that Bluegrass is just beginning to get the attention it deserves because Bluegrass bands are just beginning to travel more and spread it to more people. It’s becoming more socially acceptable as a music form in its own right. When the Senator Robert Byrd gets up on national television and plays a fiddle, it gets recognition. At the Galax Fiddler’s Convention this year, there was one group there from Japan, playing Bluegrass. They couldn’t speak English and had memorized the lyrics (with as much of a southern accent as they could) but it was still Bluegrass. There isn’t much difference in Bluegrass musicians just because they come from different parts of the country. Their accents may vary a little bit but that’s all. They are generous, friendly people. I don’t know of a single one that I’ve ever met that wouldn’t take the time to help you learn anything he knew. All you would have to do is ask.
Carlton Harmon summed it up well when he said, “I think Bluegrass will find its place in the music world and one day be as well known as country music.”