By Debbie K. Marshall © 1985
Issue: July, 1985
This month my search for an old-time musician led me to the town of Floyd, Virginia, where I "discovered" an 89 year old autoharp player by the name of Roza Alderman DeHart. She is one of the most interesting persons that I have ever met, and I would like to say a special thank you to Mr. and Mrs. Keith of Keith's Antiques in Willis, Virginia who first told me about her
One of the first things that impressed me about Roza is her remarkable sense of humor. She has a way of looking at life that you don't find in many people of any age. She also has a talent for making people feel right at home with her, and that's exactly the way I felt about two minutes after I had introduced myself and walked through her front door.
To me, this meant much more than just an interview. I feel as if I have found a friend in this kind and beautiful lady, and I believe it's a friendship that will last a long time. She's just the kind of person that I'll never forget. I hope you feel the same way as you read this.
When were you born, Roza?
"My birthday is the second of June. I reckon I'ze born in 1896. I'll tell you, back when we'ze born, they didn't know the year half the time 'cause they didn't have birth certificates." [Roza was born in the Burkes Fork section of Floyd County near Willis, Virginia. There were 8 children in the family, three brothers and four sisters.]
Did you grow up in a musical family? What instruments did your family play?
"The Alderman family, now they 'uz musicians. The Aldermans played music and my daddy did. He played the fiddle. At's the old name for it. Some call it a violin nowadays. Never did hear Dad sing any much, but he could play the fiddle. An 'at whole family, his brothers, I can't remember how many they was of 'em, but they was a big family o' boys. They 'uz two girls an the rest 'uz boys, but they ever one played the fiddle, 'cept the youngest boy. He played a guitar. Now my mother, she didn't sing or play no music."
What about your brothers and sisters? Did any of them play?
"Yeah, my brother George played the guitar, my brother Frank played the banjer, and Lank, he played the autoharp. I don't 'member as any o' my sisters played any music. I'ze the only one o' the girls 'at picked it up. The boys didn't play much music til after I left home. I married when I'ze 23, so I never played much music with my brothers." [Roza was the third from the oldest child in the family.]
How old were you when you learned to play the autoharp and how did you learn to play?
"I picked it up when I'ze young, maybe 9 or 10 year old, an with my daddy playing the fiddle, I got started that a way. I just learnt to play the autoharp follerin' Daddy on the fiddle, kindly like 'at, just follered him."
Do you remember your first autoharp?
"Well, I got started on a 5-chord (bar) autoharp, then later I got a 8-chord and I played 'at a while. An then I got a 10-chord But my first autoharp, I can't remember, it 'uz a little ole 5-chord like I'ze telling you, but I reckon it 'uz one my daddy bought for me. Yeah, I guess it was. I couldn't a got it otherwise, with me no older than 'at."
What "style" do you use when playing?
"It's just the plain old, what they call ole-timey. I just like ole music, ole songs. Now, when I'ze a playin', I used my thumb and the biggest majority o' my fingers on my right hand, but y'see I broke my wrist 'bout 3 year ago and my hand never has come out of it. I could make music before then, shoot, but now it hurts too much, and I can't play any more like I used to. It 'ud pass time a whole lot if I could. I miss it a lot. Back when I'ze young and played, 'fore I got married, I'd make music, then I'd get out and dance with my boyfriends, 'at made it better! [Roza laughs.]
About how old were you when you started going with boys?
"Well, I'ze purty young. Mama and Daddy let me have boyfriends when I'ze, I guess 12 or 13. I started going to dances when I'ze 'bout 14, 'bout like in 'at picture 'ar, I guess." [See picture with this article made in 1910.]
Do you read music?
"No, just play by ear. And I sit down and play, holding it in my lap. I don't hold it upright like some do nowadays."
Do you remember the first song you learned to play on the autoharp?
