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The Morris Family Old-Time
Music Festivals

By Bob Heyer

Lee Hammons at the 1971 festival.
Lee Hammons is pictured here at the 1971 festival.
Photo by Carl Fleischhauer.

Nearly 25 years after the fact, memories remain of my first exposure to real West Virginia traditional music. On July 19, 1973, five of us left Wheeling late on a Friday night and headed south. Our destination was Ivydale in Clay County — the site of the Morris Family Old-Time Music Festival.

I had no idea as we drove the van through the night and wound our way on narrow, crooked roads deeper into West Virginia's central mountains that the weekend I was about to experience would make such a lasting impression on me.

The decision to go to the festival was a rather casual one. I graduated from high school the month before and was working as a camp counselor for the summer. The director of the camping program knew banjo player Dwight Diller from when she and Dwight were students at West Virginia University. She mentioned that she was going to a festival and asked if I wanted to go along.

I had been playing the guitar for a while and was interested in music in general, so I said yes. Oddly enough, I didn't take an instrument. I can't remember why now, but I think it might have been for lack of room in the van. In retrospect, I think we should have left something at home and made room.

It was the first time that I felt the spirit of a music and a people that inhabits the central and southern mountains of my native state.

Fortunately, I did take a small Wollensack cassette recorder. I still have the tapes that I made that weekend, and I've made several copies of the original tapes just in case they finally self-destruct.

What was so special about Ivydale? It's hard to know where to start. For me, it was hearing the music, meeting the people, being in the mountains, sloshing through the mud — the whole shooting match. Something got a hold of me that weekend that's still got a grip on me.

It was the first time that I heard many of the fiddle tunes that now are so familiar to me. It was the first time that I met Lee Triplett and heard Ira Mullin's distinctive cackle while telling a tale about his days at the sawmill. It was the first time that I saw Phoeba Parsons beat out a tune on the fiddlesticks.

It was the first time that I felt the spirit of a music and a people that inhabits the central and southern mountains of my native state. This spirit has a quiet dignity to it. It embodies strength, but it is gentle; it has fire in its belly and is rough around the edges; it possesses a shared wisdom and grace. This spirit was alive in the elder musicians at Ivydale that weekend.

You can read the rest of this article in the Summer 1998 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.