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A 1982 Interview with Joe Birchfield
with Frank Weston
FRC201 & FRC1002(DVD)
This interview originally appeared in issue 45 (Spring
1989) of Tony Russell's Old Time Music magazine. Used by permission
JOE: I was born April 13th, 1912. There was eight of us, four girls and
four boys, practically all of them played music. My youngest brother Ellik,
he played with us for a while and he took a heart attack and died. He
played the banjo. And that boy of mine [Bill] plays the guitar. I've got
another boy that can play the guitar, but he won't play. He's 'shamed,
sorta, you know. I ain't ashamed to play before a million.
Frank Weston: How did you learn to play?
My father was a fiddler and a banjo picker too, and my uncles, all of
them could play a banjo, a fiddle or a guitar, anything they could get
ahold of. I played with one of my uncle's and got most of my practice
from him. He was the best fiddler you'd ever hear play a fiddle - John
Joe Birchfield and Frank Weston
(Photo copyright Sylvia Pitcher)
FW: Was it all your dad's family that played?
JOE: His mother was a good fiddler. She said, about an hour before she
died, she laid up in her bed and said, 'Bring me my fiddle, I want to
play a piece or two.' She played two or three tunes and laid the fiddle
down and was dead. That was from way back, that was my dad's mother, it
was inherited in the family of all of them.
I guess that was about 1901 when my uncle started. I'd go and stay with
him and we'd work of a day, me and him, hauling hay and cut wood and hauling
wood. He had a big pair of horses and I'd drive them and hail in wood
and chop wood. Didn't have no power saws - it was the old crosscut saw
you had to pull. And we'd work all day long till about dark, then we'd
go and eat supper and get our instruments and play awhile. He used to
live over yonder on Shell Creek when I was learning to play. I'd go across
the mountain and stay with him down there three weeks at a time. That
was before I was married.
FW: Have you played fiddle all the time, or did you ever lay it down?
JOE: Well, I first learned to play a banjo, the first thing I learned
to play. I was just a tiny little old feller and a banjo, I couldn't put
it up like this and pick it, my arms were too short. I'd lay it in a chair,
the head of it, and stand by the chair and pick it. I guess that was when
I was seven or eight years old. I might have been five.
FW: When did you start playing fiddle, then?
JOE: Well, I bought a guitar after that, yeah, and we went to playing
it. Well, I decided I'd like to be a fiddler and bought me a fiddle. Let
me tell you what the start was of the fiddle. I wanted a fiddle all the
time, and way back then in olden times you couldn't get hold of a fiddle
hardly at all. And my dad made me one. Made me a fiddle and bow and everything.
He made it out of an old cigar box. You've seen these wooden cigar boxes.
He cut soundholes in it like a fiddle and put a neck in it and glued it
up for me and it sounded pretty good. I learned to play on that thing.
I guess I was about 15, maybe 20 years old then. Then I quit the fiddle
for 30 years. I never played another tune on it, I sold my fiddle and
FW: Why was that?
JOE: Well, it was just a little after I first got married. I had one
of them fiddles made over in Germany. It was a dandy fiddle and I just
gave it away and got shet of it and I never played nothing for a long
time after. No music at all, never even played the guitar or picked up
the banjo, just went to the field and went to working. Times was hard
then, you know. That was right in the middle of the bad panic.
Then, after that, there came a boy here from up on Buck Mountain, he
had a fiddle. Finn Brewer, my neighbor over here - he had a fiddle - Finn
did - he came to Finn, this boy did, to sell Finn the fiddle, as it was
his business, you know. He was blind. Feller shot him right in the face
and put his eyes out. Well, he came over here and said, 'Finn Brewer told
me you might buy a fiddle.' I said 'I don't need no fiddle. What do you
want for that fiddle?' And he said, 'I'd take twenty-five dollars for
Well, I didn't want it, you know. I didn't want it at all. I had an old
guitar in the house there and I said, 'I tell you what I'll do.' He said
'I need some money awful bad.' He wanted some money to get drunk on. And
I said, 'I'll give you that guitar and a 10 dollar bill for that fiddle.'
And he said, 'I'll do it."
And when I came to find out what it was, it was one of them Strad fiddles,
Stradivarius, I got a bargain. I took it down here to a musician in North
Carolina, that music place where they test them out, you know, and had
him look at it, and he said it was the real thing. Said it was worth two
hundred thousand dollars. I said, "Well, I'm not hurting as bad as I thought
I was.' I just bought it for the sake of the boy. Boy, it was a good fiddle.
FW: Is that the one you still play?
JOE: No, I've got an old Kay fiddle I play. It's a good'n, it made all
those albums. Well, I bought the fiddle and I kept it around here awhile
and that boy of mine, he could play a guitar - he plays it left-handed
and notes down over the top of the neck like a Dobro. He got to playing
the guitar and he wanted me to go out with him on a trip. Well, the first
trip, we went me and him and my brother. My brother hadn't picked the
banjo in years and years. Me and him used to play together when we was
growing up but after we married we just quit. We'd go out and play for
the old dances, you know. Walked out yonder to Buck Mountain down here
and walk from across this mountain down in Rock Creek and play, you know.
