The Virginia Folklife Program lost a dear friend this June in Spencer Moore, the “singing tobacco farmer” from Chilhowie, Virginia. He was ninety-two.
Born into a large family in North Carolina on February 7, 1919, Moore fell under the spell of mountain folk music early in his life, after hearing records by Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, and others. He was fortunate to have the great blind fiddler and singer G.B. Grayson as a neighbor.
In his mid-teens, Moore mail-ordered a guitar from Sears & Roebuck, and by the late 1930s was working as a duo with his brother Joe Moore. Known as The Moore Brothers, on one occasion the pair played a tent show on the same bill with the legendary Carter Family.
Moore served in Normandy in World War II, where General Eisenhower heard him play and gave him a guitar. He settled into the life of a tobacco farmer in Chilhowie, Virginia, and continued to play at local house parties, jam sessions, and dances.
Folklorist Alan Lomax made field recordings of Spencer Moore in 1959 as part of his Southern Journey project, at which time Moore was appearing regularly on the Farm Fun Time radio broadcast from Bristol, Virginia. Moore remembered Lomax’s visit fondly, describing how his tape recorder took up the entire backseat of his car. The Virginia Folklife Program had the opportunity to visit and make field recordings with Spencer Moore some forty-five years later.
In 2004, Moore was invited to New York City for a celebration of Alan Lomax’s life, attended by Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, the New Lost City Ramblers, and others. Josh Rosenthal of the Tompkins Square label returned to the same house that Lomax had visited to record Spencer Moore’s self-titled solo debut album in 2007.
Moore suffered numerous tragedies in his life; his brother was murdered the night before the two were set to record together in Bristol, and his only son died at birth. Yet he remained active and positive throughout his life, with music his greatest joy.
Spencer Moore was an Appalachian songster in the truest sense. He knew more songs than most people have forgotten, somewhere in the range of seven to eight hundred, and played them with remarkable precision and soul well into his final days.
Both a wonderful artist and a truly kind and sweet person, Spencer Moore will always be remembered and sorely missed. They simply don’t make ‘em like Spencer anymore.
-Jon Lohman, July 1, 2011