The Mysterious Myers Brothers of Five Forks

Listen to the beautifully mysterious “Twin Sisters” played on Fiddle and Banjo by Sidna and Fulton Myers
Sidna Myers as photographed by John Cohen in 1965

When I heard the tune named Twin Sisters (listen above)by Sidna and Fulton Myers,I knew I had to learn it. It had everything. A title that made you wonder, a modal sounding-deep in the mountains-feel, and my favorite setting, just fiddle and banjo. Old style. The way of the Holler.

Not only did I want to play it, I wanted to know everything about it. Where did it come from? Who were these musicians What did it mean? In other words, as I often do, I became obsessed.

It turns out that my search would lead me first to Ithaca, New York, to Long Island, and Manhattan then down to Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and ultimately, to 11 miles from here in the holler to Five Forks, Carroll County, and to graveyards across SW Virginia. This journey had some strange and fun hairpin turns, major potholes and dead end roads along the way.

Sidna and Fulton Myers lived in a very rural area, just a few miles north of Hillsville, VA. in a village known as Five Forks. Although not remarkably rugged the pastures of the area sit comfortably at about one half mile above sea level. According to locals, the Myers brothers were born and lived, as far as is known, in Five Forks all of their lives. Sidna Monteville Myers was born on September 25, 1890 and died December 18, of 1972. His younger brother James Fulton Myers, came along four years later, on April 22 of 1894 and died on January 3 of 1979. That much we do know for pretty much sure. Facts beyond that are more than a bit fuzzy.

Sidna and Fulton resided in a Virginia world, that was much different than mine. Neither of the brothers ever had electricity or running water on their farms. Crop and livestock work was hard, involving battling rocky soil and a host of predators, and, at times we know at least Fulton went to work on and off in the furniture mills of Galax. The neighbors lovingly remember the brothers, from the time they were young men, playing tunes together on into the night on one or the other’s back porches.

Over time they learned a local SW Virginia repertoire that included tunes in the style of both Galax and nearby Round Peak, and we know that they traded tunes with the likes of Tommy Jarrell as well as the Ward and Crockett families. That was later. When you really listen, though, what comes through is the Myers brothers, playing their hearts out in a smooth, mystifying old time style that was shaped by the Blue Ridge life they lived. If you listen, you can hear the meanness of their work, the beauty of their surroundings, the tragedies of their lives and the echoes of those who had gone before them.

“Now they were old fashioned,” fiddler Wayne Lowe once told folklorist Kevin Donleavy, with his wife, Edna chiming in, “They stayed the old time way.”

Fulton Myers

Wayne also recalled that Sidna often wore the old time button up shoes from early in the past century but as to the music the brothers played, he was exuberant.

“They played the smoothest music I believe I ever heard,” he recalled. “That music was like floating on water!” Thus begins the mystery of the Myers brothers.

Sometime in the summer of 1962, a 22 year old geology student at the University of Pittsburg, Peter Hoover, loaded a banjo and some sophisticated, borrowed recording equipment into the back of his parents car and headed for the South.

It was Peter’s second trip to the area around Carroll and Grayson counties in Virginia in search of real, authentic banjo music. On his first trip he had met such local luminary musicians as Wade Ward and Glen Smith (Smith is another mysterious figure in local circles, a great banjo player who won many contests and appears in several collections of music including Peter Hoover’s, he was from the same area, as was another musician by the same name who later moved to West Virginia and claimed fame there, very confusing, but its history!)

Anyway, Smith had told Peter that he had to hear and record the Myers brothers and told him how to find them. When Peter got there, he realized that the first problem was that he had absolutely no where near to plug in his humongous tape recorder. Patiently, he pleaded with Sidna and Fulton to help him find some place to plug in so that he could record them. When they played their smooth, powerful tunes there on the porch he nearly demanded them to help him.

Listen to Sidna and Fulton play “Shady Grove” in a unique modal setting, unlike many of the other versions
Spraker’s Store Five Forks, VA

So, Peter, the Myers brothers, and a few tag alongs headed up to Spraker’s General Store, a modest little country store that had the only electricity in the area. There, on a summer day, Peter Hoover brought the spotlight of the infant folk music revival onto the music of two brothers who didn’t even own a record player between them. During the recordings, sometimes you can hear a small grandchild bump the recorder and slow it down. It was both reel to reel and real!

