Earl White is driving the jam. It’s 2am at the far end of his 75 acre lush farm in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains on a mid-July Saturday night, and he and his wife, Adrienne Davis, have just hosted 300 of their friends and new acquaintances since Wednesday. Not only have they provided free camping space in one of the prettiest valleys in Virginia, they have fed all of these campers two meals a day! Not only have they fed them, they’ve made lamb stew from their own flock, prepared some of their free range chickens as tingling meat for tacos and burritos and served up breakfasts featuring pastries from their own organic bakery.
It’s two in the morning and Earl is in a groove, as he often is. Adrienne, Earl’s musical collaborator is punching his rhythmic fiddling with her own solid guitar backup and Mark Olitsky who has driven from Ohio is getting an African primitive popcorn beat on the banjo. Nearly everyone else is asleep or lying in campers and tents grooving to the music coming down the valley. It is Earl’s time to shine and those of us listening don’t want this moment to ever end.
For the past seven years, in mid to late July, Earl and Adrienne have hosted the Fiddler’s Jam at Big Indian Farm in remote Floyd County, Virginia, and for the past seven years I’ve been honored and I guess lucky enough to be there. Knowing the vastness of their farm, I didn’t hurry to get my camper over there from my cabin, just 15 miles away, so I was totally astonished to find that nearly every inch of the just mowed camping area along Big Indian Creek was full.
Although the Jam has happened for seven years, Earl and Adrienne have just lived full time on the farm for the past five years. In that time they have built and managed a major organic sourdough bakery, begun raising free range chickens, raised five amazing boys, established a sheep farm, begun growing organic produce to use in their bakery products but also to share, and become a major force in the area’s exploding old time music scene. That’s a lot of work for two former California medical professionals who “retired” to the mountains of Virginia. They have created a ray of hope in the region that has nearly become a food desert, especially where wholesome and organic food is concerned.
Oh, and by the way, Earl is one of possibly 10 Black Old Time fiddlers in the world right now. He is also a scholar of Old Time music who is on a mission to teach young people about the importance of Black fiddler’s contributions to American Folk music and thus recruit more young people of color to play America’s indigenous music. His fiddling and his knowledge of folk traditions has recently been featured by The Smithsonian, The Handmade Music School, The Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, in Zoom casts and documentaries and in the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program that teaches school children to play traditional music of the Appalachians in after school programs.
Earl, who is originally from New Jersey, grew up spending summers on his grandfather’s farm in Eastern North Carolina, near Greenville. It was there that he first saw his grandfather and great uncles cut up after a day of hard work on the farm and start to play hambone or flatfoot dance to invisible music in the dirt. Years later, as a student at Eastern Carolina University, he was majoring in psychology and minoring in drama when a friend and fellow psychology major came back from a fiddle convention dancing a strange dance he had learned. At first, Earl remembers, “He looked like he was affected, but over time, he got it and started to teach us.”
The group started to meet regularly and dance to recordings of bluegrass and old time music. Since they were psychology majors, they often performed for the patients in a nearby mental hospital. When the local paper showed up to one of their performances and described the positive effects that they were having on non communicative patients, the community took notice. So did their neighbors. They got kicked out of their house for dancing too hard so they had to move their practices to an auditorium. Soon they were getting requests to dance all over the area. And thus, the infamous Green Grass Cloggers who have been chronicled in story and documentaries ever since, was born. The founding members who still survive, like Earl, have been dancing together on and off for 50 years.
The Cloggers began to build a national reputation and were favorites as bluegrass festivals, fiddler’s gatherings and even rock festivals. What Earl looked for and couldn’t find at all of these festivals were other Black dancers and musicians. He began to ask “Where are they?” and “What are their names?’ Although some of the old timers at festivals like the Old Fiddler’s Gathering in Galax, VA. remembered there being, in the past, lots of Black players and dancers, Earl couldn’t find any. At one festival, the legendary founder of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe, walked over to Earl after watching him dance, and said, “You know, you remind me of a fellow I used to know and learned a lot of music from.”
