|John A Cuthbert, "Edden Hammons" (1984)|
Although he died more than forty years ago, Edden Hammons has not been forgotten. He is considered by many to have been one of the finest traditional West Virginia fiddlers of all time, and tales of his musical exploits and eccentric lifestyle flourish among the inhabitants of mountainous east central West Virginia, where he lived from about 1874 to 1955. As the notes to the recording The Hammons Family (Rounder 1504/05) make clear, Edden was just one of an extremely dynamic mountain clan that migrated into West Virginia from Kentucky at the advent of the Civil War. Like nearly all of the Hammons men, Edden's father, Jesse, was a renowned "woodsman," as he was labeled by a 1900 federal census taker, and vivid descriptions of his lifestyle and exploits survive in both memory and print. To neighbor and journalist Andrew Price, old Jesse epitomized mountaineer life. This account by Price was on the front page of the Marlinton, West Virginia Pocahontas Times on July 5, 1905.
When the war clouds began to lower on his house in the fifties, Hammonds refugeed from Kentucky, seeking a safe retreat, and settled on Williams River, and for thirteen years not a stranger darkened his door. The great Civil War was fought without his knowing anything about it. The county Webster, in which he lived, formed an Independent government, neither recognizing the North nor the South, and elected a governor, and is still referred to in State conventions as the "Independent State of Webster."
Old Jesse raised a large family of sons, who took to the woods and lived the life of the Indian. Their wives and children raised a little corn, but the men pride themselves on the fact that they never worked and never will. They know the woods thoroughly and are the best of hunters and fishers, dig ginseng and find bee trees. They are a thorn in the flesh of the sportsmen, for they kill to sell, and last year when the headwaters of Williams River showed good results from the planting of a hundred thousand Government trout, they spent the summer fishing for these small trout to sell to the lumber camps. They owe their immunity to the fact that they have held possession of the lands of a big land company and know the corner trees and would be invaluable were its titles ever attacked.
Like the Indians the Hammonds of Bug Run have been forced on until they are now located in the fringe of woods in the south side of the tract and can go no farther.
I one time saw Neal Hammonds kill a deer. We were walking down the river from our camp at the mouth of Tea Creek deer hunting. Just as we reached the stand at the Big Island a fawn jumped into the river in a panic of fear, fleeing from its stepfather, no doubt, and once on the other side the little fellow hit the runway as fair as if a pack of hounds were after it. I took no action, but Neal threw his rifle into position and shot the top of the fawn's head off as it ran. It fell dead and proved to be an unusually large buck fawn. The Hammonds are not educated, except in woods lore. They may know that there are such accomplishments as reading or writing, but these they have never hankered after. Yet one of the boys, Edn, is a great musician. His artistic temperament has made more or less a dreamer of him and detracted from his ability as a bear hunter. He takes to the calmer joys of fishing and "sang" digging, and he repudiates the idea that his name is Edwin or possibly Edmond, and gravely informs you that his name is simply "Edn, an' nothin' elst."
Edn's first attempt in music was with a fiddle made from a gourd. He progressed and he secured a store bought fiddle and there is no disputing the fact that he can draw exquisite harmonies from this. He has composed several melodies and he has given them names, the most notable one being called "Hannah Gatting fish!" He explained the music to me one time and I must confess that it seemed as real to me as any high grade composition. I recorded it, one day when Edn came to my house on a blank wax gramophone disc and have reproduced it often since, down to the resounding patting of the violinist's foot on the floor. A man from Pittsburgh told me it was very fine and expressive, and that he believed it to be an entirely new and original piece of music.
Whether because of immaturity or musical passion, Edden refused to lay his fiddle down "like most men did" as he grew older and was faced with supporting a family. Coupled with his inherited sense of restlessness and the increasing difficulty of foraging to survive, Edden's values and goals made life somewhat difficult for those around him. His first wife, Caroline Riddle, whom Edden married in 1892, left her husband after only three weeks of marriage. His unwillingness to support her is generally deemed responsible. Family members humorously repeat Edden's alleged response to her ultimatum to quit playing the fiddle and go to work: "Pon my honor, I'll lay my fiddle down for no damn woman."
According to original case records in the Webster County courthouse, Edden's and Caroline's marriage was not legally dissolved until 1897. On April 1 of that year Edden was granted a divorce on the grounds that his wife had left him after three weeks of marriage for no apparent reason. Caroline was not present to contest or provide another explanation. Ten days after the divorce was granted Edden married Elizabeth Shaffer. Emma reports that Edden's second wife received fair warning of her father's shortcoming:
Despite such warnings Betty married Edden on April 10, 1897. By all accounts their marriage provided be one of great love and devotion which endured until Betty's death in 1954. While Betty bore the surname Shaffer, Emma explains that was actually a Hammons:
Edden and his new wife raised seven children: Nancy Rebecca (b. 1898), William Smith (1902), Jesse James (1904), Sarah Irene (1906), Henry (1908), Martha Alice (1914), and Emma (1918).
