Tracing the origins of 'Hillbilly' music

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Folklorist Joe Wilson finds the roots of bluegrass and old-time right in the Twin Counties

By April Wright, Reporter



There's no short answer to explain how “hillbillies” invented American music, local music historian Joe Wilson says.
It's “all the pieces of the truth that fit together” that allow him to tell the story of where hillbilly music — old-time and, later, bluegrass — came from in about an hour, but the story is much deeper.
“When people ask where the music comes from, it's not that simple,” said Wilson. “It's not complicated, either, but you can't watch one documentary in an hour and get the full answer.”
Wilson, who lives in Fries, is an award-winning musical preservationist and was once director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts. He'll give a talk on the origins of "hillbilly" music on Thursday at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts in downtown Galax.
Some think the Carter family invented hillbilly music. And while Bristol had an important recording session there and was named the birthplace of hillbilly music because Congress passed an act, that's only part of the truth, said Wilson.
It goes back much further. Mountain music has roots in England, Scotland and Ireland. Immigrants came to America, bringing the fiddle to these shores.
At the same time, Germans were bringing to this country a passion for vocal music, and became some of the best fiddlers.
Africans also sailed across to America — albeit wearing shackles — and brought with them the banjo.
Population pressures pushed these different cultures into Virginia. As they were all seeking land, they joined together to create a melting pot of these different cultures. The Blue Ridge became an American blender, said Wilson.
“So it was that Europeans, Tidewater African-Americans and Anglo-Americans met in the Blue Ridge and became more comfortable with each other...,” said Wilson in his book, A Guide to the Crooked Road: Virginia's Music Trail.
“All brought music with them. Violins were expensive and rare, but all these people were singers. The travelers from Ulster had ballads and ditties galore, and the Germans had a rich tradition of religious singing. Musical concepts from many places met, and new blends emerged.”
Virginians of all classes danced to fiddle and banjo for the first two centuries on these shores, he said.
Hillbilly music started from contributions made by people right here in the Twin Counties, Wilson believes.
Al Hopkins, a musician from Gap Creek, and his brothers organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. In 1924, Al was in Galax assisting his brother Jacob, a physician, with office work.
Al, Jacob and banjoist-fiddler John Rector met in a barbershop — located next to where Barr's Fiddle Shop is located today on South Main Street — where the babershop's proprietor and fiddler Tony Alderman, held jam sessions.
(Barr's earlier this year opened the Hillbilly Barbershop Museum in that very spot.)
Earlier in 1924, Rector traveled to New York with Fries mill worker Henry Whitter to record songs. Whitter became the first musician from the region to record.
Rector thought that his barbershop band could do better, so the band, the Hill Billies, made a trip to New York to record.
It was the first major commercial success in what was to become country music, and “hillbilly” music was named for it.
The band performed at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge and became a household name from touring and performances on the radio in New York and Washington, D.C.
Hill Billies leader Al Hopkins began broadcasting when radio signals reached all over the nation.
The famous Victor recording sessions were held in Bristol. Among those recorded there for the first time were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, founding icons of country music.
But those sessions also recorded an array of other musicians from the Blue Ridge area.
No one knows how many musicians this area has produced, Wilson said, but the small community of Coal Creek, which is only 12 miles in length, has led to noteworthy recordings from 31 bands.
People in Southwest Virginia, Wilson said in his book, still prefer homemade music to the mass-marketed music.
The Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention, he noted, draws as many as 40,000 people without hiring a single star and with little advertising.
Mountain music is now “best kept by people who play at the fiddlers' convention,” Wilson said. “This area has more musicians per acre than any other place.”
Musicians in this area “keep the spirit and values of a place better than its historians,” Wilson wrote in his book. “They are participants in a musical community, not spectators, and music is a part of their lives, not an industry controlled from some distant place. Most of these artists make no speeches, but they are the keepers of the true vine.”
The music that was developed by poor immigrants, slaves and indentured servants, Wilson said, has survived the movements of time and given birth to a multi-billion dollar music industry that includes country, blues and rock. All these American genres can find their roots right here.
“Now, nearly 400 years old, it is still influencing America and is in a state of vigorous health,” he said. “In seeking to explain the popular culture of this nation and how it came to dwarf European popular art, the deepest musical roots are found in fiddle and banjo music.
“Old Europe and Old Africa are combined in it. It may be the constant combining and recombining of black and white culture in American musical arts that keeps them so vigorous and vital.”