The Myers preferred to play in the oldest style of Virginia music. Banjo and fiddle. No guitar, no bass, nothing between the melodic whine of the fiddle and the ringing drum of the banjo. All of their music was learned by ear, by listening to others, or through the painful process of memory, hearing a tune and then trying later to scratch it out. This was the way it was in the mountains when the African Americans first brought the instrument to the South and the minstrel shows popularized it. This was how the settlers in the Blue Ridge, finding they could fashion a banjo out of wood and hide first played it. In perfect synchrony with the mesmerizing tunes of the fiddle, brought from many places around the globe and sifted through the rugged hills and hollers of the mountains. Listen to how the Myers set Shady Grove. It is Five Forks Shady Grove, for sure.

Fulton, who somehow garnered the nickname “Jimmy Natural,” played in a style of fiddle that as Charlie Faurot later said, “was pure rural music.” This was dance music, the dance music of 100 years ago, when the Myers were young men, and they played it well. The boys had been playing since they were 8 or 9 years old, learning first from their father and according to Kerry Blech, who wrote a review of the CD made from Peter Hoover’s tapes, from “Old Man” Mac Farmer who gave Fulton his first fiddle. It was during these early years that they first traveled a few miles to North Carolina to learn tunes from Tommy Jarrell and his Civil War era fiddler father, Ben Jarrell.

The recordings that Peter Hoover are luscious, rich reminders of Appalachia’s past played by people with a strong sense of passion about their place, their Blue Ridge Mountain homes. So impressive were they when the New York Folk elite heard them, they immediately had to travel South. Three years later, Sidna’s banjo plasying came to the attention of banjoist, film maker, folklorist and “Beat Generation” survivor, John Cohen. Cohen, who lived on Long Island, had decided, after hearing snippets of various recordings and having founded with Mike Seeger (Pete’s half brother) The New Lost City Ramblers, a folk-revival group playing old time music in New York City, he needed to go South.

So Cohen threw his smaller recorder, various instruments, a few clothes, into his Volkswagen Beetle and somehow convinced his wife, Penney to climb in with their five month old daughter, Sonya, and headed down to the Blue Ridge. John’s first stop was the home of Sidna Myers. There he recorded Sidna’s banjo artistry on two songs. The first was a solo banjo version of Twin Sisters (the haunting tune at the top of this page) and the second was “Alabama Girls” a tune that Sidna claims to have made up and chided Cohen to learn. These are both stunning examples of clawhammer artistry and Cohen, who was a banjo player was very impressed.

These recordings that Cohen made, would sit in his New York home for nearly 10 years. Besides Sidna, he went to the houses of Wade Ward in Galax, E.C. and Orna Ball in the Mouth of Wilson, and headed on over to North Carolina to record Frank Proffit, Doc Watson’s father-in-law, Gaither Carlton and a host of musicians and ballad singers. Then in 1974, Rounder Records, deep into 10 years of folk revival recordings, ask John to produce the collection. And produce he did, complete with stunning photos. The album did well over the years and was critically acclaimed and, in 1995, Rounder re-issued the collection on CD and added 30 more minutes of original recordings. Big stuff for a musicologist.

In 1968, another knock came on the Myers brother’s doors. This time it was a Yale educated Manhattanite named Charlie Faurot rented a house in Galax. Another banjo player, Faurot sought out the Myers brothers with another, even smaller recorder and recorded 10 unique and powerful tunes from the brothers. Two of these tunes made it to later releases by. Faurot and County Records owner Dave Freeman, both the famed Clawhammer Banjo Volumes in 2004, and the Legends of Old Time Music Box Set in 2015.. I think its important to note that at this point, the brothers had not (nor ever did) garner one cent for all this recording work. They both seemed to love that these young folks with fancy electric machines wanted to record them and neither encouraged or discouraged them. In true rural fashion, they just played the tunes they had to play.

The Myers Brothers

In the coming years, many others would trek to Five Forks and record them. The last known field recordings were made by Blanton Owen, who had a session in 1973 recording Fulton, a year after Sidna died. These tracks were later released on a very successful but controversial set called “The Old Originals” on Rounder. Controversial because esteemed White Top Mountain fiddler Albert Hash felt that Owen and his recording partner had not really let the musicians know that these recordings were going to be published by a big industry firm and that they used “rough sounding” takes that didn’t really represent the skill of the mountain musicians who were featured.

