Archive for the ‘Edden Hammons’ Category

Edden Hammons

June 22, 2014

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excerpt from “Edden Hammons – Portrait of a West Virginia Fiddler”:

Of all Edden Hammon’s musical acquaintances the Hammonses speak most vividly of the notable Randolph Countian Wren McGee, who died in the 1930s. The undisputed champion of his region, McGee reportedly held the Elkins championship for many years running before relinquishing the crown to his nephew and understudy, Gus McGee. Smith remembers several visits to the McGee home on Riffles Creek about 1915 or so and states that his father learned ‘Birdie’ among other tunes from the elder fiddler. Currence Hammons, Edden’s musical sidekick during his stay in Randolph County, corroborates Smith’s belief in telling his eyewitness version of the first meeting between the two champions.

Here come Edden, a-carrying his fiddle in a flour poke – oh be one of those twenty-five pound flour pokes, you know, and the bow would stick up about that high out of the top of the poke … He come there, ‘Come in,’ it was a-sprinkling rain and Wren was a-setting there playing the fiddle, you know. Oh, Wren was a good fiddler, there’s no question to it, but he’s a tall slim feller. I’ll bet you his fingers, was way oh, my Lord, not much longer than mine. Just little old peaked things.

Well, he was a-playing, Edden came in. Well, when Edden come in, Wren kinda quit playing a-standing there. Edden said ‘Now don’t quit playing, I want to hear that music.’ And Wren, he got in to play one, and finally they said to Wren, said, ‘Ah, Mr. McGee, play that ‘Birdie.’ ‘

Edden said, ‘ ‘Birdie’? ‘Pon my honour I never heard that.’ And now I never’d hear’d it. I never did hear till I hear’d Wren play it. And I was sitting there by him and I said, ‘No, I never hear’d it.’ ‘ ‘Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘Play it, I want to hear that.’ Well Wren, he played ‘Birdie’, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Play ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’ ‘ and Edden could play that. He played that, he played it.

And now he said, ‘Mr Hammons, I’ve heard a lot of talk about you. I want to hear you play one.’ ”Pon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘I can’t play. But,’ he said, ‘I’ll try.’ He went to get his fiddle, you know, and Wren said, ‘Here, play on mine.’ Edden looked over, ‘Oh no, on my honour, I’ll get mine.’ He just went over and pulled her out of the flour sack. And the flour sack was wet, you know. It’d rained on it, it was really sprinkling rain when he’d come in.

Pulled her out and tucked the fiddle and knocked the old flour out of it and blowed it off. Wren just stood and looked at him. Now, he never took his eyes off him. Indeed that fiddle was white of flour all over it. Took an old handkerchief out of his pocket and knocked it off of the strings and swept it off. Well, he played, ‘Be All Smiles Tonight’, the first one Edden played. Wren stood and listened at him. Wren never said a word.

But Edden, Edden said to him, he said, ‘Mr. McGee I want to hear you play that ‘Birdie’ again.’ He said, ‘I never heard that piece and my honour that’s a good one.’ Well Wren got his fiddle. He went to playing it, you know. Edden a-standing there and listened at him. After he played it, Edden said ‘On my honour, I wonder if I can start it?’ He went to fooling over the fiddle, trying to get the notes to ‘Birdie’, and he found them.
I’m a son-of-a-gun if he didn’t show Wren McGee how to play ‘Birdie’. Wren just stood and listened at him and when he got done playing it, Wren took his fiddle and put it in the case and shut it up. He would not get his fiddle out of the case anymore that night. He said, ‘He’s got me beat,’ he said, ‘I don’t know how to play the fiddle.’

Currence notes that his Uncle Edden routinely toted his instrument around in a flour sack, much to the amusement of those around him.

“The violin had a weasel head on it, you know, at the end of the neck over here where the keys was – a weasel head and ah, had its tongue a-sticking out … that’s the one he carried in the flour poke. That’s the one that me and him played down here at Elkins for the first prize we won first prize with. I never hear’d such hollering and laughing as people [did] in my life. Edden, oh they had them nice one hundred dollar fiddles and them they said was cheap, and they said, well, it come Edden’s turn he just walked over to the corner and picked up the flour poke and they all got to looking to what he was getting. He pulled that old fiddle out and flour was all over it. He dusted it off, blowed it off, you know. Some of them went to laughing and hollering about that flour.

