“All brought music with them. Violins were expensive and rare, but all these people were singers. The travelers from Ulster had ballads and ditties galore, and the Germans had a rich tradition of religious singing. Musical concepts from many places met, and new blends emerged.”
Virginians of all classes danced to fiddle and banjo for the first two centuries on these shores, he said.
Hillbilly music started from contributions made by people right here in the Twin Counties [Grayson and Carroll], Wilson believes.
Wilson gives the example of Al Hopkins, a musician from Gap Creek, who with his brothers organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. In 1924, Al was in Galax assisting his brother Jacob, a physician, with office work. Al, Jacob and banjoist-fiddler John Rector met in a barbershop — located next to where Barr’s Fiddle Shop is located today — where the babershop’s proprietor and fiddler Tony Alderman, held jam sessions.
Earlier that year, Rector traveled to New York with Fries mill worker Henry Whitter to record. Whitter had become the first musician from the region to record when he traveled to New York.
Rector thought that his barbershop band could do better, so the band, the Hill Billies, made a trip to New York to record.
So, the first band to be a major commercial success in what was to become country music was organized in a Galax barbershop, and “hillbilly” music was named for it. The band performed at the White House for President Calvin Coolidge and became a household name from touring and performances on the radio in New York and Washington, D.C.
Hill Billies leader Al Hopkins began broadcasting in 1922 when radio signals reached all over the nation.
The famous Victor recording sessions were held in Bristol. Among those recorded there for the first time were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, founding icons of country music. But those sessions also recorded an array of other musicians from the Blue Ridge area.
No one knows how many musicians this area has produced, Wilson said, but the small community of Coal Creek, which is only 12 miles in length, has led to noteworthy recordings from 31 bands. People in Southwest Virginia, Wilson said in his book, still prefer homemade music to the mass-marketed music. The Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, he noted, draws as many as 50,000 people without hiring a single star and with little advertising.
Mountain music is now “best kept by people who play at the fiddlers’ convention,” Wilson told the crowd. “This area has more musicians per acre than any other place.”
Wilson, a founding member of the Crooked Road — Virginia’s heritage music trail — said the organization started with just nine counties and is now up to 19 in Southwest Virginia, including Grayson, Carroll and the City of Galax.
Musicians in this area “keep the spirit and values of a place better than its historians,” Wilson said in his book. “They are participants in a musical community, not spectators, and music is a part of their lives, not an industry controlled from some distant place. Most of these artists make no speeches, but they are the keepers of the true vine.”
The music that was developed by poor immigrants, slaves and indentured servants, Wilson said, has survived the movements of time and has resisted becoming an international fad.
“Now, nearly 400 years old, it is still influencing America and is in a state of vigorous health,” he said. “In seeking to explain the popular culture of this nation and how it came to dwarf European popular art, the deepest musical roots are found in fiddle and banjo music. Old Europe and Old Africa are combined in it. It may be the constant combining and recombining of black and white culture in American musical arts that keeps them so vigorous and vital.”