In 2005, the Field Recorder’s Collective, a group of old time music collectors led by another New Yorker, Ray Alden who was a teacher who frequently made his own trips to the area, released 25 tunes that Peter Hoover had recorded on their own label, simply known as FRC504-Sidna and Fulton Myers.

So, at least three prominent musicologists, two funded folklorists, and five separate releases of the Myers recordings had been out in the public since the early 70’s to 2015, being issued and reissued. In old time folk music, that is notoriety! But here’s my question. All of these young visitors, all of these years of listening by banjo and fiddle addicts and this article contains the sum total of what we know about these very talented and well recorded brothers.

My search, so far, has turned up a few neighbors, quite a few locals who play their tunes especially a beautiful quirky dance tune called “Sweet Grapes,’ but no one seems to know a thing more about them. Especially Sidna. Blanton Owen wrote the few things we know about Fulton, but no one seemed to say much about Sidna, except that he “always had a chaw.”

In this hero worshipping culture of ours we seem to know every detail about our musical performers. Who they sleep with, what they eat, where they shop, and so on. Well, here’s the kicker. I decided to hunt down the long gone brothers and say a few words of gratitude to them both. I travelled first, of course to Five Forks to look for Cemeteries. I found one. Just a few feet from Spraker’s store where Peter Hoover first recorded them. The Shiloh Methodist Cemetery. I got out on a windy spring day and walked the small plot. No luck. I succumbed, I googled. No “Find a Grave” listing for a Sidna Myers or Fulton Myers.

However, there did appear to be a Myers Cemetery just up the road. I found a beautifully maintained cemetery with many folks named Myers and Sutphin and Spencer and other local names but no Fulton or Sidna. Over the course of the next week, I examined every cemetery within 10 miles of Five Forks. Nothing. Then I got desperate. I Facebooked a Carroll Count Virginia Facebook page. Immediate feedback. Thanks to some kind folks who knew the area, I found both of them the next day.

Sidna’s grave. Notice the spelling of Myers!

Sidna, it seems was at Five Forks in the Shiloh Cemetery. There were two reasons I didn’t find him. One the large gravestone in the very northeast corner of the cemetery had his name spelled wrong. I verified it from his death certificate that was spelled right. Sidna, it seems, will live in infamy as “Sidney M-E-Y-E-R-S,” not Myers. Hours of recordings, scores of musicians learning and loving his banjo playing, half of New York City coming to visit and they couldn’t even get his name right. Why?

Fulton Myers and Claude Felts

Oh, and guess what? Fulton is buried nearly 15 miles away up above Piper’s Gap at the Coleman Primitive Baptist Cemetery. After nearly an hour of searching the 30 or so graves in this beautiful mountaintop resting place, I found him. If you look at the tombstone, however, you’ll notice that he is buried not with his wife or family, but with someone named Claude Felts, who passed in 1971. Well, at least they got his name right.

I can see Edith Lowe smiling when she told folklorist Kevin Donleavy about the brothers:

“You could go up to their house some evening. They’d say, ‘We don’t play anymore.’ Then, they would get their instruments out and they wouldn’t have to tune them. So you would know by that they were playing all the time.”

They played it alright. And they were heard. But like so many before them, their haunting melodies and beautiful fingerings are outliving even the slightest memories of them. I can hear the wind at Five Forks and up on Coleman Mountain wondering, “Sidna and Fulton, where did you come from? Where’d you go?” It’s the mystery we live with.


County Records, 6001, Legends of Old Time Music Liner Notes by Kinney Rorrer

Field Recorders Collective, FRC 504, Sidna and Fulton Myers, Liner Notes

Kerry Blech, Review of Sidna and Fulton Myers FRC 504 originally from The Old Time Herald, available here

Kevin Donleavy, Strings of Life, 2004, Blacksburg, VA Pocahontas Press

The Lesson of the Goats

I come from Kansas. Even though I lived and often worked on Kansas farms and have been around lots of livestock, I had never, not once, eaten, fed, smelled, thought about or even really looked at a goat. Having too much time on your hands in retirement can cause you to think strange thoughts and travel through unusual portals.

