On March 31 and April 1, 2023, over 150 folks from several states (and Ireland!) gathered in Independence to honor a Virginia folk hero. The 2nd Annual Legends of Grayson honored the life and music of Wade Ward, clawhammer banjoist extraordinaire. The following remarks are from a presentation to the Legends celebration.
“Uncle Wade,” as he was known to his friends and neighbors, was born on Saddle Creek, just outside of Independence, Virginia, on October 15, 1892 and lived in his beloved Blue Ridge mountains of Grayson County all of his life. He dedicated his incredible energy to performing and preserving the music of the region and to selflessly teaching a young generation of “folkies” his authentic style of banjo playing. Some say that in his own way, Uncle Wade was as influential to traditional American banjo as Earl Scruggs was to bluegrass.
Uncle Wade came by his love of Grayson County and his love of mountain music naturally, maybe even genetically. The Ward family were early settlers in the Saddle Creek area, just outside of Independence, and brought their musical influences with them to the mountains.
One local story recounts that three bachelor Ward brothers were farming and living together on Saddle Creek in the early 1800s when, one night, one of the brothers dished up four plates of food at the table rather than three. He looked at the scant amount of food on each plate and declared, “This is why none of us can marry! There won’t be enough food to go around.” Two years later one of them married and the other two moved out.
Wade’s father played music some and his mother often sang the mountain ballads. However, it was hearing his oldest brother, Davy Crockett Ward, play the fiddle that drew Wade toward the dance music of the mountains. “Crockett,” as he was known, was 20 years older than Wade and was already fiddling at dances when Wade was born.
When Wade was 10, his father purchased a small farm on Peach Bottom Creek on the other side of Independence from where they had lived. This afforded Wade with a grand place to romp through the mountain meadows, to play in the creek and to sit on the porch with his brother and learn to play the banjo. By age 11, Wade was already accompanying his brother to play at local affairs. At age 16, having mastered his own local style of clawhammer banjo, Wade added fiddling to his musical abilities and by age 18 he was playing almost nightly at weddings, dances, school house meetings, corn shuckings and Christmas parties in Grayson and Carroll counties.
In 1913, when Wade was 20, he married his first wife, Lelia. She is reported to have enjoyed the travels with Wade all around the mountains to play music but was sometimes upset at how much time the music took away from the farm. After his parents died, Wade and his wife and one son remained on the Peach Bottom farm, which is still owned by the family to this day.
Dorothy Ward Heffinger, one of Wade’s granddaughters—who lives with her husband Charlie on the family farm—recalls her grandpa almost always having an instrument in hand, whether he was in the living room or on his porch, playing with and entertaining neighbors and travelers who came to hear him play.
“One of my favorite memories,” Dorothy told me, “is seeing my grandma standing in the kitchen doorway, scolding Wade who was in his chair with his banjo.
“Grandma would be telling him that the cows needed attention, the hay needed to be mowed and the house was falling down,” Dorothy continued. “And the more agitated she got, the louder that banjo on his lap would ring out a tune!”
When Wade was 26, he and two neighbors formed Wade’s first band. The Buck Mountain Band consisted of Wade; a well known fiddler, Van Edwards; and Van’s son, Earl, on guitar. This was a big shift for both Wade and the state of old time mountain music. Until this time, music of the mountain tradition mostly consisted of banjo and fiddle, playing rhythmically off each other with the banjo supplying the backdrop for the fiddle to soar.
With the advent of the guitar, the role of the banjo changed and Wade began to develop his own two-finger style, similar to that of Charlie Poole, of up picking to accompany some tunes that didn’t fit to the clawhammer strum.
Buck Mountain Band, Yodeling Blues (1929)
In the 1920’s Crockett Ward moved down the road to Galax, working as a carpenter and forming various bands. Wade began traveling to play with his brother and Crockett’s son, Fields Ward, who had become a master of the guitar and had a wailing wild singing voice. They recruited Galax fiddler Uncle Eck Dunford and “The Galax Bogtrotters” were born. Eck recruited his friend Doc Davis to play the autoharp.
Over the next two and a half decades the Bogtrotters roamed the mountains playing for all sorts of events, including auctions, dances and festivals. Their performance at the 1932–35 Whitetop Folk Festivals up on Virginia’s second highest mountain brought them international acclaim. Wade’s pure, clear, and concise banjo playing soon gained the attention of folklorists and during the next 30 years folks like Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Peter Hoover, John Cohen, and Ralph Rinzler came to record his music.
In the 1930s and ’40s, Wade and the Bogtrotters repeatedly placed in or won the Galax Fiddler’s convention. In 1940, the Bogtrotters traveled to Roanoke to be broadcast on an international radio show called “American School of the Air” produced by CBS. The sensational result of the broadcast is that the Bogtrotters gained an international following and young musicians began to travel to the Peach Bottom farm to learn the Wade Ward style of play.
In the 1950s Crockett suddenly moved to Baltimore to find work. The Bogtrotters were over, but Wade continued to play and record, traveling around his beloved Blue Ridge but also sitting on his porch playing with the hundreds who came to hear him. The family kept a guestbook and those who signing it over the years included folklorists, musicians, politicians, and the curious from all over the world. Dorothy Ward Heffinger remembers staying with her grandpa and “seeing all sorts of hippies camping on the farm and swimming in the creek.”
In the 1960s a young banjo student in a British folk club named Pete Parish heard an Alan Lomax recording of Wade and became an instant fan. He sent a letter addressed simply to “Wade Ward, Banjo Player, Independence Virginia, USA” asking how he could learn to play like Wade. In a few weeks, he got a return letter with some tapes of Wade playing.
Over the next five years, while Pete saved money to go to America, they traded tapes and letters. Finally, Wade told him if he really wanted to learn he had to come hear it in person. Pete not only did, but lived with Wade and his family for several years and married a local girl over the border in North Carolina and still teaches and plays “the Wade Ward way.”
Wade died in March of 1971 at the age of 79. He had never really traveled outside of the mountains until he was coaxed by the staff to attend the Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the age of 75. He enjoyed the event so much he attended the next three years.
His playing lives on. He left hours of recordings, and hundreds of followers who learned from him. While preparing this brief history I heard from many musicians who owe their lives in music to being influenced by hearing this gentle old time mountaineer play.
Here are some of them:
Walt Koken is a founding member of the Highwoods Stringband, a 1970s powerhouse revivalist string band.
Paul Brown is a former NPR reporter and producer who was a big part of the Grayson County musical scene. He was a DJ on the famed WPAQ radio station in the Blue Ridge and played often with Tommy Jarrell. Terry McMurray is Paul’s wife and musical partner who has studied the music of the Blue Ridge most of her life.
Mac Traynham was a mentor artist in our 2020–21 Folklife Apprenticeship Program cohort and is a nationally renowned banjoist and banjo builder in Floyd County. He organized a musical tribute to Wade at Legends of Grayson.
Bruce Molsky is a Grammy Award nominated musician from New York who traveled to Grayson County early in his career to learn the sounds of the Mountains.
As you drive through Independence on Highway 58 (Main Street), take a moment to stop outside the police station and admire the mural of a humble, good natured mountain man who played the banjo. There’s a lot more to that mural of Wade Ward than meets the eye.
Dr. Malcolm Smith is a recovering college professor who lives and plays clawhammer banjo in Laurel Fork, VA. He is the author of “Appalachian Fiddler Albert Hash: The Last Leaf on the Tree” for McFarland Books and writes about Old Time Music for many publications.