April 30, 1938: 'Uncle Jack' McElwain Dies in Wainville

Apr 30, 2018

Although no recordings of “Uncle Jack” are known to exist, oral histories reveal much about his playing, which was in the “old West Fork style.”
Credit e-WV / WV Humanities Council

Musician Lewis Johnson “Uncle Jack” McElwain died at Wainville in Webster County on April 30, 1938, at age 82. During his lifetime—all of which was spent at Wainville on Laurel Creek—he was considered the best fiddler in all of central West Virginia. He took part in many fiddle contests, and no one recalls him ever losing one. His most notable win was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Although no recordings of “Uncle Jack” are known to exist, oral histories reveal much about his playing, which was in the “old West Fork style”—a reference to the West Fork of the Little Kanawha River, where the McElwain family lived before moving to Webster County in the 19th century.

It’s hard to overestimate McElwains’ influence on fiddle playing. He was visited regularly by members of the fiddling Carpenter, Hammons, and Wine families and used to trade tunes with the legendary Harts Creek fiddler Ed Haley. A former neighbor and fiddler once recalled that when “Uncle Jack” played “Old Sledge,” his best tune, “you seemed to rise up three feet off the ground!”