Like their forebears, Edden and his family led a somewhat nomadic existence, generally settling in one place only long enough to raise a crop. Smith recalled living at several locations along the Williams River from his birth in 1902 until about 1914, when the family moved up into Randolph County, occupying several residences over six or seven years. Emma, born in 1918, recalled no fewer than fourteen moves during the eighteen years she lived at home, beginning in 1922 with the family's return to Webster County, where they took up residence at the home of John Leslie on the White Oak fork of the Williams River. Two years later the family was living at Tom Myer's farm in Bolaire, five miles south of Webster Springs. The following year they removed to Chillicothe, Ohio, where daughter Nancy Rebecca and her husband had settled down and reported favorable economic conditions. Edden's surviving children remember Ohio as being generally "too flat" for their father's tastes. They consider the family's five or so years to have been inordinately restless, with changes in residency "every six months or so." About 1930 the family returned to West Virginia and settled for two or three years on Hills Creek near Hillsboro in Pocahontas County. A series of annual moves within the same county took them to Stamping Creek, Viney Mountain near Bald Knob, Greenbrier River near Watoga, Woodrow, Dunmore, Blue Lick Creek, back to Hills Creek, and then back to Stamping Creek about 1940. The following year Emma was able to buy her parents a home in Webster County between Webster springs and Bolaire, a sort of retirement present, as she explains it. The two stayed there a while, but the area proved a little too urbanized for Edden's taste, and when people began to stop by "all hours of the night" to hear him play his fiddle, the couple traded the property for a cabin situated on a remote thirty-acre tract of land on Grassy Creek. In the early fifties they vacated this property in favor of the Pocahontas County home of Fred Ruckerman on Blue Lick. It was here that Betty died in 1954. Edden's final year was spent with daughter Alice in Rennick. His death on September 7, 1955, is attributed to congestive heart failure.
Edden managed to support a large family through a variety of means. Food for the table was provided by subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, and to a lesser extent animal husbandry. Nuts, berries, and other fruits of the forest provided an important supplement. Emma explained that while her father looked after field crops--generally corn and hay--the vegetable garden which provided over half the family's sustenance was her mother's responsibility. Produce for winter consumption was canned, dried, or preserved in other ways. Apples and potatoes were either pared, quartered and strung up to dry, or "holed" in a shallow pit lined and covered with hay or leaves in which they remained fresh for several months. The family found shelter in vacant dwellings belonging to relatives or local farmers who eagerly offered a roof to anyone willing to feed the livestock or just "keep an eye on the place." Cash for kitchen supplies, hunting equipment, fiddle strings, and other "store-bought good" was derived from a variety of activities.
Emma disputed Andrew Price's claim in his sketch of Jesse Hammons that the family was exempt from fish and game laws and recalls that her father's only immunity rested in his cleverness.
Despite their disregard of regulations, Emma was quick to point out that her family's wildlife harvest was governed by a strict code of "natural laws and a profound respect for their habitat.
Some of Edden's fish and game catch may have gone to wholesale grocery dealers such as Myers Provision company of Wheeling, West Virginia, which advertised each fall in the Webster Springs Webster Echo from 1904-1908 that "we will buy all kinds of game, bear, deer, turkey, pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel, raccoon, opossum and anything else in the game line -- 75¢ each for choice pheasants." The June 12, 1908 Webster Echo also reported that "The Hammonds, who make their living by catching fish and selling them for 35 cts. a pound," had recently assisted a trio of Maryland "sportsmen(?)" in securing over 1,000 trout. Itinerant camps formed by laborers employed by the logging operations which converged upon the region shortly after the turn of the century afforded another handy market, not only for food but for commodities like axe handles and even music.
Fred Roberts, a relative to the Hammonses through Edden's uncle Cornelius Roberts, remembered regular visits by Edden and his son James to camps in which he lived and worked in the 1920s. He recalls that on rare occasions a fiddler was hired to play for a dance or celebration, but more often than not they would come around in the evening, play awhile, and pass the hat. Edden's nephew Sherman remembers his uncle's visits to the crude camp taverns.
Alice reports that her father's fee for playing at dances or weddings ranged from five to ten dollars, payable in cash or some other commodity--coffee or perhaps a ham. Fiddle contest winnings also contributed to Edden's substantial but sporadic musical income.
