Byrd, the music lover, mourned
Senator known for playing fiddle on campaign trail
BY EVELYN RYAN The Dominion Post
A small group of people are mourning the passage of a man they knew as a lover of traditional music, a fiddler, a passionate historian who
made history, someone secure enough in his reputation to take to the silver screen when he was in his 80s.
The rest of the world saw him as a powerful politician, hauling “pork” back to his home state.
But U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., had another life off the Senate floor, one that revolved around his treasured fiddle.
“I think he was a great fiddler,” said Alan Jabbour, retired director American Folklife Center and a fiddle player in his own right.
“He wouldn’t have said he was a great fiddler. But there is a level of fiddling that you can fiddle at and everyone would say that is good. That’s
where he was.”
Byrd began playing the fiddle when he was young. A picture of him, fiddle poised to play, appears on the back of “U.S. Senator Robert Byrd
Mountain Fiddler,” an LP record released in 1978.
When he first ran for office, and up until the 1980s, Byrd would break out the fiddle and play a few tunes when he was campaigning.
“I think music was dear to his heart,” Jabbour said. “You don’t get to playing a fiddle like that just because it’s useful in politics. You only get
there because you played the fiddle when you were young and threw your heart and soul into it.”
The two got to know each other and Jabbour decided to record Byrd playing his fiddle for the Library of Congress archives.
“I recorded him as a fiddler because nobody had recorded him before. He seemed pleased somebody was interested in that side of him, so we
spent 2-3 days working on his repertoire.”
The recording is now in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center archives.
It was made “mainly on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress,” he said, because they had a setup there to record
“Byrd came quietly to the auditorium and stood on the stage and played the fiddle,” Jabbour recalled. “I sat and talked. It was a great
“What it revealed is that he had this traditional repertoire of songs and tunes that he played on the fiddle. He developed a style of his own that
was just Sen. Byrd and his fiddle.
“A lot of the old-style fiddlers just fiddled on their own, the solo tradition.”
More than just a fiddler
But Byrd was more than a fiddler.
“He was a wonderful singer. He would play a round on the fiddle, then he’d sing a verse, then he would play another round and then he’d sing
Jabbour said there was one story about that early recording session with Byrd that he’s never told before.
“I noticed when we were recording him that he was nervous — really anxious and nervous, like a kid would be at playing for his first recital. It
was kind of surprising to me. I recognized the signs because I’ve been nervous myself. He managed it OK.
“I thought to myself, ‘isn’t that funny?’ He’s probably spoken to audiences thousands of times publicly, he’s been in lots of challenging
situations. Why is he nervous?
“I think Sen. Byrd was a person who venerated history and historical institutions. He loved the Senate, the history of the Senate, he loved
history generally and though it was an important thing people should reflect on.
“Suddenly, he was at this juncture where he recognized, ‘This is doing something for the Library of Congress which will be forever.’ And that
gravity was made him nervous.”
At some point during the session, Byrd expressed interest in doing an album he could give away. Jabbour arranged with County Records of
“They did it in the Majority Leader’s Chambers in the Senate,” he recalled, “so that album, if I’m not mistaken, was actually recorded in the
Capitol. It’s probably the only public release album recorded in the Capitol.”
The senator stopped fiddling sometime in the 1980s, after developing a tremor that began to interfere with his ability to play.
Peggy Bulger, the current director of American Folklife Center, said the senator had been given a copy of the recordings on a reel-to-reel tape.
“When I first came here 11 years ago, I had a really funny encounter. I got a call from Sen. Byrd’s office in D.C. and they said that Sen. Byrd
had these recordings he listened to all the time.”
They were wondering if the recordings could be dubbed onto cassettes.
Bulger said the cassettes were made, and she and Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, went to his office to present the cassettes to
“We had a wonderful time with him,” she recalled Monday. “He was singing, he was dancing. He pulled out of his desk a video recording of
himself on ‘Hee Haw’ playing and singing that he played. He just had a great time.
“When we finally left, Dr. Billington said, ‘Wow! I’ve never been asked to stay that long before.’ That’s the power of music.
“Sen. Byrd was a great lover of traditional music, and a great lover of people. He was a perfect emissary for the people of West Virginia and
A student of history
Billington said Monday that Byrd is “one of those unique individuals who’s not only an historical figure in the history of the Senate, but who has
also been consistently a student of history.”
He described Byrd’s four-volume “History of the Senate” as “quite a remarkable piece of work. He was continually making history, writing
history and constantly meditating on the founding document of our nation and our government. That’s rare.”
Byrd was known as a student of the U.S. Constitution, carrying a copy in his pocket and whipping it out whenever he had to make a point.
“Memories that were very rich folded in the minute I heard about this as I came into work,” he said.
“Mountain Fiddler” earned Byrd the Grand Ole Opry’s Distinguished Fiddler Award in 2008. The red vest he wore while fiddling is now at the
Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, donated along with several pictures of Byrd the Fiddler.
And in his mid-80s, Byrd appeared in a cameo role of a Confederate general in the Civil War movie “Gods and Generals,” released in 2003.
Jabbour, who would regularly discuss music with Byrd, called him “a man who was consumed by the world of the Senate and the world of
West Virginia, but there was just part of him that loved music.”
Jabbour and his fiddle was the “dessert” for a testimonial dinner Billington threw for Byrd about two years ago.
Jabbour, accompanied by a friend with a banjo, said it was clear the evening had taxed the senator, who was in a wheelchair.
“But then the music started, and it was like he was injected with some energy. He sat up straight, started clapping his hands, his eyes flashed. It
makes you feel good as a musician to see that, but it wasn’t me that caused it, it was the music. That was the last time I saw him.
“I think he was a wonderful and singular admirable man, and it was a privilege to know him.”
Billington said Byrd had everyone singing by the end of the evening.
“This giant redwood has fallen in the forest,” he added, “and it will be missed by everyone.
“He really was a man of many parts.”
From The Dominion Post, Morgantown, WV
--June 29, 2010