The Blackard-Shelor Story: Biography of a Hillbilly String Band


Dad Blackard’s Moonshiners, alternatively billed as the Shelor Family, recorded four sides for Victor in 1927.  On these recordings Joe Blackard sang the lead and picked the banjo; his daughter Clarice Blackard Shelor sang harmony and provided piano accompaniment. The fiddlers were Jesse Shelor (Clarice’s husband) and his brother Pyrhus. This band, for convenience referred to here as the Shelor Family, hailed from Meadows of Dan, Patrick County, Virginia. 

Joe “Dad” Blackard

Both the Blackards and the Shelors play an important role in the musical history of this region and are particularly noteworthy because their lives span three distinct eras of outside involvement in the folk music of the Southern Appalachians: Cecil Sharp, the English folksong collector, visited and notated Joe Blackard’s singing in 1918; the two families combined in 1927 to make commercial discs for the early recording industry; and, finally, the urban folk revival of the 1960s led to their “rediscovery” and subsequent re-recording. The history of this band and its music perhaps can best be illustrated by tracing the development of its individual members.

Joe Blackard was born “down the mountain” near the town of Stuart, one of the children of Willoughby Blackard, in 1859. The Blackards moved up to the top of the Blue Ridge in the early 1860s and lived at Connors View, not far from the present Meadows of Dan post office. Shortly thereafter, Willoughby was killed during the battle for the defense of Richmond — one of the closing battles of the Civil war. In 1867, young Joe started to attend the first public school in Patrick County. Apparently he immediately began to pick up and digest the songs then popular in the community. The origins of his banjo style are obscure; some evidence indicates that Joe’s was the first generation to incorporate the banjo into the rural repertoire. Whatever the case, he played his breakdown tunes in a basic clawhammer style and seconded his singing in what sounds like a single-note, melodic technique. (Fortunately, Joe Blackard’s large and varied repertoire was preserved by his daughter Clarice.) Joe married in 1892 and settled down to the life of a farmer and rural mail carrier. He was in constant demand as a dance musician and regularly taught shape note singing school in the community.

Clarice Blackard, the younger of Joe’s two children, was born on March 24, 1900. She quickly demonstrated a love for her father’s style of music— an interest that Joe undoubtedly recognized and nurtured. Her father bought a piano around 1910, and Clarice joined in as his accompanist. In 1919 she married Jesse Shelor. Jesse often worked on Joe Blackard’s farm and had known Clarice since childhood.

The Shelors, of German ancestry, undoubtedly were part of the stream of immigration that flowed down the Valley of Virginia during the late 1700s. Jesse Shelor was born in 1894, one of 14 children of Billy Shelor and Sarah Brammer. The Shelors lived on the mountain, close to Meadows of Dan, but Sarah Brammer came from below the mountain near Stuart. Then, as now, Meadows of Dan was tied closely to the “down the mountain” communities — a relationship manifested in the many marriages between people from the two areas. Billy Shelor was a Baptist minister. Jesse recalled his father playing the fiddle only once “He come in one night, picked up the fiddle, played the most beautiful ‘Sandy River Belles’ you ever heard, put it down and never did it again. That’s when I knew he once had been a fiddler.” 

Despite Billy’s denial of his own musical abilities, 12 of the 14 children could play either the banjo or the fiddle. Jesse’s main musical training came from an old fiddler living in Meadows of Dan named Wallace Spangler. (Pyrhus, six years older than Jesse, died in the 1930s. We may assume that the situation of learning was quite similar for the two brothers.)

Wallace Spangler (1851—1926) is generally regarded as the premier old-time fiddler from Patrick County. His name is almost synonymous with fiddling in this section of Virginia, and his influence on younger fiddlers was incredible. As a young boy Jesse followed Spangler closely and tried to learn the older man’s tunes and styles, duplicating them as well as he could. According to Jesse, “anybody that ever heard him [Spangler] play would have been ashamed to sit down and play, he was that good. But we used to play together a whole lot.”  Clarice remembered that “he used to come down to Pa’s a lot, they was kind of buddies, you know. Pa played the banjo and him the fiddle. Pa thought a lot of the old man Wallace.” 

