“Strings of Life”



“Strings of Life — Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina,” by Kevin Donleavy (Pocahontas Press)

from http://dianasbooks.blogspot.com:

Kevin Donleavy, graduate of University of Virginia, independent historian, musicologist, and educator has combined his talents to create a “historical-musical census-of-sorts” identifying more than 1300 banjo and fiddle players of traditional music in a span of over 250 years.

Donleavy spent seven years traveling, living, playing music and most importantly, listening to the residents of Carroll, Grayson, Patrick and Wythe counties in Virginia and Alleghany, Caswell, Forsyth, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry, and Wilkes counties in North Carolina. He has now complied a collection of oral histories not found anywhere else.

Strings of Life is well organized and Mr. Donleavy’s research is thoroughly documented complete with a annotated Discography and Bibliography, as well as three separate indexes: Persons Mentioned; Tunes; and Bands and Musical Groups. In addition, of the 1300 some musicians mentioned in this volume, Donleavy has been able to identify the burial sites of about 660 in 170 graveyards scatted throughout the 11 counties.

Some of the families documented are Hawks, Jarrell, Lowe, Martin, McKinney, Sutphin and Tate, along with many others. It would have been nice if a list of the nearly one hundred wonderful photos had been included in the table of contents, but truly, the pictures are enough.

The first chapter, “Where Cultures Meet. The people, the geography, the instruments and the music” gives an overview of the history of traditional Old-Time music. Traditional Old-Time music is distinct in that its combination of banjo and fiddle come with a unique style of picking and bow-pulling added to traditional early English music; this is the ancestral music of the Appalachian Mountains still played today. Perhaps the isolation of the mountains from the rest of the developing New World gave room for more tolerance of race and religion.

The area Donleavy has concentrated on is home to a large population of Melungeons. Melungeons were referred to as “free persons of color” by census takers and school officials, many being denied the right to vote or attend school. They are thought to be a mix of the Lost Colony, the Native Americans, runaway African slaves and Portuguese peoples brought for the settlements of the Spanish in Georgia. Together with the immigrating Scots and Irish, these merging cultures and races have made Old-Time music what it is today.

The main body of this comprehensive book is focused on the musicians. Each county fills a chapter of its own, except Carroll County, VA, which fills two. Each chapter details not only the musicians and their history, it also traces the history of the songs they play, these are songs passed down from generation to generation for the more than 250 years that these families have lived on the borders of Virginia and North Carolina. During the mid 1700’s this region was called “Squabble State”, due to the “squabble” over the western Virginia-North Carolina boundary.

This land dispute started as early as 1749, when the tract of land, then known as Sapling Grove of Augusta County, Virginia was surveyed for Col. James Patton overlapped the King’s charter for the Proprietorship of Carolina’s specified boundary. After hundreds of legal disputes over land claimed by Virginia and North Carolina (and part that later became East Tennessee), spanning more than a century and a half, many disputes settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890.

As governments argued over land rights these mountain families traveled back and forth between invisible borders, playing music, getting married and raising families. The music was a social connection for many of the families, offering opportunities to court and find a mate. Since the geographic conditions of the landscape made travel arduous, most families inter-married within their own communities helping to keep the music essentially unchanged for generations.

Be sure to check out all the titles available from Pocahontas Press of Blacksburg, VA.


One Response to ““Strings of Life””

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Kevin –

    A couple of great old time musicians that I knew – turned out to be related. Trivia for your interest in southern Virginia musicians….

    Rufus Quesenberry (musician from Hillville) – and member of “The Oldtimers” had a very talented daughter – who had her own stringband – and later married and settled down in Galion, Ohio. I knew them both, but was floored to find out that his daughter was the great fiddler & banjo player Dorothy Rorrick.

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