Emma describes yet another lucrative source of hard money.
Emma: Well, that did a lot ...
J.C.: How many jugs, how many gallons could he make in one run?
Emma: I think, it seems to me like fifteen gallons, and the way he hid it, see, as I told you earlier, my father was uneducated but he wasn't dumb by a long shot. And he'd be a, catch the time when the wind would blow away from the neighborhood, where, you know, mash can be smelled a long ways ... Well, it's got an odor that you can't mistake--not a bad odor, but you know what it is when you smell sour mash--and he would build a fire like he was clearing off new ground for a corn field or planting of some kind. He'd pile that brush on top of his mash barrel, to heat, You know it has to get hot ... and nobody knew that he was making whiskey, while he was clearing off, he cleared a lot of the ground for the farmers just a making moonshine ...
J.C.: Now where would he sell most of this?
Emma: People would come--
J.C.: People that lived in the county?
Emma: Right, or counties away. But they knew where to get the good, you know a lot of people, well, I'm sure you're aware of, ah, they put lye in it just to make it hot, just to sell it, and it would kill you. I know a lot of people died from it. But my father would double it couple or three times, you know, run it through, that's called doubling it.
J.C.: To improve the alcohol content.
Emma: And you know how you can tell if you're drinking good moonshine from bad ... pour it in a teaspoon, then strike a match and light that, and if all that burns then you've got pure whiskey. But if only a little bit of it burns and the rest you got in that spoon is green, stay away from that, it's poison.
Emma says that her father was generally clever enough to stay ahead of revenuers, but both she and Sherman remember one occasion when he was arrested for "transporting."
Emma: Well, he had a carrying case. I guess he had five or six gallon in it, and he had my brother James along, and they were on the train, on their way to Cumberland--I, I don't remember if it was the conductor or who, tipped him off that the revenuers had boarded the train, and he gave the suitcase full of whiskey to my brother, who was about seven years old--I don't know why he thought they would buy that, but they got him and took him to jail and they, I guess he had to lay the fine out or something. But he was in there one hundred thirty-seven days, he told me that many times, "one hundred thirty-seven days and nights."
J.C.: And this was in Elkins?
Emma: I'm sure it was Elkins.
J.C.: So what was his jail stay like?
Emma: Well, he entertained all the prisoners with his fiddle. They brought his fiddle in and he played for the inmates, kept them all entertained, till he, just about a week or two weeks before his release they made him trustee and he was out cutting the grass and taking care of things, and one of the prisoners called down to him and told him to run and he said, "No, I've only got a little while left, I think I'll just stay," and he [the prisoner] said, "I'm gonna put a dollar in your hat and drop it down if you'll go," and they dropped it down and my father took off. Then he realized how foolish he was and so he came back and I don't suppose he got fined for it or, or you know, had his sentence increased ...
J.C.: What do you suppose his motive was in asking him to run?
Emma: He needed him around there to entertain them, is all I can figure out.
Despite diverse sources of income the family experienced plenty of hard times which are perhaps a bit too hastily blamed on Edden's general distaste for working. In fact, the family's proudly recanted tales of his resourcefulness and ingenuity provide a curious rebuttal to persistent claims that Edden was inordinately lazy and "never held a job." Actually, few Webster Countians had regular cash employment during the period of Edden's young adulthood, and the family's basic means of subsistence does not seem to have differed significantly from that of many of their regional neighbors. According to the turn-of-the-century reports of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, some 80 percent of the county's wage earners claimed agriculture as their principal occupation about 1900, yet these reports indicate that most farming was conducted on a small scale which is more accurately considered subsistence than commercial. Indeed, the fact that the department reported the existence of well over 1,000 farms in 1900 in a county with fewer than 9,000 inhabitants suggests that the term "farm" was applied broadly enough to include the many households that lived off the land in one way or another as the Hammonses did. Edden himself is listed as a farmer in the 1910 census. His children recall that annual corn crops, eggs, young livestock, and occasionally other surpluses provided an important source of barter for supplies and other store goods. Yet most of what the family raised was consumed on the premises. Reports of the state extension service indicate that although off-farm income became increasingly important, subsistence farming on this level, supplemented by hunting, fishing, and foraging, remained a generally viable and popular means of provision until well into the twentieth century. Such a lifestyle afforded ample time for leisure activities. Pocahontas Times editor Calvin Price believed that the average person on farms in neighboring Pocahontas county worked no more than sixty days per year. In regard to farming, Edden's restlessness might well have proved more detrimental to the family's welfare than his laziness. Clearing ground and establishing farm land is difficult work, and rather than enlarging his farm as the years went by, Edden apparently kept starting over as the family moved from place to place.
