When Erynn Marshall begins to fiddle, her eyes light up and her body moves with the music. A countenance of sheer joy takes over and it infects everyone in the room. Her exploration of old time music has as much to do with her love of people as it does with her love of music. She not only enjoys each tune, she enjoys what each player brings to those tunes. She has recorded three CDs under her own name and one with Jason and Pharis Romero as The Haints. She has also written a book and has produced a teaching DVD.
For five years Erynn has run the summer concert series, assisted in the curation of the Roots of American Music museum, and presented a wide array of quality musical and cultural presentations at the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Virginia.
Erynn is a raconteur of the best sort. Her humor and heart inform her approach to living. Here we are treated to some of that skill.
Where did you begin to learn about old time music?
For several years I worked in a vintage instrument shop called Old Town Strings in my hometown of Victoria, B.C. They had a really good selection of antique banjos, fiddles, and nice old guitars. Periodically, a clawhammer banjo player would come in to play one of the 19th century instruments hanging on the wall. I really thought it was beautiful music. I’ve just always been drawn to old tunes. So that is where I heard old time music to begin with. Later I heard it at festivals on the US West Coast as well. I played Irish fiddle back then and the last thing I remember was watching a great old time jam and thinking how unusual the captivating music was. It really hit me in the gut with the blue notes, crooked phrases, drone strings, and bow rocking. I thought to myself, I’d love to learn this style but I really must stay focused! That is the last thing I remember before I went off the slippery slope.
When did you start to play it yourself?
I played fiddle when I was a young girl but my old time music journey began after I bought an old open-back Washburn banjo circa 1900 from the shop in 1996. I enjoyed learning to play clawhammer banjo (and still do), but ultimately it wasn’t long before I started playing southern music on the fiddle – my first instrument. Getting recordings of Appalachian music was a challenge then. I used to write letters to record labels or anyone who could send me archive recordings (it wasn’t available on the internet like it is now). Any music I got my hands on or traded for, I wore out. It was like a treasure hunt. I listened to fiddle and banjo players from North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia all the time. I’ve devoted myself to playing southern old time music now for about seventeen years…half of the time I have been playing the fiddle (thirty-four years). The music just moved me so much with its sincerity and ancient-sounding melodies. I wanted to learn the language so I immersed myself in it. I did this first through listening to archival recordings and playing music with friends who played old time music in Canada. Then I traveled to the source and learned directly from older players.
You certainly met some interesting folks. Please share some special memories of those days when you were visiting your sources.
It just meant so much to get to know the people who made the music. They expressed their joys, hardship, feeling and faith in every song or tune. I have good memories, too, of just the day-to-day…Melvin Wine flipping pancakes at ninety-two, Lester McCumbers telling me how he makes his fiddles, Phyllis Marks telling jokes between ballads, Woody Simmons’ wide grin as he reminisced about the old fiddle contests, preacher Rita Emerson telling me about the black and white minstrel musicians staying at her family’s home. I think when you learn music firsthand from someone it is such a meaningful experience…you always associate the tune with a time, place, person, or the stories they told you. Sometimes even the smell of kerosene will remind me of learning tunes from Melvin because his house smelled of that.
As for stories…one time, when Melvin was hospitalized after a heart attack, my friend Chris Coole and I went to cheer him up by playing some music. We closed the door so not to disturb anyone else on the floor but the nurses wouldn’t have that. They opened up the door to Melvin’s room so everyone could hear. Soon we were getting requests for fiddle tunes from patients in other rooms! Melvin recovered and kept fiddling for a good while after that. I wish I could go back to those times... playing fiddle tunes by the stove, hearing incredible stories about Melvin’s life, and eating those peach pies his daughters would bring over!
I regularly visited a fiddler named Leland Hall from Gassaway, West Virginia, who had quite an archaic but beautiful fiddle style. He was very poor and didn’t own much besides his fiddles. Back in his younger days he would rehair bows for two dollars (one if you brought the hair). Leland had an unusual style characterized by many bow pulses at the end of phrases. His versions of tunes were very, very crooked and his music was more for listening to than dancing. Leland told me he only played one dance and played the same tune all night long! (Maybe it was one of the only ones they could dance to.) Apparently the dancers still had a good time.
People would rarely go back to visit Leland because his tunes were so hard to follow. It took all my concentration to follow him. I was one of the few that kept going back. Once I wrote Leland a letter from Canada and because he was up in years, I included a photo so he would remember me. The next time I came back to visit I was surprised to find it framed on the otherwise empty wall.
Leland also talked a lot about Black Diamond strings. He liked them and said they were made of “hard steel.” I told him that I wished we could get those strings in Canada but the truth of the matter was, the violin shop I worked at didn’t want to carry them. Just before Leland died he asked his daughter to give me a set of his Black Diamond strings...one of his few worldly possessions… I put them on my fiddle and played a tune for Leland at the Old Fiddlers Reunion at Augusta shortly after his passing.
[For the full text of this interview, along with Erynn’s transcription of “Fire on the Mountain” as played by Leland Hall, Gassaway, West Virginia, and included on her CD Calico, subscribe to Fiddler Magazine or purchase the Spring 2014 issue!]
Erynn’s website: www.hickoryjack.com. The “Tune Trunk” section includes free sound files and fiddle music for original tunes she has written.
[Bob Buckingham fiddles, teaches, and writes in the Upstate of South Carolina.]
Photo: Erynn with Melvin Wine by Neal Menschel