“What’s his name?” Earl thought. Later he would learn that one of the main influences on Bill Monroe, and thus Bluegrass, was Arnold Schultz, a legendary Black musician. Earl wants us to know the names of the Black fiddlers and dancers who influenced our music, but he also doesn’t want to cancel any culture. “It was a mix,” he told one interviewer, “Just like dance, Appalachian music is a mix of the Scots/Irish, the Blacks, the Native Americans and other traditions who settled into or escaped into these mountains, and what came out is great music”
It wasn’t until the Green Grass Cloggers danced at a festival in Maine, that Earl met and heard a Black fiddle player. “We were on the bill with Alice Cooper, Seals and Crofts, The Jefferson Airplane and Little Feat. I walked into the green room back stage, and there was, to my surprise, a Black Fiddler warming up to go onstage with Jefferson Airplane!” Earl said, “His name was Poppa John Creach, and I thought, that’s it! I can do that.” He’s been fiddling ever since.
In most recent years, Earl’s reputation has largely spread by word of mouth. He an his family have been prominent fixtures at the Appalachian String Band Competition in Clifftop, West Virginia, holding forth near the tennis courts on the large Clifftop camping area and attracting large crowds of listeners. He has been teaching across the country and most recently he and Adrienne have started hosting a series of music camps for serious musicians on their land. Their band, The Earl White String Band has recorded one album and is beginning to play out after a hiatus during Covid.
See a video of the Earl White String Band Click Here
Over the years Earl has had his share of culture clashes from being a Black Old Time fiddler. Like the Black couple in California when they heard him playing fiddle on a street corner and walked a distance away with their heads hung down who told him that music brought back too many bad memories. And then there was this:
A few years ago, living in Pennsylvania, Earl had to travel long distances between seeing patients as a respiratory therapist. Often, when traveling down I-81, he would take out his fiddle, wear the hair off his right knee by steering, and practice fiddle while he was sailing down the highway. One night on a long stretch he was literally driving a tune at nearly 90, when he looked to his left and saw a highway patrol man waving him over, lights flashing. The patrolman jumped out of his car as Earl pulled over and quickly laid his fiddle down. “Son,” the officer growled, “Tell me I didn’t just see you playing the fiddle while driving.” The proof was sitting beside him, so Earl honestly told the man that indeed he was. “Well, I’ve been trying to stop you for miles. Didn’t you hear my siren?”.
Earl had been playing too loudly. “Get out of that car and come over here,” demanded the officer, “I don’t even know what to do, I’ve never dealt with anything like this.” Earl got out and started to walk. “No, bring that fiddle over here,” demanded the officer. Then he turned on his radio and pushed the talk button down. “I want to know if you can really play the fiddle,” he said. Knowing that there would be others listening over the officer’s radio Earl cut loose on Devil in the Strawstack and played it once through, loud and hard. When he was done, he heard applause coming through that radio. “Well, l guess you can damn well play that thing,” the officer said. “Since I don’t know how to write this up, I am going to give you a ticket for defective equipment!”
Earl couldn’t believe his good fortune, no 90 speeding ticket, no distracted driver, just a small offense. Earl thanked the officer profusely who told him if he ever saw him playing the fiddle again on his highway post, he would be going under the jail. Earl politely got back in the car, drove 15 miles down 81 and finished the tune.
This year’s Fiddler’s Jam was much like a Who’s Who of the Old Time scene with prominent players from Seattle to New York City, and up and down the East Coast. Throw in a lot of locals from the Blue Ridge region and you’ve got a great party. Each night, after readying the outdoor serving area and guiding countless volunteers, 300 people would stop playing and run towards Earl as he rang the dinner bell. Then he and Adrienne would great and hug each old and new friend, wearing themselves thin with kindness and servitude. Diners would be greeted by a few roosters and a host of hens, young and old, gadding underfoot, lots of dogs and kids everywhere. Like a great reunion friends ate quickly to run to campsites to jam under dim light, playing and telling stories early into the morning.
Earl spent his spare time online doing interviews with Virginia Tech and a film crew making a documentary on the history of Black fiddling in American followed him around. Adrienne joined jams and then solved problems for the young people swimming in the creek, and then checked on the goodies in the bakery and then answered phone calls and ran around making sure all were having a good time. And everyone was. I have some good neighbors here in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
~Listen to a great interview with Earl during the Fiddler’s Jam: click here
~Listen to Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music Featuring Earl: click here
~Follow the Earl White String Band on Facebook: click here
~See a prelim trailer for the Black Fiddler’s documentary: click here
~To learn about Earl and Adrienne’s Big Indian Bakery and find out about events and camps: click here