BY KINNEY RORRER—
When the highly influential Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952, the acclaimed producer Harry Smith selected what he considered the best representations of commercially recorded folk music that appeared on 78 rpm records in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Of the 84 selections that appeared on 3 LP set, Posey Rorer’s fiddle work was heard on more selections than any other fiddler — “A LAZY FARMER BOY” (Carter and Young), “MY NAME IS JOHN JOHANNA,” “CHARLES GITEAU” (Kelly Harrell), and “WHITE HOUSE BLUES” (Charlie Poole).
That Posey Rorer’s fiddle back up should appear more times than any other old time fiddler in the Harry Smith set should come as no surprise considering the number of sides he recorded and sold. Between 1925 and 1931 Rorer recorded 134 sides for various labels including Columbia, Victor, Brunswick, Gennett, Paramount, Edison, and the various American Record Company labels such as Perfect, Oriole, Banner, Jewel, Homestead, etc.
His record sales on Columbia Records backing up Charlie Poole, Roy Harvey, the Carolina Buddies, and Buster Carter and Preston Young totaled 515, 624 copies alone not counting what was sold on Victor, Paramount, Gennett, Champion, Broadway, Edison, etc.
No Franklin County fiddler recorded earlier, more often and sold more records than did Posey Rorer.
Posey Rorer was born on September 22, 1891 in a one room log house in the rural area between the village of Henry, Virginia and the Brown Hill area south of Ferrum, Virginia. His father, Wilson Rorer—who was illiterate—worked initially for the railroad cutting cross ties for 10 cents each. He later worked for a legal distillery near Brown Hill. Posey’s mother raised seven children and worked on the 40 acre farm.
Posey, unfortunately, was born badly club-footed and needed special care as an infant and toddler. One foot was turned almost completely backwards while the other was turned in about 50 degrees. Despite his physical handicap, he was able to attend school until the sixth grade by walking the three miles through the woods to the Henry school. In the early 1920’s he and a neighbor, Homer Philpott, along with Posey’s brother-in-law, Charlie Poole made a run of moonshine whiskey that netted $3,300 after expenses. Each man made $1,100. Poole used his money in part to buy a fancy banjo while Posey used his money to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where Doctors cut the tendons in his legs and scraped the bones later reattaching the tendons to his newly straightened legs and feet. Posey was hospitalized for about six weeks for the corrective surgery. While he still had a slight hop in his walk, the surgery was successful in turning his feet straight.”
Posey became interested in playing fiddle as a youngster. He made his first fiddle from a wooden cigar box and made his bow from a limber stick using real horse hair from the farm. As a young teenager he played for dances in the Rorer cabin with his first cousin Bob Moore playing banjo. He also played with a nearby banjo player named Harvey Stone along with guitarist Jim McMillan.
During World War I, a number of local young men from the area went to work in the coal mines in West Virginia and young Rorer followed Harvey Stone and others to work in the mines there. Posey worked for the Pemberton Coal Company in Big Stick, West Virginia near Sophia, running coal cars in and out of the mines. He played with Harvey Stone and others for dances in the area. It is most likely that Posey encountered Charlie Poole during this time — as when he went home to Franklin County to help his family deal with the Spanish Influenza in the fall and in the winter of 1918-1919, he brought Poole with him.
In the meantime, Posey and Charlie worked making moonshine for Homer Philpott near Henry. Distilling whiskey was a sometimes slow process so Charlie and Posey would pass the time at the whiskey still playing music. In December of 1920 Poole married Posey’s older sister, Lou Emma, thus Charlie became Posey’s brother-in-law.
Prior to the mid-1920’s most of the Rorer family had left Franklin County to work in the cotton mills in Spray (now called Eden), North Carolina. Posey worked at various cotton mills in Spray as well as Schoolfield and Danville, Virginia. After appearing and winning prizes at a series of fiddlers conventions in Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio in the winter and spring of 1925, Poole and Rorer along with guitarist Norman Woodlieff (of Spray) decided to try their hand at making records. The trio found jobs in New Jersey to cover expenses while they tried to secure an audition for making records in New York City. They boarded with a family that Posey knew from Franklin County who had moved to New Jersey earlier.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Posey Rorer at Big Stick coal mine, circa 1918. • Posey Rorer standing beside what would become Charlie Poole’s house in Spray with his niece, circa 1918. • Posey Rorer in mining helmet with carbide light — probably a photo id required by the Pemberton Coal Company, circa 1918. • Posey Rorer, (fiddle) Pate Lovell (standing), and Harvey Stone (banjo). Sophia, West Virginia late 1918 or early 1919. • Posey Rorer with fiddle, Matt Simmons with guitar and Frank Miller seated holding papers in 1928. This the band that Posey recorded for with for Edison. • Posey Rorer in West Virginia circa 1918 • Posey with The North Carolina Ramblers, Charlie Poole (banjo) and Norman Woodlief (guitar).
Once they were settled in New Jersey, Poole took a day off from work and was able to secure a recording session with Columbia Records, scheduled for July 27, 1925. The first release from this session — “DON’T LET YOUR DEAL GO DOWN BLUES/CAN I SLEEP IN YOUR BARN TONIGHT MISTER?” – sold an astounding 102,451 copies. And thus, Franklin County native, Posey Rorer’s fiddling was heard by over 100,000 fans across the South.
Posey’s reputation as a fiddler now meant he was called upon to back up the singing of the likes of Kelly Harrell, Roy Harvey, Walter “Kid” Smith, and Buster Carter, among others, for their individual recording sessions. The quality and quantity of Posey Rorer’s fiddle work produced a fine legacy for the fiddlers from the same region to build upon.
Wayne Martin, who is a highly respected old time fiddler and the Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, writes:
“Posey Rorer’s recordings raise him to the upper pantheon of southern fiddlers documented prior to World War II. Rorer had a gift for perceiving the essence of what makes a tune or song noteworthy or special and then conveying its unique character through an artful performance that simultaneously conveys excitement and vigor. Unlike much modern fiddle music , he did not ‘overplay’ by inserting a flurry of notes, but instead blended the indispensable melody into a rhythmic bowing pattern. ”
He could draw out notes with a long bow stroke such as one hears when he begins the memorable “White House Blues” or choose instead to employ two short saw strokes to accentuate the rhythm as is evident on the highest melody note in the opening of the beautiful “Wild Horse”. Rorer was equally versatile in his use of double stops and single notes. In “Flyin’ Clouds” he uses the open G and D strings to create drones that make the tune ring deep and full. Rorer’s recorded repertory shows he was adept at playing in the key of F, in addition to C, G, D and A. It is little wonder that Posey Rorer was sought after as an accompanist by singers such as Charlie Poole, Kelly Harrell, Walter “Kid” Smith and Buster Carter.”
All photos courtesy of Kinney Rorrer