Long before the rise of the radio and the advent of the record player, the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania rang with the music of fiddle and fife, with old melodies first brought to the New World by immigrants from Britain, Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Many of the players couldn’t read music, so the tradition spread aurally from one generation to the next. Thriving communities of fiddlers fueled the local dance halls in places like Derry in Westmoreland County and Dunbar in Fayette County, and fifers played traditional marches in holiday parades.
Now, listeners can hear those tunes brought to life once more with a new album from a pair of local musicians celebrating this region’s own musical tradition. Behind The Door by fiddler Mark Tamsula and banjo player Richard Withers includes about 20 tracks featuring the fiddle, the fife and old-style vocals.
It’s the third in a series of recordings by the pair based on the traditional melodies collected by late Penn State University folklorist Samuel Preston Bayard.
It was in 1928 in the hills surrounding Dunbar that Bayard, then just 20 years old, found the cache of fiddlers he’d use as the main source for his 1944 book of ‘old-time’ melodies, Hill Country Tunes. They were older men, former miners, farmers and gunsmiths, one even a toymaker.
A Harvard-educated Pittsburgher, Bayard didn’t have the benefit of a recording device, so he took down the Dunbar men’s tunes by hand.
“He didn’t have a car at the time, so if he could hitch a ride with the milkman or somebody, they’d take him to see someone, and that fiddler would refer him to someone else,” said Behind The Door fiddler Mark Tamsula. “So, he traveled around through Greene County, Washington County, even into Ohio and West Virginia to some degree.”
One of the men Bayard interviewed, Pete Provance, a former miner born around 1858, remembered learning melodies from a fifer who’d lost his leg in the Civil War. Provance recalled asking the man to play for him.
“He would go out to the main street of Dunbar and there march up and down playing continually until he had ‘blowed hisself clean out,’” Bayard wrote of the old fifer in Hill Country Tunes.
Tamsula said Bayard started his mission of collecting folk tunes when he saw that radio and records would change the musical landscape in America.
“Bayard saw this technology was going to be changing everything, because people wouldn’t be playing music quite the same way anymore,” Tamsula said. “They were going to be pressured to play something more contemporary sounding, and in a few decades, bluegrass and country music kind of dominated this scene, and the 300-year-old traditions kind of got shoved aside at that point.”
Most of the melodic lines on Behind The Door are played on a combination of Tamsula’s fiddle and Richard Withers' banjo, but Withers also pitches in a melody now and then with a wooden flute that mimics the sound of an old-time fife, just an octave lower.
“A lot of these came back from fife and drum corps from the Civil War with a lot of fiddlers and dance music going on in the same communities. So the two traditions overlapped,” Withers said. “Some of the musicians were the same. There were fiddlers who were also fifers, but they certainly swapped tunes back and forth, and so Bayard was interested in capturing the whole scene.”
In the two volumes he published in his 28-year tenure as professor of folklore at Penn State, Bayard only included instrumental melodies, but he did have an interest in the oral tradition as well, jotting down folk songs during his travels.
Traditional singer Ellen Gozion brings two of those songs, "Over the River to Charlie" and "Geordie," to life on the Behind The Door recording.
“He did not publish any of his songs, so to find these songs, I drove up to Penn State’s main campus and looked through cardboard boxes of loose manuscript,” Gozion said.
Gozion said "Geordie" was transcribed as sung by a man born in 1859.
“That puts him from a different era altogether, so it’s kind of fun to find a song from someone who lived through the Civil War,” Gozion said.
She said the lyrics are from an old Northumbrian ballad, but the tune is uniquely Pennsylvanian. Gozion described western Pennsylvania as a crossroads between established folk music traditions in New England, southern Appalachia and eastern Pennsylvania.
Withers said even among what he calls the "old time music crowd," the traditional tunes unique to western Pennsylvania are not often heard here or anywhere else in Appalachia.
“We tend to think of other regions as being more represented musically, and thanks to Bayard, we have this legacy of really a cultural heirloom that, otherwise, people wouldn’t know about,” Withers said.
Withers said he hopes the new album and its two preceding recordings help to define the contributions of southwestern Pennsylvania to the greater Appalachian musical tradition.
“I think Pittsburghers don’t recognize themselves as being part of this region, and I’ve heard people here talking about Appalachia as though it’s some far-off place,” Withers said. “That’s part of what we’re doing here, too, is recognizing that we are part of a region. It’s a distinct Appalachian region, but it’s still part of the bigger Appalachian culture.”