Roan Mountain, Tennessee
Joe Birchfield was the incredible fiddler for the family string band, The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers. I currently lack a biography for Joe, so following is an interview of Joe by Frank Weston in September 1982 that originally appeared in issue 45 (Spring 1989) of Tony Russell's Old Time Music magazine. According to Joe's son Bill, Joe was having a good time stretching the truth at Frank's expense! Bill asserts that many of the details Joe recounts here simply aren't true. Still, this will have to do until I can find a better bio.
JOE: I was born April 13th, 1912. There was eight of us, four girls and four boys, practically all of them played music. My youngest brother Ellik, he played with us for a while and he took a heart attack and died. He played the banjo. And that boy of mine [Bill] plays the guitar. I've got another boy that can play the guitar, but he won't play. He's 'shamed, sorta, you know. I ain't ashamed to play before a million.
FW: How did you learn to play?
JOE: My father was a fiddler and a banjo picker too, and my uncles, all of them could play a banjo, a fiddle or a guitar, anything they could get ahold of. I played with one of my uncle's and got most of my practice from him. He was the best fiddler you'd ever hear play a fiddle - John Birchfield.
FW: Was it all your dad's family that played?
JOE: His mother was a good fiddler. She said, about an hour before she died, she laid up in her bed and said, 'Bring me my fiddle, I want to play a piece or two.' She played two or three tunes and laid the fiddle down and was dead. That was from way back, that was my dad's mother, it was inherited in the family of all of them.
I guess that was about 1901 when my uncle started. I'd go and stay with him and we'd work of a day, me and him, hauling hay and cut wood and hauling wood. He had a big pair of horses and I'd drive them and hail in wood and chop wood. Didn't have no power saws - it was the old crosscut saw you had to pull. And we'd work all day long till about dark, then we'd go and eat supper and get our instruments and play awhile. He used to live over yonder on Shell Creek when I was learning to play. I'd go across the mountain and stay with him down there three weeks at a time. That was before I was married.
FW: Have you played fiddle all the time, or did you ever lay it down?
JOE: Well, I first learned to play a banjo, the first thing I learned to play. I was just a tiny little old feller and a banjo, I couldn't put it up like this and pick it, my arms were too short. I'd lay it in a chair, the head of it, and stand by the chair and pick it. I guess that was when I was seven or eight years old. I might have been five.
FW: When did you start playing fiddle, then?
JOE: Well, I bought a guitar after that, yeah, and we went to playing it. Well, I decided I'd like to be a fiddler and bought me a fiddle. Let me tell you what the start was of the fiddle. I wanted a fiddle all the time, and way back then in olden times you couldn't get hold of a fiddle hardly at all. And my dad made me one. Made me a fiddle and bow and everything. He made it out of an old cigar box. You've seen these wooden cigar boxes. He cut soundholes in it like a fiddle and put a neck in it and glued it up for me and it sounded pretty good. I learned to play on that thing. I guess I was about 15, maybe 20 years old then. Then I quit the fiddle for 30 years. I never played another tune on it, I sold my fiddle and quit.
FW: Why was that?
JOE: Well, it was just a little after I first got married. I had one of them fiddles made over in Germany. It was a dandy fiddle and I just gave it away and got shet of it and I never played nothing for a long time after. No music at all, never even played the guitar or picked up the banjo, just went to the field and went to working. Times was hard then, you know. That was right in the middle of the bad panic.
Then, after that, there came a boy here from up on Buck Mountain, he had a fiddle. Finn Brewer, my neighbor over here - he had a fiddle - Finn did - he came to Finn, this boy did, to sell Finn the fiddle, as it was his business, you know. He was blind. Feller shot him right in the face and put his eyes out. Well, he came over here and said, 'Finn Brewer told me you might buy a fiddle.' I said 'I don't need no fiddle. What do you want for that fiddle?' And he said, 'I'd take twenty-five dollars for it.'
Well, I didn't want it, you know. I didn't want it at all. I had an old guitar in the house there and I said, 'I tell you what I'll do.' He said 'I need some money awful bad.' He wanted some money to get drunk on. And I said, 'I'll give you that guitar and a 10 dollar bill for that fiddle.' And he said, 'I'll do it."
And when I came to find out what it was, it was one of them Strad fiddles, Stradivarius, I got a bargain. I took it down here to a musician in North Carolina, that music place where they test them out, you know, and had him look at it, and he said it was the real thing. Said it was worth two hundred thousand dollars. I said, "Well, I'm not hurting as bad as I thought I was.' I just bought it for the sake of the boy. Boy, it was a good fiddle.
FW: Is that the one you still play?
JOE: No, I've got an old Kay fiddle I play. It's a good'n, it made all those albums.
Well, I bought the fiddle and I kept it around here awhile and that boy of mine, he could play a guitar - he plays it left-handed and notes down over the top of the neck like a Dobro. He got to playing the guitar and he wanted me to go out with him on a trip. Well, the first trip, we went me and him and my brother. My brother hadn't picked the banjo in years and years. Me and him used to play together when we was growing up but after we married we just quit. We'd go out and play for the old dances, you know. Walked out yonder to Buck Mountain down here and walk from across this mountain down in Rock Creek and play, you know.
