Happy New Year! This month we’ll take a look at one of the musical ancestors of today’s popular string band musicians. Old Time music in the modern day is usually a group activity, with bands combining the sounds of banjo, fiddle, guitar and other instruments, but much of its origin was the product of individual musicians playing by themselves. One such was the legendary fiddler Edden Hammons, who spent his life in the wild country on the Williams River in Pocahontas and Webster Counties in West Virginia.
He was born in 1875, the youngest of seven children in a musically talented backwoods family. His first instrument was a gourd fiddle made by his father. The story has it that he got his first real fiddle from a musician who visited the family who was so amazed by Edden’s skill on the gourd fiddle that he gave his own instrument to the boy.
Hammons loved music, but wasn’t enthusiastic about normal work. One story has it that he spent so much time playing that his shadow wore a hole in the cabin wall. He married in his teens, but was soon divorced after his wife pressured him to get a job to support a family. “Pon my honor, I’ll lay my fiddle down for no damn woman,” he is reported to have said.
A short time later he found a woman who was more tolerant of his musical lifestyle, and they raised seven children in a life-long marriage.
As the years went by, Edden’s musical fame spread around the region. When fiddle contests began to spring up in the early 20th century, he became a frequent winner. Having been raised in the era before recorded music, his repertory was primarily composed of tunes he learned from his family and other older musicians.
He never made a living from music, but never held a conventional job either, piecing together a livelihood from hunting, fishing, ginsenging, moonshining, gardening and odd jobs. Hammons moved frequently from one place to another, all in the same general area. He was recorded only once, in 1947 at the age of 72 in Richwood WV by folklorist Louis Watson Chappell of WVU. These recordings lay in the archives until 1999, when WVU issued them as a two volume CD set. They have come to be a source of inspiration to a new generation of fiddle players, like Pocahontas County’s Jake Krack, a multiple winner of the Galax Old Time Fiddlers Convention. You can hear a sample of Edden Hammons’ fiddle playing on YouTube, and recordings are available from WVU Press and on Amazon. He passed away in 1955.
Music this month includes: Free Saturday and Sunday afternoon concerts at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas (purplefiddle.com). Sunday, Jan 8: Emily Barnes at 1pm. Sunday, January 15: Jason Ring at 1pm. Sunday, January 29: The Darkest Timeline at 1pm.
Check out the Elk River Ramblers at the Inn at Elk River each Thursday, and Open Mic Night at the Fiddlehead near Snowshoe Mountain Resort every Wednesday.
– Gibbs Kinderman, HashtagWV #85. January 2017.