Edden biography
by Danny Williams
1999
By the time Edden Hammons passed away in 1955 at about eighty years of age, he represented a rapidly fading and largely undocumented way of life. For generations, the Hammons clan had lived on thef ringes of mountain and farm culture, surviving through their ability to call upon a diverse set of economic skills--farming, hunting, fishing, gathering, and moonshining, among others. The only constant in the Hammons family history was their independence, always intent on maintaining an isolated, self sufficient existence. Edden's own life and music were a product and an expression of this strong-willed attitude.
Edden 1940

Edden Hammons, c. 1940

John Cuthbert's biography of Edden, included with the 1984 LP, details a life which seems more than only a century removed from the modern world. Born about 1874 as the youngest of seven children, Edden received the traditional education in mountain lore. His father Jesse was labeled a "woodsman" on the 1900 census, and there seems to be no other word to describe the economic activities of the family.
Like most residentes of central West Virginia, they raised gardens and preserved the vegetables, foraged for seasonal fruits and nuts, hunted deer and small game (in and out of season), took fish for the table and for sale, dug and solf ginseng, and manufactured whiskey. Only when extremely pressed did the Hammons men take work in the lumber operations which offered the only large-scale regular employemnt in the region. This aversion to the economic mainstream seemed especially strong in young Edden, who became known in his family and community as an idle dreamer.
But there was nothing idle about Edden's fiddling. The Hammonses were a family of musicians, and Edden began at an early age on a homemade gourd fiddle. Soon his skills had surpassed his three older brothers, and he was apparently given a manufactured fiddle by a musician who recognized the boy's gift. To this gift, Edden added countless hours of work. When people who knew Edden talked about him, most of their stories concerned either Edden's tireless fiddling or his refusal to spend much energy on anything else. In one local joke, Edden sat in his house and fiddled so much, his shadow wore a hole in the wall.
In 1874 Edden married a young woman who apparently did not understand his priorities. She insisted that Edden spend less time fiddling and take up working. After three weeks of marriage, Edden reportedly sent his wife away with, "'Pon my honor, I'll lay down my fiddle for no woman." Five years later, Edden found a wife who (despite the warnings of Edden's own relatives) accepted his view of the world, and they remained married for over 50 years and raised seven children. Edden and Betty

Edden and Betty Hammons

Edden's family lived a nomadic existence, moving around Pocahontas, Randolph, and Webster Counties in search of their meager living. Most of their food was grown, gathered, or hunted by the family. For cash, they worked crops, sold fish and game, and did whatever the times demanded. Edden spent several months in jail for moonshining, and was rumored to poach game regularly.

Occasionally there were jobs fiddling at a dance, or a cash prize at a contest, but the family lived largely outside the monetary system which was transforming the mountains. Apparently the first residence Edden ever owned was a small house between Webster Springs and Bolaire, bought for him late in life by his grown daughter. This area proved too urban for Edden, and he traded it for a remote cabin. Edden died in 1955, one of the last of a generation who fashioned their lives in the isolation of nineteenth-century Appalachia.

EddenJames

Edden Hammons and son James

Edden's music, too, was a product of his time and place, a crossroads between the lonely frontier and the advancing settlement of the mountains.
From his frontier ancenstors, Edden inherited a legacy of tunes and techniques. Before radios, roads, and recordings blurred the boundaries, each community and family held some peculiar musical treasure. Several examples from the Hammons family are featured on The Edden Hammons Collection: Volume One (WVU Press, 1999). Washington's March,Sandy Boys,Shaking Off the Acorns,Falls of Richmond,Waynesboro,On My Way To See Nancy,Digging Potatos, and Old Greasy Coat are especially associated with the Hammons name, occurring rarely or not at all among other older musicians. Several of these have since entered the repertoire of current fiddlers, and Edden's position as the source of these now-widespread pieces contributes to his reputation as an important musical influence.

Edden also inherited the old-time notion of music as an essentially solitary activity. Twelve of the fifteen selections on The Edden Hammons Collection: Volume One feature Edden's fiddle solo, and on the other three Edden is accompanied only by his guitar-playing son James. In the notes to Shaking Off the Acorns on this site, Alan Jabbour argues that :the solo fiddling tradition and the solo vocal tradition express a deep preference in the older Appalachian culture--particularly in areas like the Hammonses' native region where hunting, gathering, and gardening rather than full-fledged farming have dominated." The rise of the commercial string band tradition largely bypassed West Virginia, and has led many scholars and listeners to focus on areas nearer the fringes of Appalachia, where the more modern and accessible ensemble tradition is stronger. The persistence of the solo tradition is strikingly illuminated in the music of the later generations of the Hammonses. In the Hammons Family CD package, recorded in the 1970's, every selection is a vocal or instrumental solo. The musicians were all siblings or close neighbors, and they played and sang the same tunes, but they did not make music together. The current interest in ensemble playong obscures the essentially lonely quality of the music's beginning.

This preference for solo work, outside the constraints of dance or ensemble, allows more freedom in the performer's sense of timing. Edden makes full use of this freedom. In Big Fancy he adds a ninth beath to some lines. In Shaking Off the Acorns he plays the low part three or four times during each repetition of the tune, as his fancy dictates. In Mississippi Sawyer he plays the tune squarely at first, then plays it down an octave and omits one beat. Digging Potatoes on first hearing sounds to be an unordered patchwork of unrelated phrases. Edden's version of these tunes would prove very difficult for a band, and impossible for dancers. Many later musicians have in fact learned to play and sing some pieces with this personal approach to rhythm, but Edden was one of the few old originals to be captured on a recording.

Though both of Edden's feet were planted in the old world of fiddling, he did reach out occasionally to touch the new. The fifty-odd tunes Edden recorded for Professor Chappell contain quite a few pieces from the "mainstream" repetoire of Appalavhian dance music, played with square corners and steady rhythm. The Edden Hammons Collection: Volume One has given first consideration to the older strain of Edden's playing, but his more familiar material can be found in The Edden Hammons Collection: Volume Two.

The modern world also afforded Edden the opportunity to play for a wider audience than his fiddling ancestors could have reached. In his younger days, Edden gained attention around the region with his showing in fiddle contests. Later, neighbors began stopping by his little house, or even calling on the phone, to hear some music. By the time Professor Chappell visited old Edden to make these recordings, Edden was so famous locally that a crowd followed him to the makeshift studio, and Chappell had to cut the session short because of their noise.

Edden Hammons passed away eight years later, almost completely unknown outside his own community. He lived his life and played his music with strong-willed independence, and with an echo of a time long past.


WVU press