Taylor Kimble, a fiddler from nearby Laurel Fork, remembered Joe Blackard, Wallace Spangler, and Clarice coming to a Fourth of July celebration once held near his home. The trio arrived in a flat-bed truck that carried Clarice’s piano. The truck was backed up on the festival ground and the musicians performed on the bed of the truck, which served as a stage. By 1906, Jesse had assimilated much of Spangler’s music, but his relationship with the old fiddler was broken for a time when the Shelor family moved to Spray, N.C., a move that offered employment opportunities for the family and new musical influences for Jesse and Pyrhus.

Between 1906 and the beginning of World War I, Billy Shelor moved his family several times between the area near Danville and Spray, where the factories were located, and Meadows of Dan. For a number of years, he operated a rooming house in Danville. Jesse remembered his father reading Western novels and other stories nightly to the mill workers who boarded with him. The Shelor children were also soon employed in the cotton mills, Jesse for the first time when he was 12 years old. It was while living and working in Danville that he and Pyrhus first met Charlie LaPrade, of Blue Ridge Highballers fame.  For a period of years, LaPrade lived directly across the street from the Shelors. Jesse and Pyrhus would get together with him two or three nights a week for music. Jesse recalled that LaPrade’s fiddling was somewhat different than he was accustomed to hearing Wallace Spangler play:

He played, well, more high-class music than we did. He knew a lot of tunes. He’d hear people play them on pianos and pick up new pieces like that, I guess. He was good, there’s no question about that. He played tunes like “Under the Double Eagle” and “Over the Waves” and, well, he could play anything he wanted to. Now I never heard him play anything like “Mississippi Sawyers” or these old-time tunes, like we played, but we still played a lot together. Pyrhus and I played the fiddle, my brother Charlie the banjo, and Charlie would come over and play for half a night’s time.

We know from LaPrade’s recordings that he did play some of the old dance tunes of the region, pieces like “Darneo” and “Sandy River Belles.”  What undoubtedly struck Jesse was the appearance of newer pieces like “Under the Double Eagle,” “Lynchburg Town,” etc.— tunes that didn’t fit the old fiddle pattern. Jesse pointed out that it was from LaPrade that he picked up “new” tunes. Wallace Spangler, according to Jesse, was quite intrigued with the music that his young protégé was bringing back from Danville:

“I never hated to play before anybody as bad in my life as I did [before] Wallace. And one day he said, “Jesse,” said, “Come over here.” He handed me his fiddle and said he’d been hearin’ about me playin’ “Over the Waves” and “Under the Double Eagle,” and he made me play both tunes I never was so embarrassed because I couldn’t hold a light to him on the fiddle, but he enjoyed it. But he said, “I never could learn to play a piece like that.”

Clearly, the Danville/Spray area, with its cotton mills and heterogeneous population, was attractive to Patrick County people not only as a source of paying jobs but also because of its intrigue as a center of city life. The mill towns served to introduce many modern and popular forms into this vicinity. The mill owners brought trained musicians into the Danville area to “enlighten” their employees (and keep them peacefully occupied in their spare time). Jesse’s brother Frank learned guitar and wind instruments from some of those musicians. Judging from Kinney Rorrer’s material on LaPrade (in the notes to County Records 407), this progressive fiddler might also have profited from such exposure. As a source area for new and popular musical styles, the Danville area is vitally important and deserves a detailed study.

When America entered World War I, both Jesse and Pyrhus were drafted into the army. Pyrhus went overseas, and Jesse, while in basic training near Washington, D.C., came very close to being a victim of the influenza epidemic that swept the country during the war years. His unit was nearly wiped out by the disease; he remembered that men died so rapidly that burial details could not keep up. Discharged, he returned to Meadows of Dan to recover and to renew his relationship with Clarice Blackard. When they married in 1919, they took over a part of Joe Blackard’s farm.

Joe, Clarice, and Jesse now began playing together regularly. Pyrhus returned from Europe in 1920 and joined the musical get-togethers. It should be noted that they were not a band in the performance sense. They merely played music with each other and provided entertainment at such community events as dances, school breakings (the last day at school was always an occasion for a program), and other celebrations. Music was an informal situation for them; Pyrhus was farming, Jesse had recently initiated his 40-odd-year tenure with the state road department, Clarice was keeping house and raising a family, and Joe — though he had ceased carrying the mail– continued to operate his farm. The group did not have a band-name; they had no need of one until they recorded for Victor. The records they made together, probably like a lot of others that were waxed in the first years of recorded country music, were of an accidental nature and in no way reflected a desire to become professional musicians.

