New York Times
Passing Along the Art of Appalachian Fiddling
By: Francis X. Clines
NICUT, W.VA. , Oct. 6 - 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 back-woods 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
The lustrous, haunting scrape of the music drifted out toward
the surrounding forest this evening, the sound surrounding 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 they old man who
lived down the road - Senate Cottrell was his name - played it,” the master
instructed, suddenly looking aback on his own young tutelage by a departed
In the gifted hands of Jake, the fiddling arts of Mr.
McCumber - and of Mr. 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 on.”
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 way s 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 of in Gilmer Country, is teaching
pure backwoods songs of your, 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
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 old title.
There is no sheet music in Old-time Appalachian playing, a
naïve 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 old 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 1920’s” 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 great-grandfather.
“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 Stumptown when their son
won summer fiddling scholarships and honors from the Augusta Center. But he
still seemed to need to 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 1970’s 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.