Courtesy of Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club
The Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club onstage at the Roanoke Civic Center.
The Blue Ridge bluegrass tradition lives on in Roanoke, Va.
Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club keeps the music alive
BY DEBBIE NASON
When you visit Roanoke, be sure to catch the monthly performance of the Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club.
This cultural gem showcases the longstanding Bluegrass traditions of the southern Appalachians. Twelve acoustic groups perform for twenty minutes each, with selections ranging from soulful a capella singing to joyous clogging (traditional Appalachian dancing) to energetic ensembles of mandolin, guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass and steel guitar.
The concert is usually held the first Saturday of every month, from 6:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. (the informal atmosphere allows for patrons to come late and/or leave early). During the colder months, the venue is the Roanoke Civic Center. In summertime, locations might include the Vinton or Salem farmer's markets. Admission is free, donations requested.
The concert experience transports you back to an earlier time, before television or radio, when entertainment meant playing music along with family and friends.
As you enter the corridors of the Roanoke Civic Center, even before entering the auditorium, you suddenly come upon groups of musicians in very tight circles, practicing their numbers and jamming with one another.
As you pass by each circle of musicians, you are amazed at the intensity of their commitment. All these musicians perform for free; many have done so for years.
For Robert Dowdy, banjo player and lead vocalist of the popular Dowdy Brothers, one of the most important reasons for playing for the Fiddle and Banjo Club is to get his children involved in playing Bluegrass. "I started playing here with my brothers when I was twelve years old," he says.
Now in his forties, Dowdy brings his own children onstage to play with the band. "It takes the youngsters to keep the heritage alive," he says.
Once you enter the auditorium, you see a bare stage with a red barn and fields for backdrop. As he has done for over 31 years, emcee Hillard Jones rules the roost. With his cowboy hat, Appalachian twang, and forceful energy, he announces each act and banters with the crowd. He is the fearsome but good-natured keeper of the timeclock, making sure that the performers stick to their allotted twenty minutes.
The Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo club was founded in 1969 to "foster and preserve old-time and bluegrass music." The club comprises 24 bands and three clogging groups, and the music spans genres and generations.
Along with Old-Time music (the traditional music that developed in isolated Appalachian communities through the 1930s) and Bluegrass (pioneered by Bill Monroe in the 1940s from his own Old-Time roots), some Gospel music is also thrown into the mix.
Overall, the music is spiritual, energizing, soulful, yearning and joyful. The plaintive wails of some singers send shivers up the spine. Oftentimes, performers will give the lineage of the pieces they perform -- where they originated, who performed them in the past, how they have evolved.
Kinney Rorrer, host of a local Appalachian-music radio program, describes some differences between Old Time Music and Bluegrass:
"Old Time music usually is played slower whereas Bluegrass is often played a lot faster and pitched in a higher key. Bluegrass also often features 3 or 4-part harmony singing while Old Time tends to be more instrumental in nature.
"Singing is usually done solo. Old Time music's songs and instrumentals are often drawn from folk sources. Old Time music is closer to its roots: Scots-Irish fiddle tunes and ballads and African-American blues. Bluegrass instrumentals and songs usually have known authors such as Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, etc," he says.
The Fiddle and Banjo Club celebrates an American art form with roots in Western Europe and the British Isles. As emcee Hillard Jones says, "We have a ball and it's a ball that keeps on rolling."
Don't miss it.
The next concert will be held at the Roanoke Civic Center on April 14th, 2001 from 6:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
For more information
Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club
Newsgroup on Southern Fiddle and Banjo music
"Back to the Blue Ridge," weekly radio program on NPR
Debbie Nason is a Roanoke-based freelance writer.
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