Jesse and Clarice Shelor

The record industry was making inroads into the Southern market in the late 1920s, in many cases encouraged by local entrepreneurs who operated phonograph machine outlets. These local businessmen were eager to push the recordings of local talent in an effort to promote record sales, which in turn would increase the purchase of phonographs. The records made by the Shelors seem to have evolved from such a situation. The arrangement was made, as Clarice told it:

“There’s a man named Howlette, in Hillsville, who sold records and record players. That was about all he handled. Walter Howlette was his name, but he has been dead a long time. Well, Pa had friends up there in Hillsville, and they told him about Pa, and he sent down here for Pa to come up there, and we all went up there and played some for him. In a few months, we got a call to go to Bristol to play. We drove in Pa’s truck.”

On August 2, 1927, the band drove to Pulaski and spent the night with friends.  On the morning of the next day, they drove to Bristol, crossing New River by ferry at Hillsville. Arriving at Bristol, they reported to Victor recording studio. Neither Clarice nor Jesse recalled meeting any specific individuals, and whether they encountered Ralph Peer is uncertain The Victor men immediately began the process of screening pieces for recording. Clarice described this:

“They had Pa name some old pieces and they’d say, ‘We got that, we’ve got that, we’ve got that,’ and Pa said, ‘Well, I’m about named out.’ And he knew a lot of old pieces. But he finally mentioned some pieces they didn’t have. They had all the tunes they already had in a big book. And they said they had more instrumental than singing records and said that singing helped sell the records.”

The material chosen by Victor placed them in some difficulty– they had not practiced specifically for recording, and the singing numbers had to be worked out on the spot, as revealed in the author’s conversation with Clarice Shelor:

Tom Carter: “So you didn’t really practice anything to go over there?”

Clarice Shelor: “No, we didn’t have any idea. I had to sit down over there and write out the words to that ‘Big Bend Gal.’ Lots of times, I would sing just a verse here and there but I never had tried to sing it all. They wanted it all sung and I didn’t know it, and Pa says, ‘You sing it with me,’ and I said, ‘Pa, you’ll have to give me the words.’ So he had to write that out and then after they wanted that ‘Billy Grimes, the Rover,’ we had to sit and write the words out to that too. Had the words sitting on the piano.”

Once the numbers to be recorded were selected and arranged, the recording session began, though not without some difficulty:

CS: “The recording man was just as nice and friendly as he could be. We were making the record and Pyrhus patted his foot the loudest of anybody I ever saw playin’, it would just drown the music out sometimes, and we played in an old milliner’s shop, this great big old piano they had sittin’ in there.

TC: “A milliner’s shop?”

CS: “Where they made the hats, you know. And they had great big benches of hats and things to sell up in there. I reckon it’s ’cause it was so large they put that piano in there. And Pyrhus just pat that foot, you know, just so loud. And they put a pillow under it and they told him not to pat his foot so loud. Well, he went on pattin’ his foot, just couldn’t play, it didn’t seem like, without gettin’ time

JS: “Well, I can’t play without pattin’ my foot.”

CS: “And he [Pyrhus] said, ‘I’ll be damned if I can remember that.’ And that went on the record too, they was cuttin’ a record.”

Jesse Shelor: “When Pyrhus said that and it went on the record, that tickled the man that was trying to work and fix it, so he said, ‘We’ll have to try that over, we won’t send that out.

Neither Clarice nor Jesse remembered seeing other bands there for the recording session. They arrived, cut their allotted number of tunes, and departed, driving all the way back to Meadows of Dan that night.

CS: “We were the only ones that day, but they had been doin’ that several weeks up there, I think. But we had our time and they told us what time to come. Be there in the afternoon. We had our dinner and all before we went in. We left directly after.”

The Bristol Sessions book

Several months later, Victor contacted the band to return to the recording studio, but Joe Blackard’s failing health (due to cancer) prevented the trip. In the years following, music became less and less a part of the lives of Jesse and Clarice. They left it to their children, all of whom learned to play instruments. The three boys, Paul, Joe, and Jimmy, are especially excellent musicians, particularly in their performances of Delmore Brothers—style tunes.

From The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music Edited by Charles K. Wolfe & Ted Olson – 2005, McFarland & Company, Inc.

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