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The Ashby Family and Friends of Fauquier County Virginia
By Sandy Hofferth (original article appeared in the
Old Time Herald)
Skip Ashby, a winner at the 2005 Appalachian String Band Music Festival
at Clifftop, WV, is the latest in a long line of fiddlers going back several
generations and a link in a chain of musicians in the Warrenton area of
Fauquier County, VA, that goes back a century and a half. The Free State
Ramblers, one of the longest running bands ever, started in the 1930s
and are still active today, playing for private parties, fairs and festivals
in Fauquier County.
The musical tradition of the Ashbys of Fauquier County, Virginia, predates
the Civil War. An early Fauquier County history reports that the musicians
for a Fauquier White Sulphur Springs (now Fauquier Springs Country Club)
dance (in its heyday in the 1840s and 1850s) were "the Ashby boys."
Skip is an 8th generation descendent of Captain Thomas Ashby of Virginia,
who was born in 1680 and lived in Frederick Co, VA until his death in
1752. Captain Thomas Ashby's son, Robert, founded Yew Hill in Delaplane,
VA. His son, Captain John Ashby, a captain of the 3rd Virginia regiment
in the Revolutionary War and Skip's great great great grandfather, lived
at Belmont. Skip's great great grandfather Nimrod Ashby Sr. was a captain
in the War of 1812. Up to this point the Ashby's were military heroes
and businessmen, but not musicians, at least as far as the record goes.
This story begins with Nimrod Thomson Ashby, son of Nimrod Ashby
Sr. Nimrod Thomson Ashby (1811-1875) married Adelia Smith, a Marshall,
and they were deeded a large property called Sherburn Farm —
some 237 acres — with a pre-Civil War farmhouse that was renovated
around 1860. From this family originated a musical dynasty. Nimrod
had 10 children, including John Marshall Ashby (1856-1927) and Joseph
Edward Ashby (1857-1940). Joseph told of his father Nimrod, a military
officer in the Civil War, coming home late at night and letting
the dogs in to warm up by the fire. Their barking woke up the entire
family: "Hated to see him come home and glad to see him go."
The Ashby's have retained much of that original property, dividing
it up among family members and continuing to farm the land.
The Joseph Edward Ashby Family
We know that Joseph Edward Ashby was a fiddler. The recollections of
Joseph's grandson Moffett are that he played with a shaking, palsied arm.
Joseph sat by the stove and fiddled in his log cabin between Carter's
Run and South Run. One year it rained so hard that the area was flooded.
Joseph got up several times, looked out the window, and went back to fiddling.
His grandson remembers house parties in which they would pull the carpet
back and dance on the wooden floor. The musicians played fiddle and banjo
primarily, with an occasional guitar. It is unclear how much Joseph actually
"played out," that is, played for the public instead of by the
stove or on the back porch, but his influence did not end there. His influence
continued through his children and his famous nephew John C. Ashby.
Joseph had two sons, Milton Moffett Ashby, Sr., (1895-1982) and Irving
Council Ashby (1906-1993). Although he himself did not play, Milton Moffett
Ashby Sr. had a son, Milton Moffett Ashby, Jr. (born in 1917), who taught
himself to play the guitar, playing with a straight pick on a dreadnought-style
guitar. He was the guitar player in the classic Free State Ramblers of
Joseph's other son, Irving Council Ashby, became a banjo player. Irving
played a pick/strum style of banjo playing that was common in that area
during the period. His wife Louise (Reid) (1912-2005) reported an incident
during their courtship (late 1920s). In a cool spell, Irving put his banjo
over a hot lamp to tighten up the head, but it got too close and put a
hole in it instead. She was very disappointed as she had been looking
forward to dancing and almost broke up the relationship over this.
Irving's son George Edward Sr. (1931-1998) did not play music. His son,
(George) Edward Jr., (born in 1956) plays guitar and fiddle, and is a
former member of the group Ashby Gap. Edward's son, Jason (born in 1974),
is a guitar-player and singer.
The John Marshall Ashby Family and its most Renowned
Fiddler, John Ashby
Although we don't know what instruments John Marshall Ashby played,
we know that his son, John Chilton Ashby, born 1915, became one of the
most popular and best-known fiddlers of Fauquier County from the 1930s
through the 1970s.
began playing fiddle when he was 11 years old. His early influences were
his Uncle Joseph, from whom he learned "Broad Run Picnic," named
for a river flowing through Fauquier County, and John L. Sullivan, from
whom he learned the Ashby tune played today by most old-time fiddlers,
"Johnny Don't Get Drunk." John L. Sullivan was postmaster of
Bealeton and "the" fiddler in the 1920s. Other influences include
Walter Graham, John Sinclair, ("Rattlesnake bit the Baby"),
and Cy Kines. The "Free State Hornpipe," also known as the "Hornpipe
in A" or the "Hilltop Hornpipe," came from Winchester fiddler,
Ralph Lamp. John is said to have composed "Ashby's Breakdown,"
"Going to the Free State," and the "Fauquier County Hornpipe."