[Rock creek is the area from Roan Mountain down to Bakersfield, NC and is home to a number of musicians, probably the best knows of whom are the Ledfords. Joe has a second cousin living there, John Hobson, who plays the fiddle with Wayne Ledford when he isn't out fox hunting. -FW]
JOE: We went over to his [Creede's] house, that boy of mine come over and said, 'They're gonna have a convention over Slagle's pasture.' I said, 'Creede, let's go over and play in it. We'll just play for the fun of it.' And he said, 'Well, I don't care if we do. We'll just have a big patch of fun if we don't win nothing.' We went over there and won first place. That beat me, I didn't have a bit of idea of it.
Well, William Brewer, he come down to the Creede's - he's a friend of mine picks guitar, I've played with him a whole lot - he come down to Creede's house to hear us play some. We told him we was going to Slagle's Convention and he come down to hear us. His brother [Finn Brewer] sent him down to hear us. He said he'd like to hear us play to see whether we's any talent or not.
Creede said 'William, I'm a-going over there to get the money', and by gum, we went over there and won first place. Creede walked up to him and said, 'William, didn't I tell you I was going to get the money?" William just run off from him. That was somewhere in the 50s.
We played from then on, me and him did, we went to all the conventions. We went all up in Virginia and down in Indiana, Memphis, Tennessee, we've been everywhere. We've got a trip tomorrow. We go to Nashville, Tennessee, at a festival there. I played down there last year at the same place.
FW: When did you make your first recordings?
JOE: We done that last year, that was the first one. We had a thousand albums made last year.
ETHEL (Joe's wife): We also did Brandywine last year.
FW: What are some of the tune that you play?
Joe: I couldn't tell you half of them, one third of them. I could be settin' a-playing and they just come to me, and I play them that I haven't played in no telling when. We played some 360-some making them albums. Yeah, 360. Wasn't that a whole lot?
You know, when you're playing for dances, you're playing for one thing and another, you just play some certain ones for that. You hardly ever plays the others that you knows, just keep on those for people to dance to.
FW: Do you play for many dances now?
Yeah, I played for one last time I was out, at a dance they had over here at the park, a square dance. We went to an old time fiddler's convention over there at Knoxville [during the World's Fair] - they brought it from up in Galax, Virginia, and we went to it over there. But it was a worked-up piece of business for all them Virginia fellers to win. There was another good band there, the best band you ever heared played, and then didn't come in nowhere.
FW: Did you ever play at Galax yourself?
JOE: Yeah, a time or two at Galax, but them Virginia fellers up there, they won't let nothing go out, I'm telling ye. They hold everything for there. Well, you can't blame 'em. I don't care what a good musicianer is, if he's [from] away from there and goes there, he don't get much. No, he don't get a thing.
FW: Do you still play banjo?
JOE: Yeah, fiddle, banjo and guitar. I backed that there boy of mine up [on guitar] when he won on autoharp. He won first place on that autoharp up in Mountain City. I won first place [on fiddle] and he won first place on hit. Them fellers that was up there, when they seed us there they turned the awfullest colors. Yeah, they turned red as fire in the face and then pale as death. They just said, 'Well, now I'm beat.' There was a feller over here at Mountain City come out there, he's a good fiddler, but he bet with a feller, said, 'I'll be you a hundred dollars that I win first prize.' Well, after I played - a whole lot of musicians played there, about 30-some - after I played, they called it off, me first place. He lost his hundred dollars. That was Tim Powers, you might have heard him play.
FW: Is he a young man?
JOE: He's not as old as I am. He's about 50-some, maybe 60. He's from right there [Mountain City]. He was joking and laughified, till after that happened he just calmed down and he wouldn't talk to no one. Now it's a hard matter to bring one up against me to beat.
ETHEL: I took the show away from them in Knoxville. See, I tell these old-timey jokes, you know, tales and riddles. I learned them when I was a young'n. And these songs I know, I had a little gramophone and learned some of 'em off that. Then I've got one I wrote about this little girl, that's a true song, it's on them albums. Then I tell fortunes, play the washboard - and before I lost my teeth played the French harp, jew's harp - sing, dance, tell jokes, tell riddles, they work me to death. I don't care, though, I enjoy myself.
FW: Do you think that you enjoy playing more now than you did?
JOE: Yeah, I got disabled to work at anything and it's a hobby for me, and I like to play. If I was able to work now it would knock me out of playing. Back when I was able to work and hold a job I never fooled with it, but since I've got disabled I just take it for a hobby.
POSTSCRIPT: Joe died on June 19th, 2001. Joe was the last of the real authentic Tennessess mountain fiddlers who played "sawmill" style. He and his brother Bill (guitar) and other members of the family were fixtures at festivals and celebrations from Washington to nashville. They did make one good CD and appeared in numerous documentary files. At a time when too much "old-time" fiddling is precise, well-noted, bloodless noodling, Joe was a kick-ass old-timer who felt the job of the fiddler was to make good dance music, and to make people feel good. His music was to modern old-time music as is country-cured ham to an Arby's pasteboard sandwich. He will be missed. — Charles Wolfe
For the longest time, the only available Hilltoppers recording featuring Joe Birchfield was a vinyl LP on the Cloudlands label (top).
Luckily, the album, with extra tracks, was released with the title "Down Home" (middle). It is available at places like www.countysales.com.