West Virginia Book Festival

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One of the more unusual works featured later this month at the West Virginia Book Festival will be the saga of a West Virginia musical movement almost lost to history.

“Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942” by West Virginia University music professor Christopher Wilkinson tells a story that, even as a lifelong state resident, I’d never heard: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other giants of American music coming to West Virginia in the years before World War II, making the Mountain State a musical nexus for jazz and big-band music.

Wilkinson will talk about his book at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the festival, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his book and research via email:

Q: How did you learn about this subculture of big band black music, which had been almost entirely forgotten? For that matter, how does a movement that seems as vibrant as the one described in your book almost become lost to history?

A: Quite by accident. While working on the biography of a New Orleans-born trumpet player, big-band leader during the 1930s, and, later, nightclub owner named Don Albert, I listened to an interview with Herbert Hall, one of the players in Albert’s band. The conversation turned to the band’s tours and related topics, and at one point Hall stated that “All the bands were goin’ to West Virginia because the mines were operating and everyone was employed.”

That statement contradicted my assumption that, particularly in the years of the Great Depression, that money was scarce for most people in the Mountain State, including those in the mining industry. It also contradicted my assumption that big-band jazz and other dance music would have had no appeal to West Virginians in any case. Herb Hall’s statement upended both ideas.

The history of big band jazz in West Virginia before World War II became lost, I believe, because just before the war, and continuing thereafter, the large black population residing in the southern coalfields migrated out of the state in the direction of northern cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Toledo, leading the way for white out-migration when increasing mechanization of coal mining put thousands of white Mountaineers out of work.

Q: Why West Virginia? How did a poor, small, largely white state become a center of this subculture?

A: Beginning in the 1870s, African Americans began migrating into the state to build the railroads that cross the southern part of the state and to work in the newly developing coal mining industry. Their numbers would grow steadily through the 1920s and ’30s. According to both the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Censuses, one quarter of McDowell County’s residents were black. Fayette, Kanawha, Logan Mercer, and Raleigh Counties also had substantial African-American populations in that period of which most of the men either worked in the mines or on the railroads that served those mines. In racially segregated West Virginia, these folks constituted the audience for black dance bands on tour through the region.

Q: What would you consider the high point of this movement in West Virginia?

Duke Ellington (left) and Count Basie, among the bandleaders who visited West Virginia in the heyday of big band music here, according to Wilkinson.

A: In terms of the number of bands that played in West Virginia, both in the southern coalfields and, less frequently, in Fairmont, in the northern field, the period from 1935 to the very end of 1939 was the high point. This was due primarily to George Edward Morton of Beckley, who served as a regional booking agent for one of the nation’s most powerful managers of big bands in the period, Joe Glaser. Between April 1935 and December 1939, Morton organized a total of 46 dances in various cities in the southern and northern coalfields for the entertainment of black Mountaineers. The bands who came to play included those led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Chick Webb (with singer Ella Fitzgerald), as well as that led by Jimmie Lunceford, who played nineteen engagements in the Mountain State between 1934 and 1942, more than any other band.

Q: What were the reasons the movement ended? And if World War II was one of those reasons, why didn’t the movement resume after the war?

A: It was not because the music fell out of favor. The reason the culture of big-band jazz and dance music among black Mountaineers came to an end in the middle of 1942 was because the War Department imposed strict rationing of rubber and petroleum as America was plunged into World War II. Black bands toured by bus for the most part, and when tires for civilian use virtually vanished from the scene and gasoline strictly limited, the tours came to a halt and, in truth, many black bands ceased to exist.

After the war, American culture underwent major changes in values regarding entertainment. Veterans returned to complete their educations, get jobs, marry, and start families (leading to the Baby Boom). Going out to dance in public was no longer a popular activity except in big cities. The nightclub replaced the ballroom as the site in which what would become known as “modern jazz” would be performed. Some big bands would endure, but touring to West Virginia was no longer part of their business plans.

Christopher Wilkinson

A: So far, the response has been quite favorable from both the scholarly community and, to me as importantly, from the general public. Both groups seem more than willing to revise their understanding of the musical past of the Mountain State. My research only adds to the picture of West Virginia’s diverse musical culture and heritage. Already a fascinating history, this adds another dimension to our knowledge of our state’s past.

Q: Would you like to see the state (or WVU, or someone else) commemorate this part of the state’s history in some way?

A: Already, the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame has honored several of the participants in this musical world, and as more come to light I am confident their contributions and memory will be honored as well. I am anticipating preparing a radio documentary program on this subject to include the voices of some of the folks I interviewed during the course of my research as well as some of the music recorded by the big bands during the period in which they toured the Mountain State. As this subject is made known both to West Virginians as well as to others, I am hopeful that we will be able to learn still more about big-band jazz in black West Virginia during the 1930s and early 1940s.

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Christopher Wilkinson

Christopher Wilkinson mined census records, newspaper articles, personal interviews and many other sources in researching his new book, “Big Band Jazz in Black West Virginia, 1930-1942.” The book illustrates the relationship between the coal industry and the short-lived heyday of big band jazz that occurred in the Mountain State during the Great Depression and early World War II.