"I don't recall the first song I learnt on the autoharp, can't 'member 'at many years back. But I'ze playing Dixie, Whoa Mule, and let me see, what's 'at other one, it's where he drowned in the ocean? [thinks real hard] Ah, Willie, My Darlin' Come Back, 'at's the name of it. You ever heard it? It's the oldest 'un I ever had. It goes [she sings] Oh Willie my darlin' come back, I'll ever be faithful and true, Willie My Darlin' come back, I will ever be faithful to you. I remember one night when he said, That he loved me much dearer than his life, He called me his darlin', his pet, An' he asked me to be his wife. Oh darlin' I said with a sigh, I'm sure I will have to say no, He took a white rose from my hair, And he left me a-standing alone. The next morning poor
Willie was dead, He was drowned in a pool by the mill, With pure crystal waters so clear, That ran down from the brink of the hill, Willie was dead, He was drowned in a pool by the mill, With pure crystal waters so clear, That ran down from the brink of the hill, oh Willie my darlin' come back, I'll ever be faithful an' true, Willie my darlin' come back, I will ever be faithful to you. "At's one o' the first 'uns [laughs]. Now, I 'member a song called 'Sippy [Mississippi] Sawyer. My niece liked it better 'an any other song. "At's an old war tune, goes way back. I never did play it 'cept she'd call for it. I never did know no words to it, just the tune, an 'at's all she had."
So you sing too. When did you start singing?
"Yeah, I could sing. I started singing 'bout the same time I learn't to play the autoharp. Then I got to goin' to the dances and sung there too."
"I got most o' my songs, I couldn't tell you exactly where I got 'em from now, but I just got 'em here and there where I heard people sing 'em. And I got ballads where people give me. I played at the dances 'fore I'ze married and was just part of the band and then I'd get up and dance with the boys a while. Where I'd go out to dances and places like that, y'know, they'd always want me to play with 'em. Everwhere I went they wanted me to play the autoharp with 'em. 'At's where I got most o' my songs and music. We'd play at people's houses, just all over the neighborhood. When it come Christmas time, we'd have surprise parties and go all 'round the country. We'd have dances ever night nearly in the neighborhood. [Laughs] You can't do that now. They wudn't no carpets on the floor back then, y'see, and it didn't bother 'em. But now with the carpets on the floors and everthing, you couldn't go in an dance that a way. They's a lot o' difference in it to what it is now 'cause the floors was all wood back then, but with carpet and all, people wouldn't take you in like they used to. You don't hear tell o' that anymore. Times has changed. Then, the people would welcome us in and seemed like they had as big a time as we did. They acted mighty nice ever place I ever went. They never had any fights or trouble like I 'spect they did in some places. But y'know, that was a miracle to go all over the country to a neighbor's house, first one then another to surprise parties, just go in and surprise 'em. I think we usually quit and went home 'bout 12 o'clock most time."
Do you play any other instruments besides the autoharp?
"No, but I could a played the fiddle if I'd a kept it up. I had a boyfriend one time. He played and he got me a playin' the fiddle. I could play a tune right off, but the young people look like they thought that was s'funny, it tickled 'em, me a playin' the fiddle. Yeah, they thought that was the terriblest thing! I told some of 'em a while back, one thing, I says, I played a fancy bow, and I could a played the fiddle if I'd just a went on and done it, but I just dropped it and quit playin' and played the autoharp. I played the fiddle just long enough to know I could play it, y'know, and it made purty good music. But when I go to playin', they'd laugh til I couldn't play. [She laughs]
They must have thought it wasn't "lady-like" for you to be playing the fiddle?
"Well, they couldn't play and I reckon they thought I'ze a goin' too far or somethin'. I'ze sort o' the lead o' the family anyway, if you want to know, not bragging. And I hate it 'cause I didn't keep 'at up 'cause since I got my hand hurt to where I can't play my autoharp, I'd be able to play the fiddle. I could note it and play. And I love a fiddle. I think 'at's the grandest music. You get 2 or 3 or 3 or 4 playin' together. Why, they just make the purtiest music. I 'druther hear the fiddles than the guitar.
Do you feel the autoharp was a more popular instrument when you were growing up?
Oh, yes. It was real popular back then. An 8-chord was awful common back then. Like I'ze a tellin' you, everwhere I'd go, they'd always want me to play and I'ze the only woman that played the autoharp in my part o' the country that I knowed of. They wudn't a big lot o' musicians, girls that is back then."
