I met B at the Stumptown Steam Festival near Cadiz in the early 1970s. My family went there to see the steam show, but I was sidetracked by the fiddle contest. Old fiddlers played tunes in a circle before the contest, and B was with them. I had seen him on television and heard him on the radio, but there he was in person, at the fiddle contest. He had a southern mountain twang with a hint of black dialect in his voice. His parents and grandparents were descended from the Scottish and Irish settlers of the southern Appalachians and from the banjo-playing slaves of the Tidewater plantations. I was fascinated by the music and asked one fiddler how to learn those tunes. His reply — “Get some records and learn from them” — didn’t help me much though.
I next saw B at the Algonquin Mill Festival in October 1973. The festival was much smaller 30 years ago, and the fiddle contest was held on a stage behind the mill. The winner wowed everyone with “Orange Blossom Special,' and again I was mesmerized by the music. I had played only orchestral violin until then, but fiddling called to me. It was in my soul, even before I fiddled.
B and I hung out occasionally over the next few years, and he went with me to Cincinnati when I worked there in 1980. Dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt, he reminded of a simpler rural America, of barns and ripening corn, of orange autumn leaves, of mountains and mines and mills. We visited the Cincinnati Appalachian Festival in May, and B introduced me that day to his parents. They played mountain dulcimers and banjos and mandolins and fiddles, and their music was closer to the Scots-Irish jigs and reels and the English ballads that came with the settlers to the southern Appalachians.
B and I grew apart as my friendship with his parents deepened. I bought a dulcimer in 1982, and I discovered the Great Trail Festival and Yankee Peddler Festival, where B’s parents hung out. Visitors to the festivals, accustomed to minor-key, high-energy, wall-of-sound rock music, were drawn to Appalachian music. Its seeming simplicity, hypnotic rhythms and major keys took them to a place they didn’t know they were missing, to the balds and the gaps and the passes of the Allegheny Mountains and the Blue Ridge.
In 1988 at the Great Trail Festival, a banjo player told me that people met on Thursdays at Quail Hollow State Park to play tunes and sing songs. I went to the sessions for the next year but was too intimidated to take my violin. Those people played fast tunes without sheet music, and I saw no way to jump in on tunes I didn’t know. But in November 1989 I took my violin. B and his parents were there, and that night I met his grandparents. When some musicians got out some sheet music I asked if I could join, and those few tunes changed my life. I found my home that night. I met my soul mates: the one who would be my wife, and the music that had been calling to me all my life.
B’s grandparents came from the British Isles and enchanted me with their descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, Donegal’s remote valleys, and Welsh islands and towns. When I’m with them, I feel the spirits of my ancestors, the Whitacres and Montgomeries and McClinticks. When I play, they sing with me, calming my mind and lifting my spirit. They can start a conversation with strangers and bring a sense of oneness to a room of disparate people.
For B is bluegrass, his parents are the fiddle and banjo music of the southern Appalachians, and his grandparents are the jigs, reels, hornpipes and marches of the British Isles. The music is more than a collection of notes, more than fiddles and whistles and pipes playing in concert. It captures the diaspora of cultures that converged in our country; it chronicles the joy and the hardships of life in the southern Appalachians and the British Isles. It is communion and community.