Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame

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  Edden HammonsEdden Hammons
1874 -1955 - West Virginia


Edwin "Edden", "Eddon" or "Edn" Hammons is considered by many to have been one of the finest traditional West Virginia fiddlers of all time, and tales of his musical exploits and eccentric lifestyle flourish among the inhabitants of mountainous east central West Virginia, where he lived from about 1874 to 1955. Edden was just one of an extremely dynamic clan that migrated into West Virginia from Kentucky at the advent of the Civil War.

Edn's first attempt in music was with a fiddle made from a gourd. He progressed and he secured a store-bought fiddle and there is no disputing the fact that he can draw exquisite harmonies from this. Edden was the youngest of four brothers and three sisters, and his musical abilities were soon recognized to be superior to that of his siblings. Family tradition holds that Edden's ability was recognized and encouraged at an early age and that the boy was spared his share of the burdens of frontier living as a result.

Whether because of immaturity or musical passion, Edden refused to lay his fiddle down "like most men did" as he grew older and was faced with supporting a family. Edden's short-lived (3-week) marriage to Caroline Riddle in 1892 came to a head when Caroline demanded that Edden either quit playing fiddle and go to work or she would leave. Given the ultimatum, Edden chose the fiddle.

Five years later, Elizabeth Schaffer married Edden, despite warnings of Edden's shortcomings as a family provider. By all accounts, their marriage proved to be one of great love and devotion which endured until Betty's death in 1954. Edden and his new wife raised seven children.

Edden accomplished enough subsistence farming supplemented with hunting and fishing to provide for the family, though at least half of the food on the table came from Betty's garden. The nomadic family found shelter in vacant dwellings belonging to relatives or local farmers who eagerly offered a roof to anyone willing to feed the livestock or just "keep an eye on the place". For cash, Edden did a variety of odd jobs, including gathering Ginseng and keeping one step ahead of the game warden when illegally hunting turkeys, squirrels and fish to sell. When the logging camps came in, Edden and his son James worked those sporadically.

On occasion, a fiddler was hired to play for a dance or celebration in the camps, but more often than not Edden and son would come around in the evening, play awhile, and pass the hat. Edden's fee for playing at dances or weddings ranged from five to ten dollars, payable in cash or perhaps some other commodity - coffee or perhaps a ham. Fiddle contest winnings also contributed to Edden's substantial but sporadic income.

Another notable source of income was moonshine. Edden was a crafty moonshiner. He would work clearing fields, and pile the brush on top of his mash barrell to heat it. His brush clearing operation was the perfect cover for his moonshine production. Edden was clever enough to generally stay ahead of the revenuers, but on one occasion, he was arrested for "transporting". During his 137 days of jail time, he entertained all the prisoners with his fiddling and eventually was made a trustee. Most times, he managed to outwit the authorities. Edden hid his moonshine in small dug-out holes under flagstones which lead up to the house. Although revenuers conducted thorough searches on several occasions, they were never able to uncover the evidence. They'd tell him "Edden, we know you've got it here." Edden replied "Well, 'pon my honor, if it's here, why don't you find it?"

It was perhaps his reluctance to seek seasonal day work off the farm as others did which lies at the root of his reputation for laziness. Edden's laziness is just one of the many colorful quirks and idiosyncrasies which form the nucleus of a rich store of anecdotes traded back and forth between family and friends with great pleasure. Along with his shortcomings as a provider, Edden's backwoods naivete and "therapeutic" excuses for drinking are common themes. Altogether, such stories depict a character who fits perhaps a little too neatly into the "hillbilly" mold to be real, yet those who remember Edden insist that there is at least a kernel of truth in every one of them.

Several tales center around Edden's belief in superstitions and the supernatural. While not a deeply religious man, Edden faithfully observed the Sabbath in his own way: the fiddling stopped when the clock struck midnight on a Saturday evening. One night, the offer of an extra dollar coaxed Edden to turn the other cheek and play an additional after-midnight set. On the trip home, Edden and his companions saw a bright red object streak across the sky and explode in a thunderous roar. Eddon said "I told you fellers not to play for a dance on a Sunday night. Now I don't care if you give me twenty-five dollars next time, I'll never play past midnight."

