Ralph Berrier Jr. Special for the Roanoke Times
Hunter Holmes sat on the stage at the Floyd Country Store, guitar in hand, and sang a sad old song that sounded like it was pulled from today’s headlines.
I remember when dry goods were cheap as dirt,
We could take two pieces and buy a dandy shirt.
Now we pay three dollars or more,
Maybe get a shirt another man was wearing.
Even though the lyrics might have been about the quest for thrift store deals in these times of inflation, they were actually written almost a century ago by Alfred Reed, a blind violinist from Floyd County who summed up the existential dilemma of the working class in his song, “How can a poor man bear such times and live?”
That a Depression-era song – Reed recorded the number for the Victor label in New York in December 1929, just two months after the stock market crash that precipitated the financial ruin of much of America – seems so relevant today is one of the reasons why Holmes sang it at the Floyd Country Store during a performance on April 23. The music of Southwest Virginia offers an eternal soundtrack with a taproot that spans years, oceans and continents and is still sprouting new branches in the 21st century.
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The History of Music, People and Region is an ambitious project centered on the Floyd Country Store and led by store owners Dylan Locke and Heather Krantz, with help from others. The store, long epicenter of bluegrass music and old-school mountain music performances, along with its in-house craft music school, received a Virginia Humanities grant to start an online project called Music of Our Mountains, a web-based resource which will document the musical legacy of Southwestern Virginia primarily from five counties: Floyd, Franklin, Grayson, Patrick, and Carroll.
The website, officially unveiled during the evening of music and stories performed by a range of musicians, is still ongoing and aims to be “a living document”, Locke said, which will be continually updated to cover the generational musicians. to contemporary artists.
The site (which can be found at musicofourmountains.com) will include stories, profiles, maps and songs from the area, with Floyd at the center. Eventually, videos and documentaries produced by Beehive Productions in upstate New York will be added.
“It’s like Wikipedia for early music,” Locke said.
Eventually, the site will house a “record club”, as Locke described it, where fans can purchase music, including new vinyl records of old recordings combined with updated versions by contemporary artists. . People will also be invited to submit stories or other ideas to the project.
Mac Traynham, a musician from Floyd County whose videos for the country store website (floydcountrystore.com) served as a precursor to the online project, said the goal of exploring Southwestern Virginia’s musical heritage is “to solve some of the mysteries and uncover others”.
Other digital archives already document much of Southwest Virginia’s musical heritage. The Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, Berea (Kentucky) College, the University of Virginia, the birthplace of country music, and other institutions hold treasure troves of songs, interviews, and other recordings. Locke said Music of Our Mountains can tap into these resources and make them accessible to a general audience who may not know much about mountain music.
“Our goal is to chronicle and exchange musical and cultural ideas across Appalachia,” Locke said. “Why do people play a tune a certain way? What were their influences? What are the geographic things that have done all of this here on the Blue Ridge Plateau? »
Historian and musician Kinney Rorrer calls Southwest Virginia “the fertile crescent” of early music, a sound best described as music centered on the fiddle, banjo, guitar, and other acoustic instruments that were commonly learned by people who lived in the mountains for more than a year. one century ago.
These sounds are truly an aural stew that blends European, African and Indigenous influences into truly American music.
The website aims to document people whose stories are well known to traditional music lovers – the lives and recordings of artists such as Ernest Stoneman of Carroll County and Charlie Poole of North Carolina are well documented by historians music – with ordinary people who played music but were never so famous.
People like Preston Young, a singer from Franklin County whose 1931 recording of “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with fiddler Posey Rorrer (who was Kinney’s parent) inspired countless covers of legends of the bluegrass Flatt and Scruggs to Jerry Garcia, is an example of someone who made influential music but is little remembered today.
“These are musicians who have been overlooked,” Rorrer said, noting that Appalachian music history can be summed up by invoking the oft-quoted phrase about African-American history – “Lost, stolen or misplaced.”
In fact, mountain music could not exist without the influence of black performers. The banjo, the centerpiece of mountain and bluegrass sounds, has its roots in West Africa. Blues tunes have provided a template for countless bluegrass and country hoedown songs. Currently, the Music of Our Mountains site is mostly filled with stories of white artists from the early days of recording, mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. But Locke said the site will grow with stories of black people, women and other neglected artists.
The project’s launch event on April 23 drew around 100 music lovers to the Floyd Country store, where they heard two hours of songs and stories. Rorrer, who was the longtime voice of “Back to the Blue Ridge” on public radio station WVTF-FM (89.1) and who hosted The County Sales Radio Hour podcast (sponsored by the record store that Locke and Krantz also own), picked up the banjo and told funny stories about Charlie Poole and other artists who made records in early country music.
Holmes, a South Carolina musician, played with Corbin Hayslett, musician and County Sales record store manager, and talked about Reed, the fiddler from Indian Valley in Floyd County who recorded as Blind Alfred Reed.
The showcase demonstrated the links that still unite the musical past to the present. Martha Spencer, a Grayson County musician who grew up singing and dancing in her family’s Whitetop Mountain Band, sang old songs with Jackson Cunningham and Trevor McKenzie and spoke about her family’s connection to music.
Her uncle, the great violinist and instrument maker Albert Hash, once played music with Henry Whitter, a cotton mill worker from the small town of Fries who recorded some of the first records to be considered music. country music.
“I see everything as a living thing,” Spencer said of mountain music. She mentioned that playing helps keep alive the memory of her late father Thornton Spencer, a well-known violinist.
“When I play music, I think of my dad and a little piece of him lives on,” she said. “I think about how a little piece of Albert survived in him, and how a little piece of Henry Whitter survived Albert, and how a little piece of [fiddler] GB Grayson lived in Henry. Because of this, they all live forever.
As the evening drew to a close, with Traynham and musician Andy Buckman playing some old dance numbers, Floyd’s 12-year-old Margo MacSweeney got up to dance the flat-footed style that has been Floyd Country Store’s hallmark. Friday Night Jamboree for nearly four decades. Soon Margo was joined by her mother, Robyn Reitz, then a few other dancers, then a few more until a dozen people jostled for the closing fiddle number, “Ragtime Annie.”
For a moment, everything came together, the old and the new. A little girl danced to an old fiddle tune while silhouetted against the glow of a high-definition television that showed the Internet project The Music of Our Mountains on screen. The past and the future coupled like dancers.