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Mtn Music Trail: Greenbrier Valley’s Most Celebrated Old-Time Musicians

The Hammons Family, the Greenbrier Valley’s most celebrated old-time musicians were recently honored by selection for the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Usually, the Hall of Fame honors an individual musician, but this selection honors a multi-generational family of excellent musicians, whose roots in West Virginia go back to pre-Civil War days.

Alan Jabbour, a noted Smithsonian Institution musicologist who introduced the family to s national audience said about them: “The Hammons family of Pocahontas County is a family of traditionalists whose knowledge of music, storytelling, and woods lore have made them cultural guides and mentors since the late 19th century. A century-old account describes patriarch Jesse Hammons and his sons as expert woodsmen, and his son Edden as a talented fiddler. A short story in G. D. McNeill’s 1940 book, The Last Forest, features a character inspired by Edden, and his fiddling was recorded by West Virginia University folklorist Louis Chappell in 1947.

A broader study of the family in the early 1970s focused on Jesse Hammons’s grandchildren, Maggie Hammons Parker, Sherman Hammons, and Burl Hammons.  Here’s Burl on the fiddle:

The study led in 1973 to a Library of Congress double recording and a Rounder Records release. Both contain instrumental tunes, ballads, songs, stories, and lore; both accompanying booklets include early and modern photographs, and the Library of Congress booklet includes a family history constructed from documentary sources and the Hammonses’ own narration.

The family’s instrumental music includes a distinctive regional repertory of fiddle tunes forged on the early Appalachian frontier, as well as a banjo repertory (both picked and down stroked) of later vintage. Their singing tradition ranges from ancient British ballads through hundreds of American ballads and songs. All their music reflects a striking cultural synthesis, combining the artful irregularity and treble tension of the ancient British solo style with other Appalachian elements of Northern European, African-American, and possibly American Indian origin. Their storytelling is equally striking, featuring a distinctive rhetorical style and reflecting a fascination with the mysterious combined with skepticism about supernatural causes. Since the family subsisted on hunting, logging, trapping, and ginseng gathering for nearly two centuries, their woods lore was encyclopedic.” And they were great storytellers as well:

Pocahontas County traditional musician Dwight Diller introduced Burl, Maggie and Sherman Hammons to Jabbour. and played a major role in the documentation of their music. Diller today is one of the best-known performers of the Hammons repertory:

The most popular band grounded in the Hammons Tradition is the Pocahontas County’s Bing Brothers featuring Jake Krack.

The most musically active Hammons today is Trevor, a senior at Pocahontas County High School and a noted fiddle and banjo player. His inspiration was his great-grandfather Lee Hammons, who also lived in Pocahontas County and was distant kin to the more celebrated Hammons clan. Trevor played at the recent ceremony announcing the Hammons Family induction into the Hall of Fame. Here’s a sample of his fiddling:

Traditional music along the Mountain Music Trail this month includes:

At the Purple Fiddle in Thomas:

Friday, May 3: The Brother Brothers

Thursday, May 30: Honeysuckle

At The Pretty Penny Café in Hillsboro:

Friday, May 3: Homer Hunter and Stony Bottom Bluegrass (it’s Homer’s 76th birthday!)

– Gibbs Kinderman, HashtagWV #113. May 2019.

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HashtagWV Art & Entertainment is a high-quality print and digital multimedia platform for all things West Virginia and the greater Appalachian region. The editorial focus is local music, unique shopping, the arts, events, theatre, and food and drinks.