It was perhaps his reluctance to seek seasonal day work off the farm as others did which lies at the root of his reputation for laziness. Few of his neighbors could entirely resist the cash afforded by work in the lumber industry, which gradually grew in importance to local economics as the region's primordial bounty subsided in its path. Edden's refusal to participate in this work likely confirmed the logging community's stereotypical view of all fiddlers and contributed heavily to this aspect of the Hammons legend. Indeed, Edden's laziness is just one of many alleged quirks and idiosyncrasies which form the nucleus of a rich store of colorful anecdotes traded back and forth among family and friends with great pleasure. Along with his shortcomings as a provider, Edden's backwoods naivete and "therapeutic" excuses for drinking are common themes. Emma tells a searing anecdote about the time her father applied mustard salve to his hemorrhoids. Cousin Dona Gum remembers Edden's response one time when asked if could sit and fiddle awhile on the davenport: "Pon my honor, let me see it, how many strings has it got?" Such stories invariable include emphatic impressions of their subject's gestures and speech--"Pon my honor, I can't use the bow without I get a drink." Altogether, such stories depict a character who fits perhaps a little too neatly into the "hillbilly" mold to be real, yet those who remember Edden insist that there is at least a kernel of truth in every one of them. Emma questions the veracity of her cousin Dona Gum's "davenport" incident.
Still she admits with a chuckle that such jokes make good stories and certainly do fit the pattern, and it is clear that she takes great pride in her father's position in local folklore.
Several tales center on Edden's belief in superstitions and the supernatural. Alice reports that her father, while not a deeply religious man, faithfully observed the Sabbath in his own way: the fiddling stopped when the clock struck midnight on Saturday evening. Currence Hammonds of Huttonsville, West Virginia, Edden's nephew and musical protégé while the family was living in Randolph county, recalls the consequences of one prolonged Saturday-night performance.
THE MUSICFleischhauer and Jabbour's study The Hammons Family, (which accompanies The Hammons Family recording, Rounder Records 1504/05), amply demonstrated that music has been an important force in Hammons tradition for as long as family members can remember. They see their music as a natural outgrowth of frontier living and believe that perhaps the majority of songs and tunes in the family repertory were forged by their ancestors in the wilderness of Kentucky and West Virginia. Edden's children find it difficult to think of a member of the family who was not musically inclined in one way or another. Virtually all of the Hammons men played the fiddle to some degree. Edden's uncle Pete Hammons, who moved to Montana about 1910, is considered to have been about the best of his generation of family fiddlers, which included all of his brothers, one of whom was Edden's father, Jesse. Smith credits his grandfather with having provided Edden's earliest instruction as well as his first fiddle--a crude instrument fashioned out of a crookneck gourd.
The Hammonses can no longer remember the older fiddler's name, yet West Virginia author Sampson Newton Miller, in his Annals of Wesbster County West Virginia (1969), recalls a similar encounter between the youthful Hammons and a man named Bernard Hamrick; the setting is somewhat different but the outcome appears to have been about the same.
Jesse Hammons, father of Eddin, said "Mr. Hamrick, let my son play a tune or two." After a great deal of persuasion, "Burn" let the lad of nine have the violin. Eddin tuned it and stared playing the fiddle on his left shoulder. He played so well and the people began to cheer till you could scarcely hear anything else. "Burn" got peeved at what had happened and he gave Eddin his violin and went home. So there was no dance that afternoon.
Smith believes that it was his great-uncle Pete who taught Edden more about fiddling and fiddle tunes than anyone else, though the art is far too prevalent among the Hammonses to attribute any family member's musical education to one individual. Family members also recognize the influence of various other east-central West Virginia Fiddlers whom Edden knew and often encountered at dances, festivals, and other public events. Smith recalls that fiddle contests in particular provided an important forum for the exchange of tunes and techniques among regional fiddlers. He estimates that his father participated in perhaps five or ten contests a year, and rarely came away with less than the first prize. Newspaper clippings in the possession of family members and friends or gleaned from local newspapers bear out such claims and provide hard evidence of Edden's contest successes against a notable list of talented performers--Tom Dillon, Gander Digman, Gus McGee, Jasper Trent, Woody Simmons, Oscar Wright, and Jack McElwain to name a few. Perhaps Edden's most distinguished adversary was Lew "Jack" McElwain (1856-1938), regarded by many as the premier fiddler in the State of West Virginia around the turn of the century. McElwain was a self-taught lawyer and a justice of the peace in and around Erbacon, West Virginia. His contest credits included a first-place finish at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Smith remembers Jack both as the man who taught his father more tunes than any other fiddler outside the family and as an arch-rival at contests. Documentary evidence of one meeting places the pair on a contest platform at Marlinton, West Virginia in 1909.