One beautiful spring day, standing on the porch of my cabin, I turned to my dear friend, Nancy, and said, “I’ve been thinking,” (she knew this was not always a good thing)  “I’d like to clear that little fenced off two acres over there, and I think we need some goats to do it.” Nancy just shook her head.

I had been reading and watching videos about a strange breed of goats called Tennessee Fainting Goats.” All I knew about them is that they are actually a recognized breed because of a carnival barker from Tennessee.

It seems that in the early part of the last century this sideshow guy had a goat that would faint every time it was startled. Some genetic quirk caused the goat, upon hearing a noise or being threatened, to put its front legs straight out and the fall stiffly over on its side, rolling its eyes back in its head. It was a big hit with the carnival crowd and the Tennessean was seeing visions of dollar signs, so he travelled from town to town he went seeking out goats with this genetic anomaly.Before long, he had a small herd and began to breed the goats specifically for the amusement of folks who would pay money to see a goat faint. Soon, a Texan heard about this small herd of goats that fainted, and had to have one to impress his neighbors, and well, you know Texans.

Once I read about these goats I had to have one. I figured they’d be great entertainment, but on top of amazing my friends and frequent visitors to the cabin, I could get them to clean up my small pasture. It has a clearwater spring running right through the pen that never freezes, so I would never have to water them and there was plenty of grown up, horrible looking, and very prickly brush for them to eat. So I immediately enlisted Nancy’s help to embellish the yards of barb wire fencing with stronger livestock caging. Four days, a stuck brush hog, a couple of broken fence stretchers, a borrowed come-along, a dented rental trailer and a case of lyme’s disease later, we had a goat-proof fence.

Then we (or maybe I should say “I”) designed the worst looking pole shelter on the planet, roofed it with tin, put some cheap siding on it that immediately warped, threw some Tractor Supply Company compressed straw on the ground, and we were ready. After days of Craigslist searching, I found a Fainting Goat breeder. (Did I say “breeder?”) She was three hours away in a godforsaken region of the North Carolina Piedmont. Not only did we have to come down off the mountain to get these goats we had to drive three hours in the unbearable heat and humidity of the Piedmont. Piedmont, in French, means “foot of the mountain.” However in my way of thinking, it means “hot dirt farmers drenched in sweat.”

The goat lady of the Piedmont told me on the phone that she had two young males, brothers, that would be perfect lawn mowers, and they fainted on command! I thought about getting a male and a female so we could have goat’s milk, until I read that in order to have goat’s milk, you have to keep the female pregnant. I quickly decided brush eating boy goats would be just fine.

I couldn’t wait! Nancy and I hopped in my Toyota FJ Cruiser and headed for goat land, never bothering to think that you usually haul goats in a livestock trailer. Three hours later, we pulled into a small piece of North Carolina, at least 30 miles from anywhere. Nancy picked this time in the car to have a deep discussion about relationships, of course, and had required a quick prerequisite reading of the book Love Languages before the goat trip. Well, as you can imagine, that whole conversation ended badly because my male brain was focused on goat love and her feminine multi ganglia brain was focused on improving our relationship….

Then, suddenly, we were at the end of a rutted dirt road. Thank God! At the end there was a small farmhouse, a very large recreational camping vehicle and a barn. Surrounding the barn was a herd of the smelliest, strangest looking four legged beings I’ve ever seen. They were everywhere: In the woods, in a field, in the barn, on the barn, and oh yea, coming out of the door of the RV!

We got crawled out of the Toyota into the “melt your face heat” and stood there gawking, in awe of these strange creatures, afraid that one of them might touch us. Suddenly an older woman with a stern look and goat-like face appeared before us. She just materialized out of the proximity of the barn. “Hi there,” I timidly spoke, half wondering if she understood human speech.

“You must be Mr. Smith,” she spoke in a cigarette smoked voice.

“I think so,” I mumbled not sure what I was doing here in this very strange place.

“Well, Come with me,” she rasped. And so we opened the gate and headed towards the barn. Inside were two small creatures in a bed of straw in a small holding bin. One was black and white and one was brown. The stared at us and then cowered in the corner of the pen. The brown one immediately stuck his front legs straight over and fell over on his side. His eyes looked like he was either having a seizure or was dead.