‘Upon my honour,’ Edden said, ‘that’s just as good as the best cases made,’ he said, ‘that flour makes her play good.’ I never will forget that.”

Queen of the Earth, Child of the Skies: Southern Marvel #2

January 7, 2012

Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies

Edden Hammons plays “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies”:

by Andrew Kuntz (

The melody was recorded by West Virginia fiddler Edden Hammons (1874-1955) for visiting folklore professor Louis Watson Chappell in 1947.   Hammons was a member of a family of back-woodsmen, who, in addition to being adept at living off the land (their pursuits included poaching and moonshining), were also musically talented. Edden learned to play on a home-made gourd fiddle and, still a boy, acquired a manufactured instrument as a gift from a musician. He became an accomplished fiddler, and according to local lore, did little else. His first marriage failed because of this, but his second, to a more compatible (and tolerant) spouse, lasted over fifty years.

“Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies” is one of the few slower, crosstuned and slightly ‘crooked’ pieces of the 51 that Hammons recorded for Chappell, over three recording sessions. Alan Jabbour (in his 1984 notes to the Edden Hammons Collection, vol. 1) identifies the melody as a piece called “The Blackbird,” one of the most famous and enduring airs in the British Isles. Several versions were collected in south-western Pennsylvania, but with the generally agreed upon function was that the tune was a “dead march,” i.e. one to be played at funerals.

The Irish versions of the “Blackbird” are Jacobite in nature whose lyrics indicate loyalty to the cause of the Stewarts, and Bayard says the song, referencing Bonnie Prince Charlie, was still being sung in south-western Pennsylvania in the early 1930’s. Although most Pennsylvania fiddlers seemed to know the melody by the “Blackbird” title, other titles existed: Bayard himself heard it called the “Lady’s Lamentation” by an Indiana County (Pa.) fifer in 1951—the title of the original broadside printed in London in 1651.

How it came to be known by Hammons, and how it acquired the title he knew it by, is a mystery.  The line “Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies,” however, is known to be from American shape-note singing (popularized so recently in the film “Cold Mountain”). It is similar to a line from a shape-note hymn called “Star of Columbia” (also called simply “Columbia”), found in the Social Harp (1855) and other hymnodies, which begins:

Columbia! Columbia! to glory arise,

The queen of the world and the child of the skies;

Thy genius commands thee with raptures behold,

While ages on ages thy splendors unfold:

Thy reign is the last and the noblest of time,

Most fruitful thy soil, most inviting thy clime;

Let crimes of the east ne’re encrimson they name,

Be freedom and science and virtue thy fame.

Words are credited to “Dr. Dwight” and music to “Miss M.T. Durham” (although the melody employed is a traditional fiddle tune called “Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine”). Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was one of the “Hartford Wits,” a group of Connecticut men associated with literary work during and after the American Revolution. Dwight would go on to become president of Yale College, but he was a young man when he wrote his lyric “Columbia” in 1778, when he was a chaplain in for George Washington’s Continental Army. Dwight’s song suggests that America would be the seat of God’s kingdom and Americans its saints, and it was popular for a long time. So popular, in fact that some of the lines were incorporated into another shape-note hymn, “Murillo’s Lesson,” which can be found in the 1844 Sacred Harp and the 1848 Sacred Melodeon. It begins:

As down a lone valley with cedars o’erspread,
From war’s dread confusion I pensively strayed,
The gloom from the face of fair heaven retired,
The winds hushed their murmurs, the thunders expired.
Perfumes as of Eden flowed sweetly along,
A voice as of angels enchantingly sung,
Columbia, Columbia to glory arise,
The queen of the world and the child of the skies.

Later generations of the Hammons family played the tune somewhat differently, with Burl Hammons calling the piece “Old Man in the Woods” (which is also the name of an edible mushroom in the eastern US pinelands, one of the names for a Green Man or Jack-in-the-Woods, and the Native American term for a black bear). Sherman Hammons called it “Star of Bethlehem,” echoing the shape-note origins of the older title.