April 21, 1908: Traditional Musician Phoeba Cottrell Parsons Born in Calhoun County

Apr 21, 2017

Credit e-wv, The West Virginia Encyclopedia / West Virginia Division of Culture and History

Traditional musician Phoeba Cottrell Parsons was born in Calhoun County on April 21, 1908. When she was 10, she picked up her brother Noah’s banjo. She later recalled of that moment, ‘‘He didn’t want me to play because he was afraid I’d beat him.’’ She soon became accomplished not only at the banjo but also at singing ballads, telling stories and riddles, flatfoot dancing, and playing the fiddle sticks.

However, after getting married in 1928, she quit playing music entirely and didn’t pick up the banjo again until the 1960s. In 1975, at age 67, she won the banjo contest at the West Virginia State Folk Festival. The next year, she and a number of other musicians were selected to represent West Virginia at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington. During this time, she became a fixture at traditional music festivals and influenced countless musicians and storytellers. She once said, “‘Nobody showed me nothing, [but] I learned a lot of people how to play.’’

In 1987, she was honored with the Vandalia Award, the state’s highest folklife honor. Phoeba Parsons died in 2001 at age 93.