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.”
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.
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.
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, 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?
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
This blog is priceless. I always wanted to know more about Sedna and Jimmy Natural . Thanks Malcolm for this work!
Beautiful, vivid story of these fine players. I really enjoyed clicking on the music to listen to them play while I read this. I hope you will add more music along with future blog entries.
Wonderful piece. I’ve known of the Fultons for a while, but much about them. Thanks for filling some details. One comment – John Cohen’s wife was Penny, Peggy’s younger sister.
Nice addition to what is known about the brothers. They certainly had a memorable sound all of their own.