Field Notes: Sam and Joe Herrmann

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On July 19, we visited traditional musicians Sam and Joe Herrmann at their home in Hampshire County, WV. Both born in Maryland, the Herrmanns moved to West Virginia in the 1970s, seeking to build a life outside the city. They soon discovered old-time music on a trip to the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention and have since become strongholds in the “new” old-time music community in the Eastern Panhandle and beyond. Joe was a master artist in the Augusta Heritage Center Folklife Apprenticeship Program, and they continue to perform in the Critton Hollow String Band.

 

Excerpt of an interview with the Herrmanns, in which Joe describes how he first started playing the fiddle.

Emily Hilliard: You were playing guitar, so how did you get into fiddle? Do you play banjo as well?

Joe Herrmann: Yeah, banjo as well. As a matter of fact, banjo was my first instrument more in that folk style, Pete Seeger-style in the 60s, folk songs, singing.

EH: And was that from his books? Like How to Play the 5-string Banjo?

JH: I had that book. (laughs) It seems everybody had that book. I still have it as a matter of fact. No, I just was playing the banjo, I hooked up with other people around Baltimore, there was actually this folk craze, people would get together and were playing, having groups, we found all kinds of opportunities to play. So I was in a group.

But the fiddle came along when I went to Galax and that was the first time I ever heard old-time fiddle music, as opposed to… bluegrass fiddle, but I never had any interest in that. But after hearing old-time fiddle music and then playing guitar, in that situation,  I had a small coincidence because a guy in the local area had a fiddle and he had some strings—it must have been something that came through his family and he didn’t know what to do with the strings… I said, “Oh, I can put strings on a fiddle,” although I had never done it, I knew I could put strings on… it had notes on the package and I strung up his fiddle and I took out the bow and as soon as I took the bow, for the very first time ever having done it, pulled the bow across the string, I was captured. I was just literally like that.

And the next day, literally, the next day, I found a guy in Romney that had some fiddles under his bed and I bought a fiddle for $100. From this guy in Romney. And it was a very rare fiddle, I remember he said, he pulled it out and said, “Look here, this is a Stradivarius.” But not only was it a Stradivarius, it was a Stradivarius that was made in China. (laughs)

EH: Wow, that is very rare. (laughs)

JH: Very rare. And that was his selling point. I didn’t care so much about that other than the fact that it was a fiddle that seemed like it could be played.

Sam Herrmann: And you could afford to buy it.

JH: And I could afford to buy it. So I played that fiddle for years.

 

Sam Herrmann on her approach to traditional music.

Sam Herrmann: We’ve never been, neither one of us has ever been trying to recreate anything. We just live it. So the music comes to us pretty much organically (laughs). Passed on to us. We interpret it, our own way, we’re not trying to change it, but in my mind, understanding that of course it changes.

Find more about the Herrmanns music at crittonhollow.com.

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