Deep in the most rugged mountains of southwestern Virginia, on the slopes and in the hollows of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, a rich tradition of old-time music has endured through many decades of changes. As the popularity of bluegrass, rock, and rap flooded the country, and as the popularity of old-time music came and went, and arose again throughout the Appalachians, the old-time musicians of the Whitetop area maintained their pure, rich musical heritage like burning embers in a banked fire.
Nathaniel Hawthorne “Nat” Reese was born March 4, 1924 in Salem, Virginia to Thomas Walker Reese and Rosa Sylvester Caroline Wilson Reese. Thomas was originally from Montgomery, Alabama, and Rosa from Bessemer, Alabama. The family had previously lived in Florida and Georgia before coming to Virginia to, as Nat puts it, “get away from the cotton fields.”
Linda and Sammy come from legendary musical communities on Virginia’s Crooked Road. The Meadows of Dan and Clayman Valley are tiny mountain places separated by 150 miles of hairpin turns, old mills, crossroads stores, mom and pop eateries, and towns with one stop light or none, but only 90 miles by the way the crow flies.
I am happy to declare that there are many things worth remembering about my childhood. There are lots of memories that have evaporated over time, but the earliest sights and sounds that still ring the most clearly are those of music and singing. I have come to understand that the love of making music with one’s voice has long been a central part of my family. I may never know exactly how far back the story goes, but I do know that singing has to be just about as much a part of my being as living and breathing.
On a hot summer night in 2006, two friends took the stage at the storied old-time and bluegrass music festival in Galax, Virginia. One would would sing while the other played along. When the next friend’s turn to compete arrived, they would switch roles. While neither friend is a musical virtuoso, their love for the music and their belief in each other resulted in a very special sound that embodies much of the great musical tradition of southwest Virginia.
Flory Jagoda, a 2002 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, is known as “the keeper of the flame” of the once rich Saphardic Jewish song tradition. Flory sings the songs she learned from her nona (grandmother) as a child in pre-WWII Sarajevo – songs which have been passed down in her family since they fled the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. All of her ballads are sung in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language dating back centuries.
Susan Gaeta, an accomplished musician in her own right, demonstrates a deep intellectual and personal interest in carrying on this precious traditional art form.
Gin Burris was born in 1953 and has lived all her life in Carroll County, Virginia. Born to Roscoe and Ethel Lovell Burcham, Gin entered into a family with a profoundly rich musical heritage. Music has been a part of Gin’s life from the beginning. “Dad says that when I was born,” Gin recalls, “Dr. Beeken slapped me on the rear and I hit a perfect high C. That’s a little early for me to remember but if he says it, then it must be true!”