In the fourth installment of Pocahontas County Opera House Story Session series, Mike and Mary Sue Burns shared the stage for a few tunes before Mike went solo, sharing how he was introduced to old-time music.
With Mike on fiddle and Mary Sue on banjo, the couple opened the session with “Old Mother Flanagan,” a Melvin White tune.
“That was the first fiddle tune I ever really liked,” Mike said. “And guess what? I still remember it today, or part of it.”
Talking about White and his style of playing fiddle, Mike stood up, crouched over and mimicked White by holding his fiddle lower on his shoulder with his bow going nearly straight up and down.
“Melvin, he was a real small, skinny little guy, and it was really funny how he played,” Mike said. “He’d hold that fiddle just like this, and I have no idea how he did it, but he never missed a lick.
“I can remember playing with him on some performances, and I was playing banjo. He’d get to going and that’d just about crack me up, and he’d switch songs. You just had to stay on your toes all the time.
“Just to see him, watch him play and doing that fiddlin’ was absolutely amazing,” he added.
As they prepared to play “Waiting for the Boatman,” Mike explained that White played the tune in the key of D and it had a more melancholy feel, while he and Mary Sue play it in the key of A, which makes it sound more upbeat and happy.
Mike and Mary Sue have been playing music together for years and are members of Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters. Mike is Juanita, and Mary Sue is Lulu.
“Why don’t we try ‘Red Steer?’” Juanita asked.
“If you dare,” Lulu answered.
After “Red Steer,” Mary Sue left the stage and Mike went back to the beginning when he was first introduced to claw hammer banjo playing. He also switched out his fiddle for his banjo.
“It began many, many years ago,” he said. “Actually, when I was going to WVU forestry school.”
The forestry department had an exhibit at the Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins and Mike was there to help recruit new students. During the festival, Mike was able to attend the West Virginia Open Banjo and Fiddle Contest.
“I’d been messing around with the guitar a little bit and we had a little jug band in our forestry bunch, so we went over to see the [championships],” he said. “We got inside there in the Elkins Armory, and they did the banjos first. I heard ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ I don’t know how many times and then, all of a sudden, this guy came out and sat down, and he started playing. He played claw hammer banjo , and that guy turned out to be Dwight Diller.
“That’s the first time I’d ever heard claw hammer, and I thought, ‘now, I like that,’” Mike said.
As the saying goes, “It’s a small world.” Diller happened to be a student at WVU, as well, working on his master’s degree in horticulture.
“I just lived down the road from where they were, and he was teaching some people how to play, and I sort of wiggled my way in there, playing guitar with them,” Mike said. “One thing led to another and the next thing you know, I was playing banjo.”
Learning from Diller paved the way for Mike to come Pocahontas County where he met the famous Hammons family and learned even more about old-time music.
“That’s when I ran in with the Hammonses,” he said. “Burl and Sherman and Maggie, and also Mr. Lee Hammons. I spent a lot of time with them through the years. Heard some of their stories and it’s kind of interesting their take on things. We didn’t ever sit down and play in a big group. They would just pick up an instrument and play, and then you’d listen to them, and they’d give you the instrument and you would play.”
Mike then played a Sherman Hammons tune called “Groundhog.”
Mike transported listeners back to the 1970s when he visited the Hammons family at their home on Williams River.
“You’ve got to kind of envision being out on the Williams River – you’re not hearing any sounds or anything,” he said. “All you’re hearing is that banjo playing and echoing off those mountains out there. It made quite an impression on me.
“I can remember sitting in his house there, and Maggie was telling a story,” he continued. “It was right as the sun was going down in the evening and I sat down there on the couch. He had one of those couches that when you sit down, you sink into it and you go up to your armpits. They had just a little old forty watt light bulb hanging in the middle of the room, and all I could see was Maggie’s silhouette against the sun going down by the window.
“At the time, I had no idea I was living history. Maggie was telling a story about a panther chasing them around when they were kids or something like that; I just got caught up in that moment. It added to all the lore of their stories and all the things the Hammonses did.”
The final tune Mike played was “Muskrat,” a song Sherman really liked, but didn’t play.
“He didn’t play it, but he wanted me to play it and sing it for him,” Mike said. “I’m not really sure where I learned it.
“You know the old saying, that if you can remember the sixties and seventies, you really weren’t there?” he added, laughing. “Some of the places that I learned these tunes are a little foggy – and I’m not sure who the source is or anything.”
Mike and Mary Sue are both retired teachers from Pocahontas County High School. Mary Sue still assists the science department while Mike spends his time tying flies, fly fishing and telling tales of the past.
The Pocahontas County Opera House Story Session series is available to view online at the Opera House Facebook page and at pocahontasoperahouse.org
On Mondays in May, the series will be featured on the Pocahontas County Opera House Radio Hour on Allegheny Mountain Radio from 1 to 2 p.m.
The audio from each session will be broadcast, along with past performances from the Opera House.