Wilkinson will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, at the Charleston Civic Center. He will autograph books immediately after his talk.

Wilkinson is a professor of music history at West Virginia University. A jazz historian, he teaches courses on that subject at the university and has presented talks to the general public on jazz. He also wrote “Jazz on the Road: Don Albert’s Musical Life,” published by University of California Press in 2001. “Big Band Jazz” is published by University Press of Mississippi.

The West Virginia Music Hall of Fame’s traveling museum will be stationed in the Festival Marketplace, featuring some of the musicians mentioned in the book. The Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and preserving the rich and lasting contributions West Virginians have made to all genres of music.

The 12th annual West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 13 and 14. The two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart and Books-A-Million. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Brian Floca and “Ballet for Martha”

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Occasional blog contributor Mona Seghatoleslami of West Virginia Public Radio scored an interview with children’s author/illustrator Brian Floca, who’ll be at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday afternoon.

As Mona notes, Floca’s projects include a variety of subjects, including music and dance:

One of Floca’s recent projects was illustrating the book “Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring.” His images help to tell the story of the artistic collaboration between choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and set designer Isamu Noguchi.

“I felt like I needed to learn the dance, well enough to give it to the readers in my visual ‘voice’ if you will. The most interesting and exciting part of that process for me was I got to go sit in on rehearsals by the actual Martha Graham Dance Company that exists today in New York and watch them perform … and that, it’s … I’ve really benefited so much over so many books with people’s willingness to share their own interests and concerns and process to help me, a total outsider, to make a book.

Brad Paisley book comes out Nov. 1

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Jerry West isn’t the only West Virginia-born celebrity with a book coming out this fall.

Brad Paisley, a native of Glen Dale in the Northern Panhandle (and one of the biggest country music stars on the planet), is coming out with his first book on Nov. 1.

From The Associated Press:

[The book is] called “Diary of a Player” and shows how the guitar gods of country, blues and rock `n’ roll have shaped his life.

Paisley tells The Associated Press he can’t imagine his life if he never learned to play the guitar. His grandfather gave him his first six-string at age 8.

Paisley is the reigning Country Music Association entertainer of the year. He has sold over 11 million albums and charted 20 No. 1 singles, including his most recent duet with Carrie Underwood, “Remind Me.”

The book is co-written with Rolling Stone contributing editor David Wild and published by Howard Books, and imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Unlike basketball star West, Paisley isn’t coming to next month’s West Virginia Book Festival. But there’s always next year … and it’s not like Paisley doesn’t know the way to the Civic Center.

Singer Josh Ritter and his West Virginia novel

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From the better-late-than-never file: Blog contributor Mona Seghatoleslami told me last month that singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, who was going to be featured on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s famous “Mountain Stage,” had just released a novel set in West Virginia.

“Bright’s Passage” is set just after World War I and follows ex-doughboy Henry Bright, who returns from the war and then must flee into the hills with his infant son and a couple of unusual companions.

In a review in The New York Times, Stephen King calls the book “a slight tale” (it’s fewer than 200 pages), but goes on to say, “I approached ‘Bright’s Passage’ with distrust, but I found much to delight me. The story, woven into a kind of pigtail, is a lot of fun.” King says Ritter’s book sometimes “shines with a compressed lyricism that recalls Ray Bradbury in his prime” — which is not a bad testimonial at all.

Although this is his first novel, Ritter seems to love writing. He’s renowned for his song lyrics, and the title of his latest CD (“So Runs The World Away”) is a line from “Hamlet,” and the photo of his book on his website shows it on a shelf between Geoffrey Household and Graham Greene, which I confess might make me read the book even if I didn’t know anything else about it.

And you can find a podcast of Ritter’s appearance on “Mountain Stage” here.

“Passing The Music Down” gets NYT review

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“Passing The Music Down,” Charleston children’s author Sarah Sullivan‘s homage to the relationship between fiddlers Melvin Wine and Jake Krack, got a review in The New York Times over the weekend.

Sean Wilentz, who teaches history at Princeton University, writes that:

At first, “Passing the Music Down” seems to be a sweet, corny tale about going native. … Only in an author’s note at the end do we learn that the story is based on two musicians well known in old-timey music circles …

The details about the two fiddlers flesh out the storybook version. … Suddenly, a story that verged on sentimental fluff — though enlivened by [illustrator Barry] Root’s evocative clover and mountain mist — is part of musical history, and it is all the better for it.

Why, you might wonder, is an Ivy League historian writing about this book? Well, among other works, Wilentz is the author of “Bob Dylan in America,” released last fall. And his Sullivan review is grouped with a review of “When Bob Met Woody,” an account of the meeting between a young Bob Dylan and his folk-singing idol, Woody Guthrie. Both books, Wilentz says, explore the idea of handing folk music down from generation to generation, while acknowledging that it doesn’t just happen like the changing of the seasons; actual people, like Wine and Krack and Guthrie and Dylan, make it happen.

