How I became an Echo – as opposed to a din

Allegheny Echoes fiddle instructor Danny Arthur talks to students Retiba, Ramona, Claire and Bethany as the class discusses the songs they learned during the week-long workshop. Although we were the beginner class, many of the students were already well versed in playing violin and fiddle tunes. Arthur has been an instructor for Echoes from the beginning, celebrating the 20th anniversary this year. S. Stewart photo
Allegheny Echoes fiddle instructor Danny Arthur talks to students Retiba, Ramona, Claire and Bethany as the class discusses the songs they learned during the week-long workshop. Although we were the beginner class, many of the students were already well versed in playing violin and fiddle tunes. Arthur has been an instructor for Echoes from the beginning, celebrating the 20th anniversary this year. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Music has always been important to me. For as long as I can remember, music has been in my life – on the radio, in my headphones, coming out of my mouth and being tapped out by my fingers.

If it wasn’t for a bad scholarship audition for college, I probably would be on a completely different path right now. Today, I am grateful I was guided down a different path, because it led me back home.

When I moved back to the Pocahontas County seven years ago, I had a vague idea what Allegheny Echoes was. I assumed it was for accomplished bluegrass and old-time musicians who wanted to get together and share their talents with one another.

After a few years at The Pocahontas Times, I realized Allegheny Echoes was for anyone who had music inside them, itching to get it out in one form or another. I remember saying in passing on several occasions that I should try it out.

This year, I did.

A couple years ago, I bought a fiddle at a going-out-of-business sale at a music store in Belington and figured if I didn’t learn it, I could always pass it on to someone else.

I must admit, although I am truly ashamed of it, that I bought a “Violin for Dummies” book to begin my fiddle lessons. The book did help me learn to string and tune the instrument, as well as a scratchy rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread,” but that was about it.

I knew Allegheny Echoes was my best option, and so I signed up for Danny Arthur’s beginning fiddle class.

The first day, as my fellow classmates filed into the gazebo at Stillwell Park, I realized I was the oldest student by a couple decades. I felt kind of silly, but since I pride myself on being quirky, I didn’t let it faze me too long. I was determined to learn.

Danny went around the circle and asked each of us if we had a song we would like to share. The sweat began to bead on my brow. I didn’t know we had homework before the first day. One by one, the youngsters, ranging in ages from eight to 13, took a turn on their fiddles.

As they played, they explained that they either had private lessons with a violin instructor or were in orchestra in school. One was even a student of renowned fiddle player and Marlinton resident Jake Krack.

Clearly, I was not going to play my miserable version of “Shortnin’ Bread,” so I gracefully declined to share. Of the nine of us, three were first timers, as in had not tried to seriously play the instrument before last week. I was just glad I wasn’t alone.

I have to say, I’ve had my fair share of teachers through the years, and Danny is one of the most patient people I have ever met. As I squeaked and squawked through our first song, “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” he just smiled and told me to keep trying.

While I didn’t have any previous knowledge of the fiddle, I did have a fair understanding of music and learned quickly that I can play by ear. As Danny played a line to a new tune, I was able to pick it up by matching the notes and carefully watching the fingers of his left hand.

It wasn’t long before we added more songs to our repertoire – “Oh, Susanna,” which the kids adorably called “Old Susanna;” “Liza Jane” and “Angeline the Baker.”

I practiced each evening and went to bed with the songs in my head. I think I even moved my fingers along with it, just to make sure I remembered.

Unlike most students, I did not stay at the Marlinton Motor Inn and instead drove from home to Green Bank each day.

The downside to this was I missed out on the late night jam sessions, but I knew I was nowhere near the player it took to be in a jam session. I tried a slow jam one afternoon and was only able to join in on the songs I already knew. The upside to that jam was I did pick up “Old Joe Clark” by watching fingers and matching notes.

I may have excluded myself from part of the experience, but I don’t feel like I could’ve added anything, but I missed getting to know other musicians. I do plan to do that in the future, though. This year, I was mainly focused on learning the tunes and keeping up with my young classmates.

We were all excited to prepare for Thursday evening’s students concert. Each year, each class selects one song to play for the audience to show what they learned in the three-and-a-half days prior.

Unfortunately this year, Mother Nature had different plans.

I went home early to eat and practice one more time before my mom and I headed to Marlinton. It had been pouring the rain and when I left Marlinton around 3:30 p.m., I drove through some water that I shouldn’t have, but as always, hindsight is 20/20.

When we went back, I at least knew where the high water was, but it had risen exponentially in those few hours. We made it to the Times office, where I told Danny we could meet to get out of the rain and tune and practice before heading to the Opera House.

No one was in sight. We figured the concert was canceled, but we headed to the Motor Inn to make sure. We stopped at Rite Aid where the road was being monitored by Marlinton Fire and Rescue and the Department of Highways. The state road garage was flooded, as well as the road and we were informed that we could make it to the Motor Inn, but the concert was, indeed, canceled.

We decided to just go home. We made it to the straight right before the intersection near Huntersville. The road was blocked by a fire truck, and I already knew things were bad. They said we couldn’t get through, that the road was being undermined by the water.

All roads leading home were blocked. Slightly panicked, I jumped back in the car and we headed to town. After weighing our options of places to stay, Mom and I again attempted to get to the Motor Inn, and we succeeded. There was one room left. Thank you, Monica Bing.

The next morning, Monica told us that the instructors concert scheduled for Friday evening would now be a students and instructors concert.

I met up with my class at the Opera House. We tuned and practiced in the parking lot, and waited our turn to take the stage. As the third act up, we didn’t have to wait long.

The closer it got to our turn, the more anxious the kids got. I saw a lot of nervous smiles and bouncing from one foot to the other. I just grinned at them and told them we would be great.

We went on, rocked out our version of “Oh, [Old] Susanna,” where we entertained with key changes to spice things up, and we got a large round of applause.

We left the stage and got lots of thumbs ups and good jobs from our loved ones, and, to my surprise, I received a bouquet of flowers from my editor, Jaynell Graham, for what she referred to as my “stage debut.”

I said “good job” to my fellow students, and thanked Danny, telling him I would definitely be back again.

It was an amazing experience that connected me not only to the history of my county, but the history of Appalachia as a whole. As we learned those songs, we learned them in the mountains where the Hammons family played them. We learned them in the mountains where Irish and Scottish settlers first played them.

It was a humbling and life-changing experience.

But it was not a once-in-a-lifetime experience because, I know for sure, I will return to Allegheny Echoes.

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