Nicole Musgrave Published

Fiddler In Floyd County, Virginia Amplifies Black Musicians In Old-Time Music

A woman and a man stand next to each other, smiling, and an arm wrapped around the other. The woman is wearing a blue shirt, and the man is wearing plaid.
Earl White (right) with wife and bandmate, Adrienne Davis, in their home in Floyd County, Virginia. White and Davis are both old-time musicians, and they host a music camp on their farm called Big Indian Music Camp.
Nicole Musgrave/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On a rainy evening in a community center in Blacksburg, Virginia, Earl White was teaching one of his fiddle students how to move the bow in a circular motion. He explained to the student that in old-time music, moving the bow in small circles helps create a drone that plays out underneath the melody notes.

Appalachian old-time music is a confluence of many cultural traditions, including those of Africans and African Americans, Native Americans, and the Scots-Irish. Yet the contributions of Black and Indigenous musicians have often been denied and overlooked. In Floyd County, Virginia one man is working to amplify the participation of Black musicians in old-time music.

The Fiddle Became An Appendage

Earl White is seated in a chair across from a student. They are both playing the fiddle.

Nicole Musgrave/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Earl White (right) gives a fiddle lesson to a student at a community center in Blacksburg, Virginia. In addition to the technical instruction of playing, White also passes on knowledge about the cultural and historical context of the music.

White is in his 60s and goes by the name Fiddlin’ Earl White. “And then at some point I shortened that to ‘FEW,’” White said. “And after I thought about that I was like, ‘You know there’s a lot of truth to that. There are few Black fiddlers in the world today playing Appalachian string band music.’”

White lives on a farm in Floyd County, about 30 miles from Blacksburg. He came to old-time music by way of dancing. In the early 70s when he was a college student in Greenville, North Carolina, White and a group of friends got into clogging. “We would be clogging on the porch, clogging in the street. Clogging—basically clogging became a way of life,” White said.

They dubbed themselves the Green Grass Cloggers and began performing around the country at folk festivals and dance competitions.

Earl White dancing

Photo courtesy of Earl White.
Earl White (center) looks at the camera while performing with the Green Grass Cloggers. The Green Grass Cloggers came to prominence in dance, bluegrass, and old-time communities in the 1970s, and traveled the country performing at festivals and competitions.

One day, at a performance in Maine, White found himself backstage. “I was sitting in the green room, and sitting in the corner was this old Black man and he was playing the fiddle,” White said.

It was Papa John Creach, warming up to go on for Jefferson Airplane. “In all of our travels of clogging, there were never any Black fiddlers that I saw. And so here he was playing the instrument as a fiddle, and I decided at that point, I wanna do that,” White said.

From then on, the fiddle became an extra appendage for White. Those old-time festivals and fiddlers’ conventions became a learning opportunity. “I’d find a jam and I’d put my recorder under the seat of the fiddlers and just keep it running. And then I’d go and dance on my board,” White said.

White would watch how those fiddlers used their bows, and he would listen back to the recordings. One of White’s favorite players on the festival circuit was Tommy Jarrell, a renowned fiddler from Mount Airy, North Carolina. “I used to wake up to Tommy Jarrell. I would go to sleep to Tommy Jarell. I was humming Tommy Jarrell. I was always whistling Tommy Jarrell,” White said.

A photo of a photograph laying on a table. The photograph is of Tommy Jarrell playing the fiddle.

Nicole Musgrave/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A photograph from Earl White’s collection showing old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell playing in a jam. White stands behind Jarrell’s shoulder on the left-hand side of the photograph.

It Was Always Played Together

When White was coming up as a fiddler in the 1970s, he was often one of only a few Black people at old-time gatherings. But his playing would spark memories for the older white musicians, like Jarrell. Seeing White bow his fiddle reminded them of an era when it was commonplace for Black and white old-time musicians to play together. “A lot of what I advocate is that old-time music is not a Black music, it’s not a white music. It was always played together,” White said.

But White explained that at a certain point, Black people started to feel less welcome at old-time gatherings. “A lot of the young people who might have continued those traditions, didn’t find comfort in going to those festivals. So as a result, the music was being lost in the Black community,” White said.

Other kinds of music—like blues and jazz—also started becoming more popular. “People didn’t want to square dance anymore. They wanted to shake their booties,” White said.

But on occasion, Earl did run across other Black old-time players at festivals. Like the time he met Joe Thompson, a master fiddler from Mebane, North Carolina. “When he saw me standing there playing, I thought the guy was gonna faint, you know. Or die, or something,” White said. “He thought he was the only and the last Black fiddler in the whole world.”

Meeting Joe Thompson sent White on a quest to find other Black fiddlers. But he had trouble tracking down historical details. “You saw a lot of pictures of Blacks holding banjos and Blacks holding a fiddle, but there’s generally no names associated with the people,” White said.

White explained that this erasure of Black contributions is another reason that old-time has been less popular in Black communities in recent decades. “If you don’t see yourself represented in the music, then there’s no reason to feel like you’ve ever had any kind of connection to it,” White said.

Earl White checking the bow of one of his fiddles.

Nicole Musgrave/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Earl White checks the bow of one of his fiddles. In addition to teaching, White regularly performs with his band, the Earl White Stringband.

But White is trying to change that. He regularly gives presentations about the participation and influence of Black players, and he organizes events around Floyd County that promote Black roots musicians. He, and his wife and bandmate Adrienne Davis, have also started a music camp on their farm called Big Indian Music Camp. “To me, part of that preservation is teaching the younger people,” White said.

At this point, most of White’s fiddle students are white. But he is teaching his pre-teen and teenage sons to play. And he hopes that by being an ambassador, he can continue to perpetuate Black traditions in old-time music. “If a young Black person sees another Black person playing, then they can say, ‘Oh wow, I can do that!’ And might be inspired. And so that’s a lot of my focus outside of the fact that I just personally enjoy it. I just love it,” White said.

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.