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Ralph Roberts


The last night of Clifftop 2012, it was a fine, clear evening when Don Couchie and I sat down to pick some tunes with Ralph Roberts, an old time West Virginia fiddler who lives in the community of Frametown, West Virginia, located along the Elk River. Ralph and his charming wife Charlee always camp in the same spot on Geezer Hill, not far from our camp, the infamous Banjo Hell. There are a lot of reasons people come to the festival, that's for sure, but I can tell you that Ralph comes to play music, and we've sat down and made some with him every year since we've been coming down. Don and I have decided that it is always the highpoint of the week.

Ralph plays the tunes he learned from his grandfather, the music of the working people of the West Virginia hills. He is not a particularly fancy player, his style is straightforward and direct, but he knows a whole bunch of tunes that are old, old, old- to use one of my mother's expressions- tunes that you rarely or never hear anyone else play. At the same time, he has a fine, simple way of making even the chestnuts sound fresh, like you were hearing them for the first time. Ralph holds his fiddle next to his shoulder bone, instead of under his chin, in the old time way, and to listen to him play is like going back to visit with music folks over a hundred years ago.

I wish now I had asked Ralph more about himself, but in the four or five years we have been jamming with him at Clifftop, we have been too busy playing music! I know he is some relation to the Hammons family, but I am not sure just how. I did have the presence of mind this time to turn on my little hand held Tascam DR-1 digital recorder during our jam, with Ralph's permission. I've put together here most of the tunes we played; Ralph, of course, is doing the fiddling on all of them, Don is backing up on guitar, and I am picking three finger style on my semi-fretless Tubaphone in open G, doing my best to find my way and keep up.


This tune, Cherry River Line, is an example of an old West Virginia mountain song that has evolved into a fiddle tune. It is clearly a close variant of Old Reuben, with the words modified to fit the local geography. The Cherry River is a tributary of the Gauley River in southeastern West Virginia. There is still a lot of logging in this area, and at one time the lumber companies had private railroads that transported the timber from the logging camps to lumber and paper mills in mountain towns located nearby. The Cherry River Boom & Lumber Co. ran a line along the Cherry River that brought wood to mills in Richwood, located along the river, and it may well be the line the song is talking about. Richwood is about 40 miles northeast of Clifftop.


I've not heard too many people play this tune, it seems to have been common mostly around southeastern West Virginia. The way Ralph fiddles it, it sounds sort of like a major version of Boatin' Up Sandy. In the beginning, you can hear me pecking around, trying to figure where the notes are exactly on my fingerboard. I basically found it by the end, anyway.


Ralph called this tune Sugar Hill, but it doesn't bear any resemblance to the tune I know by that name. It's a sprightly, bouncing little tune that sounds more like a distant cousin to Cripple Creek, one that Ralph fiddles with a lot of playfulness.


Like many old time West Virginia fiddlers, Ralph is often inclined to play a song melody as an instrumental, particularly a sacred song. Purple Robe is a spiritual recorded by the Stanley Brothers for King Records in 1960. "False accused and there condemned yet they found no fault with Him, the man who wore the scarlet purple robe."


The very best fiddle tunes are often the plain and simple ones that you just can't get out of your head. Months after the jam, I still find myself humming John's Tune, an old time melody that Ralph learned from his grandfather. Don and I both felt that the moment spent picking that tune with Ralph was for us the best two minutes of the whole festival. In case some of you are interested, I've done my best to transcribe Ralph's fiddle playing on this tune; the notation is linked here. Ralph is not a very ornamental player, but he never plays anything exactly the same way twice, either, subtly varying the melody each time he goes through it. Sometimes he began the melody on the tonic (G), sometimes on the third. sometimes on the fifth. The little downhill phrase that is repeated- the turn around, or bridge- sometimes on the last time through he ends on the tonic, sometimes on the fifth below the tonic, like a plagal tune. The first time through in the transcription is Ralph's rendering of the basic melody, the second time demonstrates some of his variations. Ralph is one of those players that you have to pay close attention to in order to really appreciate him. Unlike most of us, he is not playing an "arrangement," he is just channeling the tune through his own mental filter, constantly, but subtly changing how it goes. This is real old time music, where the tune is the thing, not the player.


Ralph knows a lot of rare old tunes, but he plays the chesnuts with equal enthusiasm; this is his version of Cumberland Gap. The B part is almost just a bridge back to the beginning.


For a region that has seen generations of young people move away to find work in far away auto plants and steel mills, and in uniform, the song Home Sweet Home has a deep meaning lost on most of us today. The song has been around since before the Civil War, and you will find it in the repertoire of most musicians whose roots are in Appalachia. It is most often played as an instrumental; the song is so familiar, the singing of it is unnecessary. Ralph is not embarrassed to play it with a lot of heartfelt sentiment.


This deceptively simple tune is related but different from the tune of the same name played by Dwight Diller, that he learned from Maggie, Burl and Sherman Hammons of Pocahontas County. Ralph is kin to the Hammons family, but the tunes that came from his father and grandfather Roberts all have Ralph’s own personal interpretation. You can find my transcription of Ralph's rendition here.


Ralph plays this the real old time way, with the fifth below the tonic instead of the bluegrass inspired natural seventh in the B part, and so do I. I guess that's why we got along so well.


This is the last recording from our jam at Ralph's camp up on Geezer Hill. When we first started playing, it was still bright daylight, but by the time the jam ended, it had grown dark. We never got out of the key of G. The jam didn't really end, exactly, but some other musicians had shown up, a young man and woman with a guitar and banjo, and without saying a word among us, Don and I knew it was time to go, so that someone else could share some music with Ralph. Knowing when to leave is one of the most important lessons life teaches you, almost as important as knowing when to be quiet, the latter being one I have yet to learn.

Don Couchie


(c) copyright 2012, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.