John was tall and lean. His "long-bow" style of fiddling was
efficient in noting, and powerful and rhythmic in bowing. It is reminiscent
of that of Clark Kessinger, the West Virginia fiddler, and that of Benton
Flippen, the North Carolina fiddler. John was influenced by radio, with
some of his influences the Crook Brothers ("Lady of the Lake"),
the Skillet Lickers ("Liberty"), Fiddlin' Arthur Smith ("Sugar
Tree Stomp"), and Charlie Bowman ("Sally Ann"). Sherburn's
Breakdown is similar to the Texas tune "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star."
In listening to many of his tunes, I notice fewer chord changes than musicians
use today and a slightly slower pace. To John, rhythm and timing were
everything. Skip said that he preferred his musicians to stay on the same
chord and keep time rather than to change chords and lose the timing.
At one point Skip remembers John telling him to "just stay in D."
John played for dances every Saturday and the type of dance required a
somewhat slower but very regular timing and rhythm.
Cyril (Cy) Kines (1907-1994), a close friend and colleague of John Ashby,
was active in music all his life. He spent time overseas with Connie B.
Gay during World War II and played on radio station WARL in Washington,
DC, where he did contract work for the U.S. Government Printing office
and at the Alexandria Torpedo Factory. After retiring to Gainesville,
VA, he operated the Huntingwood Motel on Rt 29/211 and farmed. He played
fiddle for square dances in the Warrenton area, and played at the old
Huntsman Restaurant, now Brown's Antiques, on Rt. 29 and 211. In later
years he played with the Cedar Run Homesteaders for nursing homes in the
Warrenton area with Loren and Rebecca Eastman, Morton MacDonald, Lowell
Kline, Mark Magiolo, Bob D'Agostero, and others. One of Cy's tunes is
transcribed in Christeson's The Old Time Fiddlers Repertory, vol. 2. Cy's
music was heavily influenced by the Missouri fiddlers, especially Lyman
Enloe, and he played several of Enloe's tunes, including "Oklahoma
Redbird," and "Shaeffer's Lumber Wagon." He had several
unusual tunes with unknown origins: "Courting the Girls from Baltimore"
and "Lucy Neill."
John Ashby, with cousin Irving on banjo and neighbor Edgar Payne or
brother Marshall on guitar, began playing together about 1930 (photograph).
By the early 1940s the band had developed into a group they named the
Free State Ramblers. This classic band that played from the 1940s through
about 1956 consisted of John on fiddle, cousin Moffett Ashby (Jr) on guitar,
John's brother Marshall on bass, Morrison Greene on mandolin, and Bill
Robinson on banjo. (Photograph of John, Moffett, Morrison, Marshall, and
Bill Robinson) Bill Robinson played a two-finger picking style and a frailing
style. Moffett tells that after playing the two-finger style for a while
Bill switched to "beating" the banjo. Moffett recalls that Robinson
began coming to dances and saying that he "forgot" his banjo.
Instead, he would pull out his whistle during the "Paul Jones"
(mixers) to tell folks when to stop and change partners. They eventually
discovered that the store had repossessed the banjo. Bill was known to
"stretch a tale," to exaggerate and tell tall tales.
The name "the Free State Ramblers" has a colorful history.
Sherburn Farm, the center of Ashby property, is located about 3 miles
from Orlean in an area of about 12 square miles called The Free State.
The first settlers had long-term leases from Lord Fairfax. However, in
1806 this land was purchased by Chief Justice John Marshall. When he tried
to collect rent, his new tenants refused to pay rent, taxes, or to attend
schools or church. They declared themselves independent of the U.S. and
named a King. John Ashby's uncle Charlie was King of the Free State in
the late 19th century. Eventually, after 25 years, the Free Staters lost
in court. Meanwhile, Marshall, VA, named for the chief justice, was unsurpassed
by any frontier town in the old west in its reputation as a dangerous
place. Residents shuttered their windows at night to protect themselves
from gunfire that erupted regularly over disputes. Residents were said
to take the law into their own hands. The legend of the Free-Staters as
fiercely self-reliant and independent freethinkers continues to this day.
Residents of the area still tend to be wary about intellectuals, outsiders,
and the government. Moffett tells that when he was in school the other
kids used to make fun of folks living in the Free State as being ignorant
As musicians, the Free State Ramblers gained an excellent reputation
in the 1940s. Early in their career they competed in their first fiddle
convention in Front Royal and John won first place. John and the Ramblers
played at Constitution hall from 1938 to 1943 for the National Folk Festival.
At the peak of their career, in 1946 they traveled to Cleveland, Ohio,
and won the band competition. After winning another contest sponsored
by Connie B. Gay in Warrenton, they played occasionally over Connie B.
Gay's radio show on WARL in Washington, DC, for the two years from 1947
to 1949. They would travel from Warrenton to Washington, play 2-3 numbers,
and head home. Moffett tells about the time they were hired to perform
at a major hotel in Washington, DC and dressed in the stereotype of country
musicians by wearing overalls instead of their usual suits. When they
got there, the doorman refused to let them in, until they finally convinced
him that they were hired to perform. In the Warrenton area they played
for dances at places like the Rockwood Dance Hall in Warrenton (now McLanahan's
Camera Shop), the Cliffton Fire Hall, and Midway Hall in Bealeton. Dances
went from 9 to 1 and they made $10 a person. The dances were Paul Jones
and round dances and did not need a caller. After Bill Robinson stopped
playing the banjo, he played the whistle for the dances.
