edited from Mark Wilson’s “Autobiography of Buddy Thomas” (www.fieldrecorder.com)
We growed up real poor, so poor that even the poor folks said we were poor. There were ten in our family and we had to raise most everything we ate and work in logwoods and stuff like that. My dad worked all the time, but he was sick and had to doctor so much, that I don’t see how he could have made it if it hadn’t been for us. He was a big strong man until he got sick and he broke the record in Hoover’s time for loading fire clay. The company set out a five dollar gold piece for anyone who could beat Harve Thomas loading clay.
He’d get up at three o’clock in the morning and walk to the mines, put in ten hours and come back home and cut wood of a night and do things like that to grow his family up. He had to be strong or else he couldn’t have stood all that he did. I’ve heard people say that on a winter’s night he’d pull off his bibbed overalls and they’d stand on the floor because of all the ice frozen on them. Dad believed in hard work and I had to work just the same as the rest of them. I couldn’t walk to do any good until I was eleven. I could hardly walk off the farm before I’d give out. My feet just curled over and a guy named Boone Morgan doctored me. He said I had rickets or something like that and he give me a bunch of what he called “Super-D capsules” and that got me straightened up.the hills.
The banjo was the first thing ever I started a tune on. My parents both played in the old overhanded style and they’d play “Roll On, John,” “Sourwood Mountain,” “The Blue Rooster” and different stuff like that. My mother could play the organ and sing old songs like “Stella Kinney” and “The Rowan County Troubles” and one about a little sparrow. They used to say that she was about the best organ player for backing a fiddle tune through our part of the country. But they didn’t have much time to play because they worked so hard and went to bed early.
Back when my dad was a-living and before my brother got killed, they always had old banjos and stuff like that around the place. I learned to play all sorts of different instruments, but after they passed away, we never did have any, so I just stuck to the fiddle. I never learned to sing any; I always felt like a mule a-eating briars when I did. One time this guy from just over the Lewis County line made one of these dulcimores out of old orange crates. I thought it would be real hard and so I traded him this little old fiddle I had. But in fifteen minutes I could play it just as good as he could and I wished I had my fiddle back again.
The first time I played a fiddle was when my brother got hold of this old homemade violin. He told me, “I dare to catch you with that fiddle and I’ll give you a good beating for it.” I wanted that little fiddle so bad I was sick. When they went off to church, I got me a box and chair and climbed up to get it. When my brother came back, I was already starting a tune and my dad made him let me use it then. I learnt the best part of my tunes from my mother whistling the tunes that my grandfather, Jimmie Richmond, used to play.
The first one I learnt was “Cluck Old Hen.” She knew what key to start them in and could put in all the double time notes with her whistling. All her family were good whistlers and they used to win all the whistling contests that they had thought through our part of the country. There weren’t hardly any other fiddlers around when I was growing up, only Perry Riley and he’d just come through every once in a while. He’s my second cousin on my mother’s side. He worked in West Virginia and Arkansas a lot and he’d go away and nobody would even know whether he was dead or alive. Once when I was a boy, it was fifteen years before we ever saw him again. Back then we never had any radios and the only way I had of picking up any tunes was from my mother’s whistling. Then she started going to church and singing hymn songs and that kindly left me a-wondering where to learn my fiddle tunes.