Sounds of Virginia:The Ward Family
What a great weekend! The third, and final, year for the National Folk Festival in Richmond was an outstanding success. Three days of beautiful weather to enjoy seven stages spread out on Brown’s Island and along Richmond’s beautiful, although dry, riverfront.
Even though the organizers estimate that over 175,000 people came out to the festival, I managed to get close to the stages for several artists that I was particularly interested in. The highlight for me was the Autoharp workshop with Bryan Bowers and Mike Seeger. Bryan Bowers is originally from this area, but now that he lives in the Pacific Northwest I don’t get to see him perform as often as I’d like to.
Another native Virginia show at the festival was the Piedmont Blues of Cephus & Wiggins. I have seen Bowling Green John Cephus and Phil Wiggins perform dozens of times and each show is just as exciting as the first.
Over the weekend I made it to two of Wayne Henderson’s performances. Legendary guitarist and guitar builder, Wayne Henderson, is from Rugby, Virginia.
Although the festival features music and artists from all around the world, I was pleased to see so many of Virginia’s musical treasures represented.
While wondering around the festival this past weekend I overheard a small group of younger folk (college students, I assume) talking about Galax and the Old Fiddler’s Convention. Their conversation centered on the belief that the area around Galax, Virginia seemed to be a wellspring of talent. That got me to thinking about the distribution of talent along the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I suppose to these young folks, Galax would seem to be a wellspring of talent, but I don’t believe that Galax has produced any more talent than any other area when it comes to old time music. It may seem that way since the Old Fiddler’s Convention, first held in 1934, is one of the largest and longest running fiddler’s conventions. Folklorists and students of old time music have been making the annual pilgrimage to Galax since the early 1960s. The convention is an especially rich source of traditional culture and over the years has taken on an almost religious mystic. In the past few years the convention has taken on more of a mass party atmosphere, sort of a mountain blend of Mardi Gras and Woodstock, but the competition is as hot as ever.
Perhaps it is the Old Fiddler’s Convention that leads people to think that Galax holds a special place in old time music, but I would contend that the pool of wonderful talent covers a much larger area. Patrick, Grayson, and Russell County, Virginia and neighboring Surrey County, North Carolina have all produced extremely talented and influential artists during the critical years of the 1920s-‘30s. The area was heavily scouted by both record companies and folklorist from the Library of Congress Archives of American Folksong and more recordings were made there than any other area in the country during those two important decades.
That said, Galax has produced its share of legendary musicians. One family in particular stands out in my mind. Davey Crockett Ward, his brother Wade, and Crockett’s son Fields Ward recorded over 200 songs. Most of those recordings are part of the collection at the Library of Congress, but a few were recorded and released by commercial record companies.
Crockett Ward was a competition winning mountain fiddler who was often joined by the more sophisticated fiddle style of family friend Alec ‘Uncle Eck’ Dunford. Crockett’s son, Fields Ward, played guitar and provided the vocals most of the time. Crockett’s brother, Wade Ward, played banjo for the group. Crockett, Wade, and Fields played in a band known as Crockett Ward and His Boys. Uncle Eck was the fiddler and vocalist for the Blue Ridge Cornshuckers.
Crockett lived in a cabin along the muddy Ballards Branch just a few miles from Galax. When the Ward boys joined forces with Uncle Eck, it was the family doctor, W.P. Davis, who was also the band’s manager and sometime Autoharp player that came up with the band’s name. Cursing each time he made the muddy trip up Ballards Branch to the Ward cabin he dubbed the band The Ballards Branch Bogtrotters.