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West Virginia's Hammons Family

By Wayne Howard

Burl Hammons. Photograph by Carl Fleischhauer.

West Virginia has been home to many great traditional musicians. Some of the best, and best known, were members of a family named Hammons. The names Edden Hammons, Sherman, Burl, and Lee Hammons, Maggie Hammons Parker, Currence Hammonds, Dona Gum, and others are familiar to many old-time musicians and followers of traditional music. Some of them came to the world’s attention in the early 1970’s, when two LP albums of their music, songs, and stories appeared. Documentary films, at least two television programs, and two books have featured members of the family or presented music by them. To some, they define what is essential about traditional music and folk culture in West Virginia.

The Hammonses’ musical tradition, however, was well-established before all this publicity came about. Brothers Burl and Sherman, of Pocahontas County, learned to play in the very traditional way of “sneaking” their father’s fiddle without permission. Paris, their father, had an Uncle Pete and two brothers, Edden and another Pete, who were celebrated fiddlers.

In a logging camp, this brother Pete got into a fight one time, and the other man got Pete’s fingers clear in between his teeth. “Let go!” Pete yelled. “You’ll spoil my fiddling.” And right away, the man did let up on the fingers.

When it came to fiddling, Edden was generally acknowledged as the best of them all. He traveled far and wide to win fiddle contests, had been recorded in the 1940’s by West Virginia University professor Louis Chappell, and had even appeared in a newsreel during World War II playing for President Roosevelt at The Greenbrier hotel.

Legend has it that Edden once entered a contest in which he planned to play a tune called “The Falls of Richmond.” Another man got up ahead of him and played the same tune. When Edden’s turn came, he added a third part to the tune — made up on the spot — and won the contest. His three-part version was the one that the next generation played.

Louis Chappell’s 1947 recordings of Edden did not make him famous, however. These recordings went unpublished until West Virginia University Press released them on LP’s in 1984 and on two CD’s in 1999 and 2000.

The story of the Hammonses’ rise to fame begins in 1969 when Dwight Diller, a native of Pocahontas County, came home from West Virginia University and located several outstanding musicians, including Lee Hammons and the other Hammonses. Dwight recorded not only their music and singing but their stories, which portrayed a world far different from anything in 20th-century America. The Hammons family encouraged him to play the banjo and gave him their lore. More than that, they captivated Dwight and changed his life.

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