“I’ll take them,” I said.

“Where’s your trailer,” the goat lady asked.

“Oh, I don’t have one,” I suddenly realized.

“Well, it’s your car,” she shrugged. “You’re lucky that I neutered them.  The big males like to urinate on their beards to attract females,” she declared.  I winced, then I followed her through the gate and began to fold down the back seats in the Cruiser, looking feverishly for something to cover the back with and luckily found an old picnic blanket.

“Come on up to the house,” she commanded. So we did. The whole time Nancy was following us, a half smile on her face, eyes wide open, and a disbelieving sort of gaze. We walked into a small back door and stood in a strange little kitchen, mostly counter space with a burnt out looking toaster. There was a coffee can next to a big stack of papers. I wrote her a check. She handed me about 30 pages of hand written notes.

“This here is their feeding instructions,” she said. “I start with goat feed in the morning, not Purina, mind you, but the better stuff at Tractor Supply. Then I give them two scoops of real oats at around noon, then a lot of alfalfa in the evening. I just wormed them, but you’ll need to do that. It’s all in there.”

I looked at this overwhelming stack of barely legible pages and felt like crying. She then grilled me about having an adequate shelter for them. “Oh we just built a nice pole barn,” I lied. She had me sign a bunch of papers that would allow some goat organization to send me their pedigree (that, four years later, I’m still waiting for), shoved the instructions and a Folgers can full of oats in my hand and we headed back to the barn. We went inside, and the goat lady barked, “I’ll grab the black one, you grab the brown one.”

She jumped in the pen and goat legs went every which way. In what I can only describe as a goat rodeo hold, she hoisted the black spotted goat up to her chest half ran to the Toyota and threw it in the back. By that time I had been kicked, horn, bit and gouged. Nancy was laughing so hard she was no use. Somehow, the small goat and I stumbled to the SUV and I threw it in the back. Then the bleating began. I brushed hundreds of perfectly round little goat turds off of my arms, pants and shoes.

In a daze, I ordered Nancy into the FJ and tried to drive away. As we were leaving, the goat lady yelled, “Look out, those Arabs will want to steal them and eat them. They come down here all the time!” First of all, I doubted that anyone of Middle Eastern descent in their right mind would drive down her road, and second of all, I hadn’t seen too many bands of goat seeking raiders in the Blue Ridge so I waved and we got the hell out of there.

We both looked at our precious cargo in the back of the SUV and giggled. The goats were crying and complaining, but they fit, and we might just make it home with them. After about 10 minutes of incessant bleating I had an idea. One thing about FJ Cruisers is they have great rear speakers. I turned on the voice of the Blue Ridge, WPAQ AM and cranked up the old time and blue grass music they were playing. The goat boys quieted immediately! Especially to old time fiddle tunes. A revelation!

After three hours of radio, a stop at a convenient Tractor Supply Store off of Interstate 77 to buy a list of goat supplies and absolutely no “Love Language” talk, we made it home. Not wanting to hold these animals any more than I had to, I opened the gate to the two acre enclosure, backed in and wrangled each goat out the back and on to the ground. Brownie fainted again. Blackie stared at me like he might eat me. Then they wandered away.

I took the expensive feeding pan I had bought, filled it with some sugary smelling goat crack of some sort and watched them devour it like addicts. That was it. I was a bonafide goat farmer. I spent an hour cleaning goat turds out of the Toyota. That evening I read and reread the goat lady’s 30 pages of notes. About every two hours the next day I was running down to their pen. Oats, the goat crack (the expensive kind), then alfalfa, then more goat crack. A goat block in the pole shelter to lick on, and so on.

For the next three weeks I sat back and waited for the horrible brush in the goat area to disappear. Nothing happened.

“They’re crack goats,” I told Nancy in frustration. “I thought they were going to clear my land for me, make a nice area in there!” I complained, “They just sit around and wait for me to give them goat crack. I’ve become a pusher man!

Nancy had that look she gets when she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. “Well,” she said, “What I’ve noticed is that they seem to be eating better than we do. If you’re down there feeding them on that ridiculous schedule, they don’t have time to eat brush.”

