The Hammons family carried on ancient traditions of fiddling, banjo playing, ballad singing and story telling at their remote mountain home in Pocahontas County. Over the generations, their influence has had a pervasive and enduring effect on West Virginia's regional mountain music.
During Marlinton's Autumn Harvest Festival, at 7 p.m. today, the Pocahontas County Opera House invites musicians and the community to help celebrate this legacy with the Third Annual Hammons Musical Heritage Celebration.
The Hammonses came to Pocahontas County just before the Civil War. At that time, the young Paris Hammons accompanied his family as they moved from the Kentucky-West Virginia border and settled in the Williams River area of Pocahontas and Webster counties. It was Paris' children, Maggie, Burl and Sherman, whose music and stories were recorded and cataloged by local musician Dwight Diller and Library of Congress folklorists Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer.
Sherman Hammons, pictured, plays the fiddle in 1973. He and his family have been playing and singing traditional music in Pocahontas County for three generations, and the Pocahontas County Opera House will honor his family today during Marlinton’s Autumn Harvest Festival.
The result of their collaboration was the 1973 two-record album titled The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family's Traditions, which was later reissued by Rounder Records.
Prior to this, folklorist and West Virginia University professor Louis Chappell recorded the fiddle music of Paris' brother, Edden Hammons in a Richwood hotel room in 1947. This archive of 52 tunes was later released by West Virginia University Press in 1984 in two volumes as The Edden Hammons Collection.
While of no direct relation to Paris Hammons' descendants, Marlinton musician Lee Hammons also influenced an untold number of banjo players during the same period. A CD showcasing Lee Hammons' banjo playing was the first of a three-volume set of CDs featuring the various Hammonses, produced from the combined field recordings of Diller and Wayne Howard, spanning from 1969 to 1980 and released in 2005.
The Hammons family's "knowledge of music, storytelling, and woods lore have made them cultural guides and mentors since the late 19th century," Jabbour wrote in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
"The family's instrumental music includes a distinctive regional repertory of fiddle tunes forged on the early Appalachian frontier, as well as a banjo repertory, both picked and downstroked, of later vintage," Jabbour stated.
"Their singing tradition ranges from ancient British ballads through hundreds of American ballads and songs. All their music reflects a striking cultural synthesis, combining the artful irregularity and treble tension of the ancient British solo style with other Appalachian elements of Northern European, African-American, and possibly American Indian origin," Jabbour wrote. "Their storytelling is equally striking, featuring a distinctive rhetorical style and reflecting a fascination with the mysterious combined with skepticism about supernatural causes. Since the family subsisted on hunting, logging, trapping, and ginseng gathering for nearly two centuries, their woods lore was encyclopedic."
"The fact that the Hammonses evoke the wilderness of the early Appalachian frontier fueled a growing interest in the family during the late 20th century," Jabbour stated. "Thanks to documentary dissemination and a stream of visitors, they became symbols and resources for the next generation to tap."
Indeed, the Hammonses have profoundly shaped the sound and playing of local musicians, including Dwight Diller, Juanita Fireball and the Continental Drifters and many more.
In recent years, musicians from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina have taken to the Opera House stage to pay tribute to the Hammons family, celebrating their own diverse range of musical styles and talents.
Musicians and storytellers of all ages are invited to perform in the celebration. Performers will not be judged, but they will receive a gift from the Pocahontas County Opera House Foundation. Registration is free and is available in advance online at www.pocahontasoperahouse.org, or by calling B.J. Gudmundsson at 304-799-3989.
Registration will also be available today at the Opera House, beginning at 5:30 p.m. However, advance registration is encouraged.
Guidelines for performers include:
1. All instruments played should be acoustic.
2. Each participant/group should play/sing two tunes.
3. Participants may be one or more musicians.
4. "Traditional" music means playing/singing in the old-time style.
Doors will open approximately one hour before the event. Tickets are $8. Children 17 and under are admitted free of charge. Tickets are available in advance at pocahontasoperahouse.org.
The Pocahontas County Opera House is located at 818 Third Avenue in Marlinton. Performances at the Opera House are informal, family-friendly and open to all. The entrance and main seating are accessible to persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities are encouraged to attend; special accommodations can be arranged upon request by calling 304-799-6645.
The Opera House Performance Series is presented with financial assistance through a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and the National Endowment for the Arts, with approval from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. Financial support is also provided by Pocahontas County Drama, Fairs and Festivals, Pendleton Community Bank, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Law Office of Roger D. Forman, and Jerico Bed & Breakfast and Pre-Civil War Log Cabins.