The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue, a tribute to late West Virginia old-time musician Frank George.
It was a chilly afternoon in April 2016 when I made the trip to Walton for an interview with Frank and Jane George. Frank answered the door in pajamas—an oversized T-shirt with cats and flowers stamped all over, and flannel pants in an equally bold pattern. At 87 and with a Governor’s Arts Award freshly under his belt, Frank didn’t need to put on airs, though I don’t expect he ever did. He led me back to a windowed room adjacent to the kitchen where he and his wife Jane, 93, had been sitting in their recliners, watching birds in the backyard.
This was my first time meeting the couple, though their legend—as living forebearers of West Virginia traditional music, dance, craft, and culture—was well known to me. More a rambling conversation than an interview, my recording of that visit starts mid-sentence, as Frank described how he first met Uncle Homer Walker, an African-American banjo player, and, like Frank, a native of Mercer County.
While Frank and Jane swapped jabs, interruptions, and corrections, Frank moved on, jumping between Eastern philosophy (“The whole idea [of the preservation of traditional music] was what the Japanese called Shinto. You heard of that? Continuation. That’s what it’s all about.”), to his gun room (“I’m crazy about guns.”), to just what he’s going to do with that governor’s award (“I can take this and $2 down to the Green Lantern and get me another beer!”).
He finally landed on a fully fledged story about the first time he ever heard bagpipes: “One day, my mother and father were standing on the corner in Bluefield. All of a sudden, I hear this sound, and I broke out in a run just like a scalded hound. My mother jumped. My dad said, ‘Let him on, let him on.’ I tore off, and it was about a couple hundred yards down—there were restaurants and hotels and theaters, and it was a busy place. I found out that the piper was with a salesman for Arthur Tea—he was traveling on the [N&W] railroad, stopping at places to sell tea. Had quite a crowd, you see, and of course, I was there. In fact, if he was still there playing, I’d still be there!” Still wide-eyed, Frank said he never forgot that moment.
When he was a teenager, he finally bought his own pipes. By that time, Frank was already proficient at the fiddle and clawhammer banjo—instruments he picked up from his father and grandfather. He couldn’t remember how he learned exactly, “Grandpa was playing ‘Sourwood Mountain,’ and all of a sudden, I was playing ‘Sourwood Mountain.’ That’s the way it started!
To accessorize his story, Frank brought out the toy instruments his father had made for him, hand-carved and built at half-scale. With them came his memories of going over the hill to neighbors’ square dances when he was a child, hoisted up on his father’s shoulders. When he got older, he and his father spent hours together. “He’d tell me stories, and we’d play music, and then we’d eat some kind of lunch, and then, if the weather was fit, we’d go hiking, we’d go squirrel hunting, just walk through the woods, you know? And I started getting interested in birds and groundhogs and squirrels and all that stuff . . . and I liked botany.”
In Frank’s experience, music, stories, and the land were inseparably twined—part and parcel of an immersive culture. In his stories, I sensed his grief for the loss of that culture, though, at the same time, he acknowledged the inevitability of change, often expressed as a joke.
During our conversation, Jane often jumped in to sing Frank’s praises—boasting of where he’d traveled, or what he’d recorded and who he’d recorded with: “Frank’s never promoted himself or his music. He needed somebody to do that!” It seemed she’d taken on that role. But when Frank surreptitiously gave me one of his CDs, whispering so Jane couldn’t hear him, I understood that this was just part of their well-rehearsed dynamic—she wanted to ensure that their contributions would be acknowledged; Frank was more interested in transmitting their legacy through stories and the music itself.
He spoke fondly of the people he’d played with with over the years—Tommy Jarrell, Mike and Pete Seeger, David O’Dell, Jim Costa, John Morris, Bill Hairston, Kim Johnson, and Jerron Paxton—musicians he considered to be torchbearers, or what he called his “cohorts.”
Near the end of my visit, Frank got serious and leaned close to make sure I was listening. “I gotta tell you something interesting,” he announced, explaining that his grandfather, who was born in 1856 and orphaned at three, was raised by an African-American family. “Where do you think he learned the banjo and how to buck dance?” Citing that influence as an important part of his own musical heritage, Frank told of his interest in learning more about the banjo’s lineage, “I’d like to know its whole history from the day it was first brought over. Some are still arguing if it came from Africa or the Caribbean.”
The vision of West Virginia traditional music that Frank George communicated to me that day was expansive and inclusive, acknowledging the contributions of often marginalized populations, welcoming outsiders (though not without ribbing them a little bit), and maybe somewhat begrudgingly allowing space for the evolution of the tradition: “West Virginia was so isolated up until, oh, ’42 or somewhere along there—started building some good roads, and the radio hadn’t quite knocked everything out, and TV hadn’t quite made it, and we had a pretty good situation, but it’s changed quite a lot. Then we had an influx of foreigners—flatland foreigners, we call ‘em.” By foreigners, Frank didn’t mean immigrants from other countries, but rather musicians and musicologists from outside of Appalachia. “Which is fine,” he continued, “though I know people that hate that! But I don’t care if some of these people are learning the music. It may not sound quite like we play. But at least it’s a start!”
Jane interjected to put Frank’s legacy in perspective: “America changed! People like Frank that play the music, I think it changed America. It preserved the culture.”