(reprinted in Webster Echo, Oct. 22, 1909)
Smith tells a story about a pair of later encounters between the two.
Alice remembers another rare loss to a different fiddler which she believes is attributable to the officiating rather than the playing.
Alice believes that this explanation might well refer to her father's 1941 loss to a youthful Oscar Wright in the Greenbrier Valley Championship, an event which Edden won in both the preceding and following years.
Of all Edden's musical acquaintances the Hammonses speak most vividly of the notable Randolph Countian Wren McGee, who died in the 1930s. The undisputed champion of his region, McGee reportedly held the Elkins championship for many years running before relinquishing the crown to his nephew and understudy, Gus McGee. Smith remembers several visits to the McGee home on Riffles Creek about 1915 or so and states that his father learned "Birdie" among other tunes from the elder fiddler. Currence Hammonds, Edden's musical sidekick during his stay in Randolph County, corroborates Smith's belief in telling his eyewitness version of the first meeting between the two champions.
Currence notes that his uncle routinely toted his instrument around in a flour sack, much to the amusement of those around him.
Most of Edden's fiddle playing of course did not take place in fiddle contests and private showdowns, but was done around the house and at dances in the homes of friends and neighbors. On weekends the Hammons household became a gathering place of musicians and musical enthusiasts from all over. Yet his children remember Edden as a shy man who basically disdained crowds and insisted upon silence when he played. He viewed his popularity as a mixed blessing--more favorably in his younger days that his older ones. Frequent unwelcome visitors to his home caused him to pick up and move on at least one occasion. A less drastic solution took the form of camping trips or visits to relatives.
Emma explains that the telephone offered an often tapped means of access to her father's music (as well as being a vital link to the local sheriff's office, from which Edden received advance warning of the presence of revenuers in the proximity).
Edden had several opportunities to share his talent with a wider audience. His children vaguely recall propositions by an "east coast" record company in the 1920's or 30's, and have firm memories of attempts by Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and others to lure their father to Nashville in the 1940's. They agree that Edden's reluctance to leave home, coupled with a wariness of city folk, caused him to spurn such offers with little thought. Nevertheless, some relatives insist they heard Edden play over the radio on various occasions. Emma also recalls that he once appeared in a wartime newsreel playing before President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulfur springs. By and large, however, Edden Hammons was a local phenomenon without outside influence or impact.
ABOUT THESE RECORDINGSMost of the credit for these recordings goes to Professor Louis Chappell (1890-1981) of the West Virginia University Department of English. A scholar and teacher of folklore, Chappell in 1937 bought a recording machine and set out across West Virginia in search of the living carriers of the traditions. In a decade of collecting, Chappell recorded thousands of ballads and tunes onto over 600 aluminum discs. Now in the care of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection of WVU Libraries, these original recordings comprise the greatest audio treasure of West Virginia's musical heritage. (For more on Louis Chappell and his work, see the booklet accompanying The Edden Hammons Collection, Volume One.)
Edden Hammons played 52 tunes for Chappell in August, 1947. Hammons was well into his seventies by then, and had been a fiddling legend in Central West Virginia for half a century. Chappell's discs were the only known recordings of Hammons's playing, and the power, honesty, and unadulterated old-time sound of these tunes made them among the most sought-after unpublished recordings of Appalachian traditional music.
Fifteen of the tunes were released on an LP recording in 1984, and remastered and reissued on CD in 1999 as The Edden Hammons Collection, Volume One. This current two-CD set [volume two] brings current audio technology to nearly all the rest of Hammons's known recordings.
For reasons of space, two tunes have been omitted from this collection, "Birdie" (with guitar) and "Biddy". "Birdie" is a sadly flawed version of a tune which Hammons played brilliantly later in the same session. That second version is included here. "Biddy" is plagued by the same thrashing, out-of-tune guitar which mars several tunes on both this recording and Volume One. When it became clear that not all the tunes would fit, these two seemed the obvious choices for omission. Listeners who will be satisfied with nothing less than the full archive may buy copies of the raw, uncut field recordings from the West Virginia and Regional History Collection.
Careful listeners will notice that the tune "Old Drake" in this collection also appears as "Big Fancy" on the previous CD. This is the way the tunes are labeled on the originals, and there is no way to know now whether the Hammons played the tune twice under different names, or Chappell confused the titles as he wrote them down.