Fiddle event to show unexpected faces
This weekend's festival in Glen Lyn shows the survival of several musical traditions.
By Michelle Jarboe
The 36-year-old bass player grew up listening to Marvin Gaye and the Bee Gees. So she wasn't thrilled that
her husband was devoting more and more time to playing the banjo and listening to old-time music. "I hated
it," she said, laughing. "Oh man, I really hated it at first. ... I got tired of hearing all the same songs over and
over." But Via, who is from Florida but moved to Giles County a few years after getting married, changed her
tune as she heard more of the region's music at large gatherings and smaller band jams. She took up the bass
and became one of the rare black, female musicians to play old-time. She even helped her husband, Chris
Via, put together a gathering of old-time musicians. Angela Via will perform with him and other members of the
Giles Mountain String Band -- and many other musicians -- at the third annual Henry Reed Memorial Fiddlers
Convention today and Saturday.
Henry Reed was a Giles County resident who infused the area with old-time fiddling until his death in 1968.
Old-time music typically blends the fiddle and banjo into a syncopated rhythm ideal for dancing. Now
dominated by white musicians, the genre's roots run deep to the late 18th and early 19th century and the black
slaves who brought the banjo from Africa. "The instrument itself and its old-timey style of playing are African in
origin," said Robert Winans, a retired English professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, who has
explored the tradition of black banjo players in Virginia. Fiddlers including Alan Jabbour, former director of the
American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and a champion of Henry Reed's music since the 1960s,
noted the unmistakable rhythmic influence of black artists on the music of Appalachia. "All the different
musical ideas from two continents really were thrown together," said Jabbour, who has played fiddle on
occasion with the Giles Mountain String Band.
Despite the genre's history, audience members sometimes do a double-take when Angela Via takes the
stage with band mates Dean Reed and Bill Blevins and her husband. "They find it kind of weird that there's a
black woman in a band with these three other white men," she said. "It doesn't feel weird to me at all." The
music might not have been part of her upbringing, like it was with her husband and Dean Reed, Henry Reed's
But Angela Via understands why old-time music makes listeners want to get up and move. And as she's
begun learning the banjo, she's delving deeper into a Southern tradition, albeit one that's largely vanished.
Among women musicans, "I've known Virginian African-American blues players but never a fiddle or a banjo
player," said Roddy Moore, director of the Blue Ridge Institute, a center for the preservation and presentation
of area folklore. "Nor have I heard of one, actually," he added.
But tracking down information about black musicians can be difficult, although Winans found references to
black banjo players in Virginia as far back as the 1860s. He even wrote about a musician named Uncle
Homer Walker, who learned to play the banjo at age 7 or 8 and lived in Glen Lyn in later years. "The problem
we've got with looking at African-American musicians is that no one was doing much recording or looking at
them in the second, third or fourth quarter of the last century," Moore said. Now, Web sites like
blackbanjo.com allow musicians to keep track of one another. Through this, black banjo players are forming a
Yet it wasn't too long ago that researchers thought black old-time musicians had disappeared. "Blacks kind of
gave up the banjo so that by the 20th century it became largely the province of whites," Jabbour said. One
theory is that minstrel shows, which demeaned blacks and often included a fiddle and a banjo, contributed to
blacks' falling interest in these instruments during the early 20th century. Another possibility is that black
musicians moved on as dances, which often went hand-in-hand with old-time music, lost importance in their
communities, Winans said. The rise of ragtime, jazz and blues likely also led blacks away from the banjo and
fiddle. "If you're a young black musician and it's, say around the 1920s, you're more likely to want to become a
jazz or blues musician," Winans said. As black musicians disappeared, their music lived on in the songs
shared by white old-time bands. And they remain, passed down in person or through recordings, for a
burgeoning group of black artists to explore.
"Music has always been an arena for cross-cultural exchange," Jabbour said. "Musicians are often regarded
as a little marginal, anyway, so they don't mind being marginal with each other.
"You might say it's art for art's sake that guides them."
(C)2005 The Roanoke Times