Though Edden may have been the most gifted musician in his family, music had long been an important force in Hammons tradition. There was hardly a member of the family who was not musically inclined in one way or another. Edden's father Jesse probably provided Edden's first musical instruction as well as his first gourd fiddle. However, some family members believe that it was Edden's great-uncle Pete who taught him more about fiddling and fiddle tunes than anyone else, though the art is far too prevalent among the Hammonses to attribute his musical education to any one individual.

One Edden legend circulated in various yet similar versions goes something like this: when Edden was 9, he attended a Fourth of July dance and picnic at Webster Springs. A local favorite, Bernard Hamrick, was employed to play the dance. "Burn", as he was familiarly known, brought his violin to the platform a few hours before the dance, tuned up and began to play. People flocked in from everywhere. Burn played a few pieces and quit. The people cheered and cheered, but Burn wouldn't play any more. Edden's father Jesse said "Mr. Hamrick, let my son play a tune or two." After a great deal of persuasion, Burn let the nine year old Edden have the violin. Edden tuned it and started playing. He played it so well and the people began to cheer til you could scarcely hear anything else. Burn got peeved at what had happened, gave Edden his violin, and went home. So there was no dance that afternoon.

When we was older, Edden probably participated in five to ten fiddle contests each year, and rarely came away with less than first prize. Perhaps Edden's most distinguished contest adversary was Lewis "Jack" McElwain, regarded by many to be the premier fiddler in the state of West Virginia. McElwain's accomplsihments included a first-place finish at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. At a contest in Marlinton West Virginia, 1909, McElwain and Eddon tied for top honors. Later, there were disagreements about the selection of judges, and at one contest, Eddon insisted that the judging be left to the attendees. On that occasion, Eddon won.

Edden routinely toted his instsrument around in a flour sack. Edden and his nephew Currence went down to a contest in Elkins, and were met with laughter when Edden arrived with violin that had a weasel head with its tongue sticking out mounted to the head stock, poking out of the flour sack. Most of the other musicians had nicer, shop-made fiddles. When it came Eddon's turn to play, the curious onlookers watched Edden remove his old fiddle and blow the thick coating of flour off it, which sent them to the floor laughing and hollering. They stopped laughing when Edden stole the show.

Most of Edden's fiddle playing was done around the house and at dances at the homes of friends and neighbors. On weekends, the Hammons household became a gathering place of musicians and musical enthusiasts from all over. Yet his children remember Edden as a shy man who basically disdained crowds and insisted upon silence when he played. He viewed his populairty as a mixed blessing - more favorably in his younger days than in his older ones. Frequent unwelcome visitors to his home caused him to pick up and move on at least one occasion. A less drastic solution took the form of camping trips or visits to relatives.

Edden had several opportunities to share his talent with a wider audience. Edden's reluctance to leave home, coupled with a warinss of city folk, caused him to spurn such offers with little thought. Nevertheless, some relatives insist they heard Edden play over the radio on various occasions. Emma also recalls that he once appeared in a wartime newsreel playing before President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. By and large, however, Eddon Hammons was a local phenomenon without outside influence or impact. Fortunately, folklorist Louis Watson Chappell made field recordings of Eddon in August of 1947. Unfortunately, the only commercial release of these recordings comes in the form of an long since out-of-print LP. Serious enthusiasts should contact the West Virginia University in Morgantown for information on these field recordings.

—Excerpted from the excellent and detailed liner notes of John A. Cuthbert featured in the booklet of Edden Hammons Collection, Volume 1.

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DISCOGRAPHY

It was my thrill to contribute my graphic design to the production of the two volumes of Eddon Hammons recordings published by West Virginia University Press. Recorded in 1947, these tracks document one of the most original & distinctive fiddle players that never went on to record commercially. Includes a plump booklet with fantastic notes. The Eddon Hammons Collection, Volume 1 is a re-issue of the original LP and incudes 15 Songs: Washington's March, Fine Times At Our House, Arkansas Traveler, Big Fancy, Love Nancy, Sandy Boys, Shaking Off The Acorns, Mississippi Sawyer, Queen Of The Earth & Child Of The Skies, Falls Of Richmond, Waynesboro, Forked Deer, On My Way To See Nancy, Digging Potatoes, Old Greasy Coat. Amazon.com currently offers Volume 1 only.

You can get Volume 2 from County Sales. Volume two is a 2-CD set which contains 35 tracks - most of the rest of the archive.

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