BY MALCOM SMITH—
Albert Hash woke to the soft and haunting sound of the Hermit Thrush. The sun was just breaking over Phoenix Mountain and sparkling through the old-growth red spruce trees outside his bedroom window. He had been waiting for this day for what seemed like an eternity. He quickly woke two of his three brothers, Ernest and Rhudy, and begged them to get dressed in a hurry and to grab the guitar. They moved quickly and quietly through the three-room house, grabbing some of their mother’s biscuits out of a tin. Together they quickly fed the woodstove and headed out to feed the chickens. Then, as they had done nearly every morning of their lives, they lined up outside the outhouse, the oldest, Rhudy, heading in first. Tingling with excitement, they breathed in the clean mountain air.
There was going to be a folk festival on top of the second highest peak in Virginia. For weeks the folks living near Whitetop Mountain in Grayson County had been buzzing with news of it. Fiddlers from as far away as Bristol and Jonesborough, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky were coming to compete in the fiddle contest. It was rumored that singers, players and dancers from across the Blue Ridge were coming as well. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, was going to be in attendance.
For most of the spring and summer of 1933, 16-year-old Albert Hash had been busy carving, whittling and polishing a special fiddle to take to the event. Having built his first fiddle at age 10, young Albert had already become adept at whittling elaborate headstocks and necks, sizing and gluing the tops and bottoms to the carefully shaped sides of fiddle after fiddle. Working with wood had already become an important part of his life.
Who could have imagined that this poor, slightly gangly, and often sickly Appalachian teen would eventually build hundreds of fiddles in his lifetime? Who would reckon that this boy would one day help start the careers of countless luthiers, become a nationally renowned old-time fiddler, and teach many people how to fiddle? Who would have thought that the Virginia General Assembly would one day pause for several minutes to honor his life as he was laid to rest a few yards from his home near Whitetop Mountain, recognizing his having become a strong symbol of the best of Appalachian culture and life, a true Appalachian “mountain man”?
As morning brought light into the hollows of southwest Virngina on August 15, 1933, Albert carefully placed his latest and best fiddle in a flour sack. He did that to avoid the shame that some folks placed on the playing of fiddle music and headed up the mountain in the Grayson Highlands from his home in Fees Branch. As he and his brothers hiked higher and higher up the mountain, up into the clouds of August, beautiful, primitive and powerful fiddle tunes echoed through Albert’s mind.
They were pieces he had learned from listening carefully to his great uncle George Finley, his neighbor, Corbett Stamper, and traveling musicians like Grayson and Whitter. They were tunes played on rainy days, at family gatherings and at dances at the schoolhouse. They were tunes by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers from Georgia and Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith from Tennessee that he had heard on the Victrola their father had bought. Ancient tunes that had weathered their journeys from the old countries of Scotland and Ireland, from the early days of America, before the Civil War, tunes like “Johnson Boys,” “Chicken Reel,” “Cripple Creek,” “Uncle Joe,” and “Old Joe Clark” pulsated through him with the driving power all their own.
Albert was used to hiking his way through the mountains of Grayson County. In fact, most every morning he traipsed a little over four miles to get to Mt. Rogers High School. Many days he and his brothers had hauled cherry bark, ginseng, or corn nearly nine miles to the nearest store. The only real road in this part of the county was mostly a rough dirt wagon road with huge ruts worn in it, and on a wet day you would sink in the mud up to your knees, so he had learned to navigate the mountains by using the sun and reading the geography to follow the ridges and stream to his destination.
Whitetop Mountain had been chosen for this national celebration of mountain culture for a good reason. The Grayson Highlands region of Virginia and North Carolina where Albert lived was special. Because of its relative isolation, ballads and melodies that the first settlers of the region had brought with them, ancient tunes from across Europe and the ballads of Ireland and England as well as tunes from the indigenous Native Americans and the music brought by those of African heritage had become lodged in the hollows and backroads of the area and had becomes as much a part of the landscape as the rugged peaks themselves. The tunes were spread orally and seldom written down, and they and the dances that accompanied them had become a vital and beautiful part of mountain life.
The tunes and ballads of the region could be heard whenever the hard-working, dedicated and highly loay residents needed to celebrate as a family or community: at weddings, funerals, town festivals and harvests, shuckings, stringings, dances and contests. They were also played and sung whenever the mountaineers needed to escape the burdens of their daily toil and worries, after the work was done or when the weather prevented work, or whenever they needed to pass on stories and traditions to their young, or whenever they shared the work of husking corn, canning food, stringing beans or building barns. These tunes, ballads and dances were part of the essential fabric of mountain life and had been so since the beginning of human life in the mountains.
Ballad collectors and folklorists who were prominent at the time such as Britain’s Cecil Sharp, Pete and Mike Seeger’s father and mother, Charles and Ruth, from Washington, D.C., the Warners from New York, and, later, Alan Lomax from the Smithsonian spent considerable time finding songs and ballads here. Later in Albert’s life, he too would be a sought-after source of folklorists and tune collectors like Art Rosenbaum, Blanton Owen and Ray Alden.
The music of the mountains was pure like the water of the many springs that fed the creeks of the area. However, in 1933, just a few years after the “Big Bang” of country music in nearby Bristol at the famed recording sessions of 1927, the mountain streams of music had begun to be polluted. Many outsiders and city dwellers had begun to seek it and commercialize it. A new medium, radio, was still mysterious in the mountains, but stronger signals from Nashville and beyond began to find their way to receivers in the Appalachians.
