Linda and Sammy come from legendary musical communities on Virginia’s Crooked Road. The Meadows of Dan and Clayman Valley are tiny mountain places separated by 150 miles of hairpin turns, old mills, crossroads stores, mom and pop eateries, and towns with one stop light or none, but only 90 miles by the way the crow flies.
Many forms of traditional music in Virginia have risen from the church, and the Apprenticeship Program has featured many different styles of gospel singing, including Tidewater gospel singing, Old Regular …
A few years back at his Hills of Home Festival in Coeburn, Virginia, Ralph Stanley brought out a special guest during his set that he and his wife Jimmie wanted us to hear. There, alone on that stage, Frank Newsome sang “Gone Away With a Friend.” I’m sure there were many others like me who were riveted and had a profound experience. On many levels it was one of the most powerful, spiritual, mournful, emotional, beautiful, and hopeful things I have ever heard. There is a purity about Frank’s singing that brings a soul-stirring, heart-tugging peacefulness that is beyond words.
I am happy to declare that there are many things worth remembering about my childhood. There are lots of memories that have evaporated over time, but the earliest sights and sounds that still ring the most clearly are those of music and singing. I have come to understand that the love of making music with one’s voice has long been a central part of my family. I may never know exactly how far back the story goes, but I do know that singing has to be just about as much a part of my being as living and breathing.
On a hot summer night in 2006, two friends took the stage at the storied old-time and bluegrass music festival in Galax, Virginia. One would would sing while the other played along. When the next friend’s turn to compete arrived, they would switch roles. While neither friend is a musical virtuoso, their love for the music and their belief in each other resulted in a very special sound that embodies much of the great musical tradition of southwest Virginia.
Flory Jagoda, a 2002 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, is known as “the keeper of the flame” of the once rich Saphardic Jewish song tradition. Flory sings the songs she learned from her nona (grandmother) as a child in pre-WWII Sarajevo – songs which have been passed down in her family since they fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. All of her ballads are sung in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language dating back centuries.
Susan Gaeta, an accomplished musician in her own right, demonstrates a deep intellectual and personal interest in carrying on this precious traditional art form.
Anyone concerned that traditional bluegrass and old time music may no longer resonate with today’s youth need only witness the masterful playing of Montana Young to allay these fears. At the tender age of 12, Montana has already been delighting audiences at fiddling conventions, festivals, and community jams for years, along the musically rich Crooked Road.
At the eastern end of the Crooked Road lies Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute. Among their folk music archives is a scratchy 1970s recording of a bluegrass jam session at the Pulaski, Virginia Fiddler’s Convention. On it, a fiddler walks up with case in hand and asks if he can join in. After being invited to join, he gets his fiddle out and runs, no, blazes through a warm up scale – three octaves worth! Instantly, all present sense something extraordinary is about to happen. And it does, as the fiddler leads the group on a mad dash through a jaw-dropping rendition of Soldiers Joy, Liberty and Golden Slippers. When it’s over, someone from the thoroughly stunned group says, “Say, Mister, what’s your name?” “Pendleton, Buddy Pendleton” comes the reply in a modest unassuming tone.
Gerald Anderson and Spencer Strickland play with an exuberance and joy that is infectious. Whether they are jamming in the sawdust of their instrument-making shop, at a local performance in Grayson County, Virginia, on a festival stage, or in the recording studio, Gerald and Spencer play from the heart and never hold back.
Galax, the friendly town on the border of Carroll and Grayson counties is named for the galax leaf, a broad green leaf that carpets some woodlands, and has been used for generations for decorative purposes. Galax has produced musicians in prodigious numbers that has puzzled and delighted musicologists for almost a century. This process continues.
Betty & the Bullet jam on “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins at the 2014 Galax Old Fiddlers’ convention at Felt’s Park in Galax, Virginia.
It’s easy to forget that most songs—particularly those in American folk, traditional, or popular music—rarely last more than three and a half minutes. We often forget this because the best of songs exude a timeless quality, and tend to unexpectedly revisit us—some might say even haunt us—throughout the course of our daily lives. A good song exists in a kind of “time out of time.”