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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.