The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University will host “A Salute to Old-Time Music: Presenting Two Legendary Fiddlers in Concert” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 8.
Fiddler Elmer Rich will be accompanied by Mark Crabtree, and fiddler Frank George will be accompanied by Kim Johnson. Elmer and Frank will be honored by receiving the Folklife Center’s Traditions Salute Award. The award is given to individuals who have demonstrated a passion and commitment towards the enhancement of West Virginia folk culture through education and public resources. Admission to the event, which will include the concert and a reception with light refreshments, is free to the public.
Old-time music is the heritage music of Appalachia. Frank George, 87, and Elmer Rich, 95, are truly West Virginia treasures. As fiddlers of that old-time music, they are followed by musicians around the world for their traditional tune repertoires and playing styles. They are living repositories of tunes that, until recently, were only known through an oral tradition.
Taught by his father and Uncle Sanford, as a young boy Rich would play with them for square dances at Arthurdale, the first New Deal community founded by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Roosevelt attended at least one of those dances and can be seen in a YouTube video dancing with community members while a local band, including Elmer Rich, provides the music. A CD has been released of Rich that contains many of the unique tunes played by his family. Rich’s style of playing is smooth and flowing, his timing is perfect, and his notes are spot-on. He leads a weekly jam session at the Westover senior center that is attended by a variety of musicians of varying abilities. Musicians learn to watch for his tiny smile that indicates he’s going to lead them somewhere unpredicted and they need to follow along.
Born in Bluefield, Frank George, too, learned to play the fiddle from his father and from an older fiddler, Jim Farthing. The fiddle tunes that he likes to play are for the most part traditional melodies that would have been recognized 100 years ago by Appalachian or British Isles fiddlers. His fiddling style has a shorter bow stroke and is indicative old, Appalachian-style playing that has a direct tie to Scottish and Irish-style fiddling. When George plays a fast tune he has the ability to sound each separate note clearly and distinctly. He can read music, but claims that anyone who learns to play a fiddle only from written music will never develop a personal style. He also plays the clawhammer banjo, hammered dulcimer and bagpipes. Known fondly for his unique personality, he once turned down an opportunity to play at the 1982 World’s Fair because he “wasn’t in the mood.”
Both men have been invited to play at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Wash., and have received standing ovations. Additionally, they have played in various locations across the United States and are revered for their knowledge, abilities and styles. West Virginia is often a go-to spot for scholars and musicians researching tunes and styles that have been lost at their place of origin because they have been preserved by Appalachian musicians.
“Both of these men represent those people that stubbornly clung to an art and kept it alive until it could be passed on to new generations. Videos of their performances and informal jam sessions are posted on the internet by fellow musicians and are followed around the world. World-wide, old-time musicians recognize West Virginia as a rich source for otherwise forgotten tunes and styles that these two men embody and that are a quickly dwindling source,” said Dr. Judy P. Byers, Director of the Folklife Center.
“People from as far away as Japan avidly wait for new internet postings of these men, and we have them ‘in our own back yard.’ We have the unique ability to hear them in person, talk to them, and tap into their memories. Appalachian fiddling is a unique fiddling style that is a combination of early sources, and Frank George and Elmer Rich perfectly capture the form, spirit and style of that traditional, heritage music.”