Originally published in The DA (WVU's student newspaper)
If you walk down High Street any Saturday night in Morgantown, chances are you’ll see hoards of students wandering in and out of the clubs, echoes of bass blossoming out after them as they head to the next spot to get down.
Henry Barnes, winner of this past Saturday’s Mountaineer Week fiddle contest reminds us, "People didn’t all of a sudden start getting drunk at bars and dancing like idiots. They’ve been doing it forever."
Fiddle music came to Appalachia with the earliest settlers and spread across the land, becoming the most popular lead instrument for dance music in the 1800’s.
Players traveling the Ohio River on steamboats shared tunes up and down the river that spread into the mountains. Community gatherings such as barn-raisings and harvests were often followed by dancing accompanied by fiddle.
The simple melodies and rhythms were passed down through oral tradition and remain a definitive element of West Virginia culture. As part of its mission to educate the WVU community on regional history, Mountaineer Week hosts the Elmer Rich Memorial Fiddle Contest each year. This year’s was in the Mountainlair’s Gluck Theatre on Saturday night.
Seventeen fiddlers of all ages from West Virginia and her neighboring states presented two tunes each, some with accompanying guitars or banjos.
Four judges carefully reviewed each player to decide a winner for the junior (under 18), senior (over 65) and overall categories, as well as the best heritage tune: Competitors had the option to present a piece specifically from West Virginia traditions, learned from a WV heritage fiddler to be eligible for this category.
After a solid two hours of incredible performances the winners were announced.
For the juniors, Kiara Williams, 15, of Rock Cave, WV took first place. For the seniors, it was John Morris of Clay County. Henry Barnes, 24, of Columbus, OH won both the overall and heritage categories with his renditions of Lincoln Taylor’s "Uncle Joe" and his heritage piece entitled "Red Bird."
"I thought if I just pulled the stops out and played ‘Red Bird’ for the heritage tune, maybe I’d have a chance," Barnes said.
Barnes learned the piece from a version recorded by famed West Virginia fiddler Clark Kessinger, who learned it from fellow WV legend French Mitchell.
Barnes went on to say Mitchell attributed "Red Bird" to a black fiddler who could only play with one finger—an outstanding feat for such a fast-paced tune.
"Being a Mountaineer is about much more than attending WVU," said Rachel Eddy, who played for the square dance after the contest. "It is grounded in the culture of West Virginia, its people, traditional fiddle music, square dancing, folklore, craft and much more. This fiddle contest followed by a square dance is special in the way it brings so many people, young and old, together to partake in the musical and dance traditions of their roots."