Opera House celebrates legacy of traditional mountain music and musicians

After getting your fill of wild food at Marlinton’s Autumn Harvest Festival and West Virginia RoadKill Cook-off, the Pocahontas County Opera House invites you to be a part of the “Hammons Family Musical Heritage Celebration” Saturday, September 24 at 7:30 p.m.
The Hammons Family carried on ancient traditions of fiddling, banjo playing, ballad singing and storytelling at their remote mountain home in Pocahontas County. Their legacy continues and is proudly celebrated among today’s musicians. In recent years, musicians from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina have taken to the Opera House stage to pay tribute to the Hammons family, celebrating their own diverse range of musical styles and talents. Musicians and storytellers of all ages are invited to be a part of the celebration. Registration is free and available by calling the Opera House at 304-799-6645.
The Hammons family came to Pocahontas County just prior to the Civil War. At that time, young Paris Hammons accompanied his family as they moved from the Kentucky-West Virginia border and settled in the Williams River area of Pocahontas and Webster counties. It was Paris’ children, Maggie, Burl and Sherman, whose music and stories were recorded and cataloged by local musician Dwight Diller and Library of Congress folklorists Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer.
Their collaboration resulted in the 1973 two-record album titled The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions, which was later reissued by Rounder Records.
Prior to this, folklorist and West Virginia University professor Louis Chappell recorded the fiddle music of Paris’ brother, Edden Hammons, in a Richwood hotel room in 1947. This archive of 52 tunes would later be released by West Virginia University Press in 1984 in two volumes as The Edden Hammons Collection.

While of no direct relation to Paris Hammons’ descendants, Marlinton musician Lee Hammons also influenced an untold number of banjo players during the same period. A CD showcasing Lee Hammons’ banjo playing was the first of a three-volume set of CDs featuring various Hammons musicians, produced from the combined field recordings of Diller and Wayne Howard, spanning from 1969 to 1980 and released in 2005.

The Hammons family’s “knowledge of music, storytelling, and woods lore have made them cultural guides and mentors since the late 19th century,” Jabbour wrote in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

“The family’s instrumental music includes a distinctive regional repertory of fiddle tunes forged on the early Appalachian frontier, as well as a banjo repertory of later vintage,” Jabbour adds. “Their singing tradition ranges from ancient British ballads through hundreds of American ballads and songs. All their music reflects a striking cultural synthesis, combining the artful irregularity and treble tension of the ancient British solo style with other Appalachian elements of Northern European, African-American, and possibly American Indian origin. Their storytelling is equally striking, featuring a distinctive rhetorical style and reflecting a fascination with the mysterious combined with skepticism about supernatural causes. Since the family subsisted on hunting, logging, trapping, and ginseng gathering for nearly two centuries, their woods lore was encyclopedic.”

“The fact that the Hammonses evoke the wilderness of the early Appalachian frontier fueled a growing interest in the family during the late 20th century,” Jabbour adds. “Thanks to documentary dissemination and a stream of visitors, they became symbols and resources for the next generation to tap.”

Indeed, the Hammons families have profoundly shaped the sound and playing of many local Pocahontas County musicians – several of whom will take to the stage September 24.

Performances at the Opera House are informal, family-friendly and open to all. The entrance and main seating are accessible to persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are encouraged to attend; special accommodations can be arranged upon request by calling 304-799-6645.

The Opera House Performance Series is presented with financial assistance through a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. Support is also provided by Pocahontas County Drama, Fairs and Festivals and the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

more recommended stories