[Rock creek is the area from Roan Mountain down to
Bakersfield, NC and is home to a number of musicians, probably the best
knows of whom are the Ledfords. Joe has a second cousin living there,
John Hobson, who plays the fiddle with Wayne Ledford when he isn't out
fox hunting. -FW]
JOE: We went over to his [Creede's] house, that boy of mine come over
and said, 'They're gonna have a convention over Slagle's pasture.' I said,
'Creede, let's go over and play in it. We'll just play for the fun of
it.' And he said, 'Well, I don't care if we do. We'll just have a big
patch of fun if we don't win nothing.' We went over there and won first
place. That beat me, I didn't have a bit of idea of it.
Well, William Brewer, he come down to the Creede's - he's a friend of
mine picks guitar, I've played with him a whole lot - he come down to
Creede's house to hear us play some. We told him we was going to Slagle's
Convention and he come down to hear us. His brother [Finn Brewer] sent
him down to hear us. He said he'd like to hear us play to see whether
we's any talent or not.
Creede said 'William, I'm a-going over there to get the money', and by
gum, we went over there and won first place. Creede walked up to him and
said, 'William, didn't I tell you I was going to get the money?" William
just run off from him. That was somewhere in the 50s.
We played from then on, me and him did, we went to all the conventions.
We went all up in Virginia and down in Indiana, Memphis, Tennessee, we've
been everywhere. We've got a trip tomorrow. We go to Nashville, Tennessee,
at a festival there. I played down there last year at the same place.
FW: When did you make your first recordings?
JOE: We done that last year, that was the first one. We had a thousand
albums made last year.
ETHEL (Joe's wife): We also did Brandywine last year.
FW: What are some of the tune that you play?
Joe: I couldn't tell you half of them, one third of them. I could be
settin' a-playing and they just come to me, and I play them that I haven't
played in no telling when. We played some 360-some making them albums.
Yeah, 360. Wasn't that a whole lot? You know, when you're playing for
dances, you're playing for one thing and another, you just play some certain
ones for that. You hardly ever plays the others that you knows, just keep
on those for people to dance to.
FW: Do you play for many dances now?
JOE: Yeah, I played for one last time I was out, at a dance they had
over here at the park, a square dance. We went to an old time fiddler's
convention over there at Knoxville [during the World's Fair] - they brought
it from up in Galax, Virginia, and we went to it over there. But it was
a worked-up piece of business for all them Virginia fellers to win. There
was another good band there, the best band you ever heared played, and
then didn't come in nowhere.
FW: Did you ever play at Galax yourself?
JOE: Yeah, a time or two at Galax, but them Virginia fellers up there,
they won't let nothing go out, I'm telling ye. They hold everything for
there. Well, you can't blame 'em. I don't care what a good musicianer
is, if he's [from] away from there and goes there, he don't get much.
No, he don't get a thing.
FW: Do you still play banjo?
JOE: Yeah, fiddle, banjo and guitar. I backed that there boy of mine
up [on guitar] when he won on autoharp. He won first place on that autoharp
up in Mountain City. I won first place [on fiddle] and he won first place
on hit. Them fellers that was up there, when they seed us there they turned
the awfullest colors. Yeah, they turned red as fire in the face and then
pale as death. They just said, 'Well, now I'm beat.' There was a feller
over here at Mountain City come out there, he's a good fiddler, but he
bet with a feller, said, 'I'll be you a hundred dollars that I win first
prize.' Well, after I played - a whole lot of musicians played there,
about 30-some - after I played, they called it off, me first place. He
lost his hundred dollars. That was Tim Powers, you might have heard him
FW: Is he a young man?
JOE: He's not as old as I am. He's about 50-some, maybe 60. He's from
right there [Mountain City]. He was joking and laughified, till after
that happened he just calmed down and he wouldn't talk to no one. Now
it's a hard matter to bring one up against me to beat.
ETHEL: I took the show away from them in Knoxville. See, I tell these
old-timey jokes, you know, tales and riddles. I learned them when I was
a young'n. And these songs I know, I had a little gramophone and learned
some of 'em off that. Then I've got one I wrote about this little girl,
that's a true song, it's on them albums. Then I tell fortunes, play the
washboard - and before I lost my teeth played the French harp, jew's harp
- sing, dance, tell jokes, tell riddles, they work me to death. I don't
care, though, I enjoy myself.
FW: Do you think that you enjoy playing more now than you did?
JOE: Yeah, I got disabled to work at anything and it's a hobby for me,
and I like to play. If I was able to work now it would knock me out of
playing. Back when I was able to work and hold a job I never fooled with
it, but since I've got disabled I just take it for a hobby.
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