The “Interstate Musical Festival on Whitetop Mountain” was one of several “folk festivals” that were sweeping the South. The festival creators and backers hoped to capitalize on the recent country and “hillbilly” music craze while at the same time showcasing local talent that was yet to be “discovered” by the record companies and the growing radio audience. It was also hoped by the promoters that when the attendees at these festivals heard this music in its native setting, these mountains, played by authentic musicians rather than mere imitators, they would continue to seek out the real thing and the audiences would grow exponentially for old-time mountain music and dance.
This was the third festival on Whitetop, and over the course of the first two, the promoters had ironed out many of the logistical problems of holding a festival on top of one of the highest mountains in Virginia. They were expecting a crowd in the tens of thousands. Musicians, having heard of the prizes and the party that had accompanied the first two festivals, had been practicing fervently for the mountain dance, fiddle, banjo, dulcimer, harmonica, and string ensemble contests.
Nearly everyone looked forward to the evening’s square dancing as well as the fabulous dinner that had been promised. It was even rumored that there might be an opportunity to meet the First Lady herself, Eleanor Roosevelt. A huge lodge had been constructed on the site, built in a rustic style using some of the huge spruce timers that remained on Whitetop. The organizers had been working for a full year to make sure everything was ready.
Albert and his brothers’ path up Whitetop was a well-worn one, but only recently. There may never have been a road there if it weren’t for the timber companies that raided the area in the first years of the twentieth century, among them interests owned by the Roosevelts themselves. From before the states had been united, the remoteness of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s highest peaks and the surrounding area had eluded those who tried to tame or even map them.
As Albert and his brothers climbed higher up the road to Whitetop’s summit, they took in the air sweetened by the smell of Appalachian red spruce that formed the “black cap” on the summit of the mountain. This tree was just beginning to become important in Albert’s life. Already he had learned of its incredible qualities that made it perfect as a tone wood. Its strength in spite of its lightness in weight was complemented by its ability to transmit tones with richness and velocity. It provided high volume as a fiddle top and rang with complex overtones.
As Albert reached the top of Whitetop Mountain, he could hardly believe what he saw. There were more than 12,000 folks on the rounded peak, roaming through exhibits, parking cars and corralling horses, or lining up outside a huge circus tent to listen to or play in the contests. This was far more people than Albert had ever seen gathered in one place, let alone on top of his beloved Whitetop. There were dignitaries from across the world, there to see and hear the music and dancing of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were there to hear Albert’s music, his by right and heritage.
He had never seen so many people nor heard such a roar of excitement in his life. The hair on the back of Albert’s neck stood up as he clutched the flour sack around his fiddle and watched string bands like the Dixie Serenaders from East Radford, Virginia, the Moonlight Ramblers from Lansing, North Carolina, and the Whitetop Jiggers from Bristol. There was Jack Reedy with his banjo, playing “Jenny Put the Kettle On” to a huge crowd, with Frank Blevins, one of Albert’s favorites, on fiddle. And there was the First Lady herself, posing for autographs on the steps of the pavilion.
The air around him smelled of the barbeque pork being prepared and served by local ladies from Konnarock. Albert listened and even tried to play along as fiddlers, banjo players, guitar players and singers took the stage. Then the clog dancing competition began, and Albert was asked to join the band on stage! He ran to the stage, threw off the flour sack around his fiddle and cut loose on his version of “Arkansas Traveler.”
After a few tunes, as he came down off the stage for some barbeque, a man he thought he recognized approached him. He was sharply dressed in a black suit and a black tie, and he was carrying a guitar and a harmonica. When he introduced himself as Henry Whitter, a Fries, Virginia, millworker turned musician, Albert nearly dropped his fiddle in astonishment. He didn’t know what to say.
Whitter had often been in the papers and on countless promotional bulletins that Albert had seen around the mountains. Mr. Whitter had, until a tragedy in 1930 took the life of his partner, been part of the most popular mountain duo in the country, Grayson and Whitter. Henry had only met blind musician J.B. Grayson three years before, but they had quickly established themselves at the top of the emerging country or hillbilly music market.
Mr. Whitter had recently been recorded as part of the legendary “Bristol Sessions.” The recordings were becoming all the rage in places like New York City and Nashville. Whitter himself had been recording since 1923 and had a long-established reputation as a mountain minstrel, recording “The Wreck On the Old Southern 97,” “Lonesome Road Blues,” and “New River Train,” songs that were to become standards in mountain related music.
As Albert stood staring at Mr. Whitter, he couldn’t quite come up with words to speak. He has spent hours and hours listening to Grayson and Whitter records on the small gramophone his dad had bought. He had tried to learn every fiddle riff that Grayson had played. Mr. Whitter smiled and quietly asked him if he might be available to play a few songs with him. So off the two went, into the shade of the Adirondack spruce in the high elevation of Whitetop and played and sang together. Their fiddle and guitar created as ound that carried down to the crowds below, and some attendees claimed the hill to join them.
As Henry and Albert paused for a moment, a very prestigious-looking gentleman approached them and introduced himself as Colonel Kettle from England. As he shook Albert’s hand, he asked if he might hold Albert’s fiddle. As he held it delicately, looking at the hand-carved bird on the head and the elaborate carvings on the back, he asked Albert if he might take a picture of it.
It was at that exact moment, Albert would recall nearly 50 years later, that he realized he didn’t need to hide his fiddles or his fiddling any longer. “I realized it was just more serious than I had heard the music was.” He would say, “I felt justified in what I was doing.” During the next few years, Albert would end up accompanying Henry Whitter at performances throughout the mountains and begin a five-decade career as a mountain musician and carver of fine spruce fiddles. Nearly a hundred years after his birth, his fiddles would be highly sought after, coveted, and on display in places like the Smithsonian, the Blue Ridge Music Center, and museums throughout the South
From Appalachian Fiddler Albert Hash: The Last Leaf on the Tree – By Malcom L. Smith – McFarland & Company, Inc.