You mentioned going to the dances a lot when you were young. How did you get there? Did you walk?
"Yeah, Lord. I reckon we did. They wudn't a car! [laughs] Sometimes we'd ride horseback, but most times we'd walk. I had an older sister and my brother went most o' the time. My dad wouldn't let us go to the dances without one o' my brothers went along with us. And the neighbor boys, I 'member was as nice as could be. I told 'em I'ze always treated right. If you take care o' yourself, the boys, they'll respect you and treat you right. I 'member being with a boy one time, George Bolt, now he 'uz a wild somebody, drank and everthing, but we'ze coming from church, and he said he knowed me and 'at I'ze a good girl and he thought a lot o' me and he wanted to tell me what he thought of a good girl. He told me that a good girl was the best thing to a man on earth and a bad 'un was the worst thing to a man. I never have forgot him saying that 'cause you'd think he'd a been terrible to me, him being so wild and all, but he said a good girl is the best thing to a man and a bad 'un is the worst. And you know, he told the truth, too!"
Did you play much music after you got married? Was your husband a musician?
"No, my husband didn't play no music. Couldn't even sing! [laughs] I didn't play much after I got married. My husband worked out in West Virginia in the coal mines and sometimes it 'ud be as much as a year 'fore he'd come home and he'd hardly ever bring any money home. He come home and payed the tax on the place one time I think. Well, I bought and sold cattle, went to Mt. Airy [N.C] and bought the cattle and brought 'em back up here and sold 'em. Most of the time I'd almost double on 'em. I made good on cattle and a heap o' times I'd have on up in the teens. I had 80 acres o' land, plenty o' land, and I gota gov'ment loan and limed that land, what of it wudn't in woods, biggest part of it was in grass. And we lived in a log house, but that thing was sealed good. We built a newer home later, but it was a lot colder than that log house 'cause the log house was sealed so good. Anyway, just like I told you, I got the farm loan and put a roof on the house and limed the land and bought and sold cattle and raised 5 children. Yes sir, the biggest majority of it I did by myself 'cause he [her husband] never sent no money hardly a-tal. I made the money and raised and supported my children. And I wudn't in debt either! It didn't take me long to pay back that loan. But times is a lot different now. I made my weddin' dress. I mighta had a dollar fifty in it. [She showed me a picture hanging on her living room wall of her and her husband when they were married in 1919.] I'z married at home, don't imagine there was any such thing as a church wedding, if it was, I never heard tell o' one."
Do any of your children play? [Roza has 3 sons and 2 daughters]
"You know, they's some generations just don't play. Now my children don't play, 'cept for one o' the boys. My oldest boy, Lexie plays the guitar and autoharp and he's one o' the best singers I believe I nearly ever heard. He took after the Alderman side of my family, he shows that, I mean he can make music.
Mrs. Josie Keith told me that you used to play out at Mabry Mill. How did you get started playing out there?
"Well, they 'uz some out there that I knowed that 'uz playin' music - Ed Keith, and another one, a Weddle man, can't recall his name, but whenever I went, them that knowed me told me why didn't I bring my autoharp and come on to the Mill and play with the rest of 'em. Well, I got to takin' it and I played out there. Lord, I don't know, I 'spect I musta played out there 5 or 6 years I guess. I played from 'bout 1976 on up til I hurt my hand and that 'uz 'bout 3 year ago since my hand's been out. Boys, I wish I could still play, yeah, I sure do. I'd sing out there 2 or 3 hours and then I'd give out. They just didn't want me to quit. Y'know, they wudn't nobody that played the autoharp and sung but me. There ain't nobody much that follers playin' the autoharp anymore. When I started to leave, one of 'em said now, you gonna come back and play with us, ain't you? And I told 'em I would. Then another one come runnin' out and said, Now Rosie, we gonna depend on you to come back and play with us next Sunday. I told 'em alright and I went on back and played with 'em. I didn't have no trouble gettin' to play and they was a good bunch to play with too. They play banjer and fiddle, real good musicians. But out there at the Mill, we just kidded around and had us a big time. They don't miss me no more than I miss them, I betcha! [And again, Roza laughs.]