One final note about “Passing The Music Down”: Taylor Books in Charleston will hold a release party for the book on Saturday from 3 to 5 p.m. — and Jake Krack will be there, with his fiddle.

Books remind us that “Musick has Charms”

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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,

To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

– William Congreve

Music is a powerful force in our lives. It helps us woo a loved one or ease an aching heart. It puts a child to sleep.  It can vividly bring back a long-lost memory. While we have all read biographies of people, these four books are biographies of a song or songs — how the song starts its journey into the world and how the world has embraced and changed it.

I’ve always wished our anthem was America the Beautiful. It is easier to sing and paints a striking picture of our country and our story.  Evidently it held the same appeal to journalist Lynn Sherr. She tells the story of the how a poem by college professor Katharine Lee Bates was joined with a hymn by Samuel Ward in 1910. Sherr follows the song over time to its new association with Sept. 11, 2001. It is a song comfortable in performances of performers from Charlie Rich, Ray Charles, Marian Anderson to Buffy Sainte-Marie. That says a lot for its power.

House of the Rising Sun has its origins lost in the mists of time, but that didn’t stop Ted Anthony from trying to unravel them. Is it song originating in New Orleans or elsewhere in the U.S.?  Is it really an old British song changed for its new American setting? And what exactly is the House of the Rising Sun? Even that may not be as simple as listeners think. Anthony is man on a mission as he travels around researching various versions and sources. He even tracks down the harmonica player from the 1937 recording sessions done by Alan Lomax, the Library of Congress song collector. Those sessions were recorded over the border in Kentucky. Anthony talks about the role the song played in the careers of performers from Josh White, Woody Guthrie and Dolly Parton to the rock version by the Animals and many, many others. (Editor’s note: Anthony is a reporter for The Associated Press who began his AP career in West Virginia in the early 1990s.)

Amazing Grace, the famous hymn of redemption, was written by John Newton, a reformed character, but the song has a life of its own. Steve Turner divides his book in two parts. The first, Creation, looks at Newton, who was a sailor in the slave trade.  Newton experienced his conversion after a massive storm at sea and later became a noted British abolitionist. The second part, Dissemination, recounts the tale of the hymn as it made its way into the world. It had a ways to travel. While written in the 1770s, it didn’t meet up with its current tune until the 1830s. The Library of Congress has collected over 3,000 copies, which shows the popularity of the hymn in the U.S.

Some music wants to change the world for other reasons; 33 Revolutions per minute by Dorian Lynskey explores those. People have sung to protest many things through the ages. Lynskey points out that in the beginning, groups tended to set words to existing tunes and they sang them primarily at their own events. He is interested in when protest songs were words and lyrics were specifically written for that song and the song crossed over into popular culture. He starts his work with “Strange Fruit.” the haunting song about lynchings made famous by Billie Holiday. Lynskey’s 33 songs continue on to Green Day’s “American Idiot.” With each song he talks about the song and the context of its time. Readers might quibble with the 33 he chose, but they were all powerful songs to their audience.

Melvin Wine and “Passing The Music Down”

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Charleston-based children’s author (and 2010 West Virginia Book Festival presenter) Sarah Sullivan talked to me a couple of weeks ago about her new book, “Passing The Music Down,” which gets released May 10. The story is here, with a nice video by the Gazette’s Kathryn Gregory.

The story is largely (almost entirely, according to Sarah) based on the events that drew longtime fiddler Melvin Wine and young fiddler Jake Krack together. Much of what’s in the story is factual, and there’s a very long author’s note at the end describing the relationship between the two.

Melvin Wine, who died in 2003, is also the subject of a biography, “Fiddling Way Out Yonder,” written by music librarian Drew Beisswenger and published in 2008. I haven’t read that book, but the bare outline of Wine’s life is pretty remarkable. Raised in Braxton County, he became a fiddler of some renown, but then put his fiddle away from more than two decades after experiencing a religious conversion.

As Sarah relayed the story to me, Wine picked his fiddle back up when he was babysitting one of his grandchildren, and she wouldn’t stop fussing. He played her some music to try to calm her down, and she loved it, and he decided that anything that brought that much joy to a child couldn’t be bad. Over the next few decades, he became well known as a fiddler and made several commercial recordings.

Doc Williams, W.Va. music legend, dies at 96

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West Virginia country music legend Doc Williams, who died this week at age 96, was the subject of a biography that came out just a few years ago. The book bills itself as Williams’ autobiography, but the Associated Press story on Williams’ death says it was written by his daughter, Barbara Smik.

In any case, it’s available through the Doc Williams website. Virginia Alderman, co-founder of Jamboree in the Hills, says the book presents Williams’ story “in a distinctive “fireside chat” style that will give readers the feeling of having a friendly, personal talk with the beloved entertainer.”

If you didn’t know (because I didn’t), Williams and his wife, Chickie, became well-known in Canada and New England in the years before World War II via their AM radio broadcasts from WVVA in Wheeling.