Damn, I hate it when I’m caught being so stupid. The next day, I stopped feeding them all together. Oh, they complained, yelling and bleating every time I even looked towards their lair. But slowly, gradually, I noticed that all of the Poison Ivy was disappearing from around the edges of the fence. Then the gawdawful briar bushes were gone. Then it happened, I saw Blackie tearing down an entire blackberry bush and ingesting it! Bowels of steel and all of it coming back to the land as a perfectly round, compact little turd ball.

I found one other real benefit to becoming a goat farmer. We suddenly had two live-in entertainment units for our resident rescue Corgi, Riley. Once he discovered the panels in the goat fence were just right for him to climb through he would head down in the morning and bark at the new residents. Then he would try to engage them in his favorite chase game that he plays with every other dog who visits, crocodile chase. Immediately Brownie fainted and Riley yelped, thinking he had killed him. Bigger brother Blackie walked over and applied both horns to the little brown dog’s stomach and I watched him fly through the air for about three feet. Entertainment at its best. Goat farming.


My Virgin Blog

Welcome to the Holler!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-3.png

OK. I’ve never done this or ever thought I would do this. However, the last five years of my life since fleeing academia in a hurry and moving to a 3 room cabin in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains has been nothing short of unbelievable. Five years ago I drove down the mountain road on the left and have never looked back. As I’m sure you’ve heard, it took me 61 years to get here but it sure is worth it.

My journey started way out on the Kansas plains. In fact until my 50th year, I had never lived anywhere else. But with a family to help care for and mostly being self-employed, I took my PhD and headed to academia to see if I could grab some retirement. ” Nothing could be that bad,” I thought, “I can put up with it for a few years while my retirement account gets big and fat.” Little did I know.

I landed at a state university in New England, and did what I thought you were supposed to do. To engage. I helped pass anti-bullying laws, wrote papers and books and pamphlets and educated prisoners and parents and legislators. I responded to school shootings and taught teachers how to deal with angry and violent students. Basically, I got shit done. At the same time I had a lot of fun and created a lot of passion in my students. One thing they forget to tell you about the residents of the snooty ivory tower, though, is that they are a jealous, conniving, egocentric bunch who don’t like it when you get attention outside the hallowed halls.

So in 2016, I ran as fast as I could. High-tailed it for the mountains just as many before me had done.

In reality, it really was coming home. See, for the past 40 years I had been traveling to the Appalachians to fill my ears and my soul with pure mountain music. Since first hearing Old Time music at the Winfield Festival in the early 1970’s I have been deeply in love with it and pursued it where ever and whenever I could find it. It has become such a part of me that it seems to have infiltrated my very DNA.

First it was the Galax Fiddler’s Convention. I just had to go, but instead of feeding my lust for old time, it just created more need. As a social scientist and educator in my day jobs became more unforgiving and intense ( I was studying student violence and incivility) and the school shootings across the nation increased, I found a deep need to find a simpler, prettier, less complicated and certainly less depressing place to retreat. The year after Galax, I headed to the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s convention and was regaled with the music and incredible tales of the likes of Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed. The next year included The Elk Creek Festival in Virginia that was highly recommended to me by my dear friend, Frank Lee of The Freighthoppers fame (another blog) and so on. I was spending my entire summers camping and listening to and playing some of the best music on the planet.

So, many years later, here I sit on my cabin’s porch. Heading down a new hiking trail with my banjo over my shoulder. Coming across the mountain to share my life with you. Along the way, you’ll meet many of my friends, acquaintances and be exposed to some places you’ve probably never been. Our journey starts down here, in the holler, on the crick bank. You all comin’?

In the upcoming weeks we’ll explore:

  • Goat Raising
  • The Mystery of the Myers Brothers, Sidna and Fulton
  • The Wild Goose
  • The Boyd Family and Nearly 50 years of Moonshine and Mountain Music
  • Riley the Rescue Dog
  • The White Top Mountain Folk Festivals and how Whisnant got it wrong
  • Nestor’s Store
  • Mac Traynham’s Banjo Shop
  • The Floyd Country Store
  • Powerful Women of the Appalachians
  • Albert Hash and Wayne Henderson
  • Goat Dung
  • Much more! Come on back, now, ya hear?