Although he played music every weekend for house parties and dances,
music did not pay the bills. John farmed and worked as a carpenter by
trade. On the staff at Airlie estate for about 11 years, he worked with
other Free State craftsmen to renovate the buildings. The founder of the
Airlie Foundation, Dr. Murdoch Head, remembered him as a man of "quiet
dignity, good humor, and absolute integrity" (Burrage, 1975).
During the late 1940s and early 1950s the band added Everett Ashby on
electric steel guitar, influenced by the steel guitar craze in that period.
John's brother Marshall died in 1955 and Moffett stopped playing with
the band in 1956. Moffett says that because they always had a dance or
other gig on weekends, he and his wife Dorothy were never able to do anything
else. He wanted to be able to have some fun and to support his three boys.
So the band once again changed its personnel. At that time Moffett's son
Richard and John's son Skip began playing the guitar behind John's fiddling.
Ronnie Poe took over the banjo duties with his Scruggs-influenced style.
On the bass they had Howard Goff or Jack Frazier on bass.
In the 1970s, John made three albums for County records. Accompanying
John Ashby were cousin Richard Ashby, Ashby Kyhl, or Skip Ashby on guitar
or bass, Ronnie Poe on banjo, and Jack Frazier on bass. John Ashby and
The Free State Ramblers, Old Virginia Fiddling, was released in 1970 (County
727); Down on Ashby's Farm, Fine Old Fiddle Tunes, was released in 1974
(County 745); and the third album John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers,
Fiddling by the Hearth, was released in 1979 (County 773).
Toward the end of his life John received national recognition. In 1978
he won first place for old-time fiddler and best all-around performer
at the Galax (VA) Old time Fiddler's Convention. He played at the National
Folk Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Northern Virginia in 1978. John
Chilton Ashby died in May 1979. He was 64 years old.
Skip Ashby – the Fiddling Continues
Skip (George Everett) Ashby was born in 1943. Skip started to play guitar
at age 15 but did not join the Free State Ramblers until he got out of
the Air Force in 1968. Skip has a reputation as a top-notch rhythm guitar
player. He says that there was no need to learn the fiddle when he was
young because there were so many great fiddlers around. However, most
have passed on; to fill the gap he took up the fiddle some 20 years ago.
Besides his father, Skip was influenced by fiddlers such as Benton Flippen
(North Carolina), Lyman Enloe (Missouri), Pete McMahon (Missouri), and
Bobby Taylor (West Virginia). He married the former Ann Davidson in 1965
and they have two children, John D. Ashby and Janet Rehanek and 4 grandchildren.
The current Free State Ramblers is composed of Skip on fiddle, Richard
Ashby on Guitar, Ronnie Poe on banjo, Ashby Kyhl on guitar, and T.J. Morgan
Skip is renovating the original farmhouse at Sherburn Farm and he and
Ann are planning on moving there once the renovations are complete. An
annual reunion at the old home place in September is renowned for its
good food and fine fiddling.
The Bluemont Concert Series held a series of five concerts from 1981
through 1989 to pay tribute to John Ashby and old-time fiddling in Fauquier
County, but these have not been held for more than a decade. If it were
not for Skip and his band, traditional fiddling would have pretty much
died out in Fauquier County.
Thanks to George Edward Ashby, Jr., Milton Moffett Ashby, Jr., Skip
and Ann Ashby, and Peter Dunning for their recollections, articles, and
photos of John and the Ashby family shared with me. Also thanks to Loren
Eastman, Merry Robin Bachetti, and Landon Kines for information on Cy
- John Ashby and The Free State Ramblers, Old Virginia Fiddling, 1970
- Down on Ashby's Farm, Fine Old Fiddle Tunes, 1974 (County 745)
- John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers, Fiddling by the Hearth, 1979
(There is no plan to reissue these three out-of-print Ashby recordings.)
- Burrage, Feroline. 1975. A King of the Country Fiddlers. Piedmont
Virginian, The Plains, VA, September.
- Christner, Henry. Fauquier's Free State. The
Virginia Hunt Country. 3rd edition, pp. 14-15, 102, 1976.
- The Fauquier Citizen. 1989. Concert honors Fauquier's great Fiddler,
The Fauquier Citizen, April 28.
- Love, Spencie. 1978. Ramblin' fiddle: After 50 years, Ashby's fame
has grown. The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg,
VA, October 23.
- Meade, Guthrie, 1970. Notes to John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers,
Old Virginia Fiddling, County Records 727, April 1970.
- Reese, Lee Fleming. 1976. The Ashby Book:
Descendents of Captain Thomas Ashby of Virginia. Lee Fleming
- Scolforo, Mark. 1989. John Ashby tribute to recognize old-time Free
State Fiddler. The Fauquier Democrat.
Warrenton, VA, April 27.
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