IT’S toe-tapping, foot-stomping, slap-your-thigh, swing-your-partner music. People from all around the state, country and even from Canada come to enjoy it during the last weekend in October, in Elkins. Old-time musicians, students and non-musicians turn out to jam together, to dance and to just listen as ancient music is played and passed on.
The Old-Time Fiddler’s Reunion is part of the Augusta Heritage program held at Davis & Elkins College. It’s an event started 14 years ago, intended to bring the fiddlers of the region together, not to compete, but just to play and enjoy music that is as old as the hills.
The tunes have names like “Leather Britches,” “Forked Deer,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Sailor’s Hornpipe” and “Raggedy Ann,” and the musicians who play them know them by heart. They have to because old-time fiddle music isn’t written down; it’s passed down from one musician to another, orally.
Gerry Milnes, a fiddler and one of the organizers of the event, says old-time fiddle music is part of a genre of music begun about 2,000 years ago in Greece.
The Greeks identified various keys in which music can be played, and linked those keys to different humors of the body. There were happy tunes, sad tunes, tunes for mystery and tunes for lamentation.
Milnes says this type of music has barely survived modern technology and media, but the hills and hollows of West Virginia still resonate with it. The music has helped shape a culture.
The heroes of this culture are people like Melvin Wine, Lester McCumbers and Woody Simmons, none of them professional musicians with any formal training.
Some, like Simmons, 92, learned to play on homemade instruments. The head for Simmons’ first banjo was made from an opossum hide, and the wire for the strings came from a screen door. The music was something you played when you weren’t working. You played for personal enjoyment in private or at dances. The music played by these fiddlers carries a rich heritage.
John Morris’ mother had a distinctive voice that had a quality he describes as almost an echo. He says that in developing his style he’s tried to incorporate notes that have some of that same quality. So sometimes when he plays, he hears her voice.
If you are at the Fiddler’s Reunion, you can listen to fiddlers young and old, who play in 10-15 minute sets all day long on the stage, or you can walk around the campus.
You’ll find countless other groups in building corners, on the lawn outside and in stairwells, just finding a place to play and exchange tunes — all without a single written note of music.
The music brings them together from different states and counties. West Virginia is one of the few places left where people can come to hear this kind of music.
“People recognize this place as a place where fiddle music is a real treasure,” Milnes says.