The musical heritage of the region was on display at the fifth-annual Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention, held at Surry Community College on Friday and Saturday.
The long-standing tradition of old-time music has been kept alive by those who pass on the love and the knowledge of the music, and in order to continue the culture and heritage, organizers of the Surry Old Time Fiddlers Convention said this must continue. With that in mind, youth involvement was the focus at this year's convention.
Friday night kicked off the event with a dance featuring three bands — Slate Mountain Ramblers, Mountain Park Old Time Band, and Back-Step. The atmosphere of the dance was meant to replicate the afternoons and evenings across the region where people would gather in homes and community buildings for music, dancing, fellowship, and socializing. Saturday was full of jam sessions in multiple buildings on the SCC campus, as well as the competition in fiddle, banjo, guitar, twin fiddle, folk song, and dance, for youth and adults. Band competitions were held on Saturday night.
Prizes were awarded in youth and adult divisions for all competitions (result were not available Saturday night).
Saturday also featured four workshops. Noted fiddler Eddie Bond of Virginia hosted the fiddle workshop, and award-winning NPR personality and Surry County native Paul Brown held a banjo workshop. Guitar virtuoso Chester McMillian of Surry County led the guitar workshop and dancer Dr. Mark Handy presented the dance workshop.
Luthiers displayed instruments in the dining hall, where participants and those in attendance enjoyed chowing down on home-cooked food at Knight's Grill.
The fiddlers convention also featured cake walks, a quilt raffle, and two 50/50 cash drawings.
Brown, who recently moved back to the area after retiring from NPR News, taught a banjo workshop on Saturday afternoon.
The former WPAQ station manager was joined by his wife of 27 years, Terry McMurray, along with assistant John Schwab — all members of The Mostly Mountain Boys.
Brown gave details of time he spent learning from legendary Surry County musician Tommy Jarrell. Brown launched into what he said was a local version of the tune “Cripple Creek,” which he shared was one of the “best-known tunes out there” and one that no two musicians will play alike, adding that the differences are a “very good thing.”
“You should have your own identity,” Brown said. “I learned it (“Cripple Creek”) the way Tommy Jarrell played it.” Brown went on to say that Jarrell was one of the most influential musicians in old-time music, a Round Peak-style musician who lived in the Toast community.
“People in the Round Peak area got together and they had an elevated level of vitality and intensity to their style of music. It was in the early part of the 20th century…the right group of people showed up at the right time and we really had a moment. They developed their own style of music, language, and culture — and managed to hang on to it through most of the 20th century and through World War II.”
Brown said that Surry County was different after World War II — it changed from a rural, farming community to a more modern, globally-aware culture. “Life really changed around Surry County, but in the Pine Ridge area, they kept playing and singing in that style.”
Many folklorists and song collectors traveled around in the region, Brown said, during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s — recording the music of the region and collecting songs that were unique to the area, lugging heavy machines that recorded discs of music. For some reason, the song collectors did not cross the mountains and come down to Surry County, so for the most part, the unique musical heritage and traditions of the region remained a secret until around the 1960s.
“Mike Seeger [half-brother of Pete Seeger] even told me he was in Mount Airy in 1955, looking for Larry Richardson, a bluegrass player, and he didn't find him, but he never ran into Tommy Jarrell either.” Seeger would later visit Surry County in the 1960s and can sometimes still be found jamming with the musicians at local fiddlers conventions.
Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Earnest East, Robert Sykes, Benton Flippen — all were playing unique styles of old-time music in this region, but they were not known to the general public until the 1960s, when people began to travel to this area to absorb the music and the style now known around the world. “People were looking for something new in the 1960s…and some of us were also looking to preserve what we had,” Brown said. “We discovered this unusually-welcoming person in Tommy Jarrell, and the rest is history…I still believe it was a bunch of coincidences that came together at the right time.”
Jarrell was celebrated for his fiddle playing, Brown said, but he was known for playing the banjo and often used any string as the “drum string.”
“When you watched him play his hand did an interesting motion, back and forth on the banjo…he picked out individual notes rather than just strumming.” He said his tuning was different as well, what some may call out of tune, but with Jarrell it worked well. “It was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen…” Brown said, pulling out his fretless banjo made by Kyle Creed, one that Jarrell played for a while in the 1980s.
“Tommy said he played music like a great big wheel, and he always said 'it's got to have a whine to it.' He moved my fingers until I got it right: 'It's too close to being in tune,' he said. 'Now there, you hear that, you've got to have a whine to it,'” Brown said of time spent learning Jarrell's style of banjo.
“It's the little tonalities that made the music what it was, those in-between notes.”
Another mentor Brown worked with was Benton Flippen, who he said was a “singular human being and a singular musician…he loved the old-time ways and his music had an old repertoire and old-time drive, but some newer influences…a post-war sound.”
“What it is was brilliant,” Brown shared, describing the musical heritage of Surry County.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 and on Twitter @MoutnAiryJess.