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Robert Byrd, Mountain Fiddler

By Dave Wilbur

Byrd
Especially fond of playing traditional square dance tunes and old hymns, Senator Byrd was an accomplished musician. He is shown here in concert, photographer, date, and location unknown.
Courtesy of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.

[This article first appeared in our April-June 1979 issue and is included in our book Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music from Goldenseal.—ed]

The year, as Robert Byrd remembers it, was his tenth. It was a year for heroes like Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. One of my musical heroes, Bill Monroe, was just starting his professional career in the mill towns of northern Indiana. More likely than not, a train rather than a car got you in and out of the hollows of Raleigh County. There was no New Deal yet, no welfare state. John L. Lewis had been president of the United Mine Workers for seven years already. No doubt many fathers in those West Virginia coal towns spent their afternoons pitching baseball with their sons and pitched coal the rest of the week. It was the height of normalcy. The year was 1927. That is when the persistent youngster who would become a U.S. Representative, Senator, and Senate Majority Leader prevailed upon his foster father to travel 10 miles up to Beckley and get him a violin.

It was no small gift. Senator Byrd told me the violin, case, and bow cost somewhere between 20 and 30 dollars, more than most miners made in a week. Titus Byrd, himself a coal miner, must have been convinced that his son would stick with the fiddle once he had it.

There was plenty of reason to think young Robert would stick with the fiddle. Musicians were plentiful around the coal camp of Stotesbury, where the Byrd family lived at the time. The man who one day would be his father-in-law inspired Byrd with his violin playing. Another fiddler, who was left-handed, played a version of “Old Joe Clark” that the young boy just had to learn. A banjo picker by the name of Dana Blevins was a prominent influence. There was also the wife of the principal at Mark Twain High School. “Mrs. Cormandy taught me classical violin from the 7th grade through the 12th grade at Mark Twain,” Senator Byrd remarked in a recent interview. “I played first violin in the school orchestra.”

Though Mrs. Cormandy might not have approved of it, the first violinist in her orchestra kept right on listening to the local musicians and began to hear musicians who lived far from Stotesbury. “The Grand Ole Opry was our kind of Saturday night entertainment. I particularly recall it in the Depression years, ’33, ’34. I thought Arthur Smith was the best fiddler I ever heard.” Through phonograph records, the teenage fiddler became acquainted with the most famous West Virginia fiddler of that era, Clark Kessinger.

Relatively few mountain musicians were professional in the ‘30’s compared with the enormous number of amateurs who entertained themselves and delighted those within earshot of their string music. Senator Byrd said he never dreamed of playing on the Grand Ole Opry or making a record in those days. In his formative years as a fiddler, he learned to play in the relative isolation of his Appalachian heritage. The boarders who stayed with his foster mother were mountain people from Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky. Songs like “Cumberland Gap” were learned by the young West Virginian from folks who came from that area. The traditions of learning the music directly and making your own music for entertainment or for use in worship were an integral part of the environment in which Byrd grew up.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal