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Roger Howell Donates Memory Collection to Southern Appalachian Archives
Roger Howell plays the fiddle in the workshop where he recorded his Memory Collection.
When traditional Appalachian musician Roger Howell completed his first Memory Collection of 355 recorded fiddle tunes in 2007, he thought he was finished. At the time, he believed he had recorded all the fiddle tunes he had picked up over a lifetime of playing and hearing mountain music.
But then, additional tunes began to emerge from the recesses of his memory.
“Every little bit, I’d think, ‘oh, I didn’t do that one.’ I started writing them down again and next thing I knew, I had 150 more,” he said.
Howell recently completed Part II of his Memory Collection, a second set of recorded traditional fiddle tunes, and, like the first set in 2007, he has donated the collection to the Southern Appalachian Archives at Mars Hill University. In all, Howell has recorded 532 tunes, together with historical information and personal reminiscences about each one, entirely from memory.
According to Dr. Karen Paar, Director of the Archives, Roger Howell’s Memory Collection is a treasure trove of information for regional musical devotees, researchers and students throughout the region.
“Roger Howell’s recording of over 500 fiddle tunes and including stories about where they come from, alternate names, etc. is a stunning accomplishment in and of itself,” Paar said. “Besides that feat of memory and musical ability, this collection preserves the music of important musicians from this region. Roger’s work to record these tunes and attribute them to these musicians will help this music to live on for generations.”
According to Paar, Mars Hill’s Liston B. Ramsey Center for Regional Studies, which houses the archives, continues to digitize the contents of the archives, so that this collection, as well as many others in its extensive collections can be made available to the public, regardless of location.
“We are exploring ways to share this collection broadly, with all who are interested in learning more about this music and doing their share to make sure it survives and thrives,” she said.
Howell said he was encouraged to record this collection years ago, by Richard Dillingham, the former Director of the Archives. He chose to do it now because he began to realize how many of the musicians from whom he has learned through the years have passed away.
Despite a memory that seems unbelievable to those on the receiving end of his music, Howell also said he has more trouble remembering that he used to.
“A lot of these people that I’ve played with through the years are gone,” he said. “If I hadn’t a got them tunes and put them down I’d a forgot them and that would of been the end of it.”
Howell still lives in Mars Hill on Banjo Branch Road where he grew up, and where, as a child, he first heard the mournful twang of a banjo tune, floating up the valley from neighbor Pearl Ball’s front porch. It was his first memory of the music that would define so much of his life. Beginning on Ball’s front porch, Howell learned the rudiments of picking a banjo. From there, he went on to learn the guitar, the fiddle, and the mandolin the old-fashioned way: by watching, listening and practicing.
“No, I can’t read music. A whole lot of the really good traditional musicians can’t read a note,” he said. “Like (legendary local musician) Woodrow Boone told me one time, I know just enough music not to let it mess up my playing.”
In his adult life, Howell has played with some of the most celebrated musicians in traditional music, and has become something of a legend in his own right He has played in well-known regional bands like Turkey Branch Junction, the Bailey Mountain Boys, the Carroll Best String Band, and later, the Bailey Mountain Ramblers, and has performed at festivals everywhere from the Museum of Appalachia in Tennessee to Berea College in Kentucky.
Though he is known as a versatile musician who can play most anything, he is best known for his fiddle music.
Howell says he “picked up” most of the tunes on his Memory Collection from legendary fiddlers like Benny Sims (who played for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs), Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith (Tennessee native and highly influential fiddler who played on the Grand Ol’ Opry in the 30s), Woodrow Boone (nationally-known Madison County resident and founder of Turkey Creek Junction Band) and Bobby Hicks (multiple-grammy winning fiddler who played, at one point, with Bill Monroe). According to Howell, Arthur Smith’s son, Ernest, was a personal friend of his, who lived for many years in Madison County and who shared many of his father’s original fiddle tunes with Howell.
In making his Memory Collection, Howell aims to follow in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
Lunsford, a musician and folklorist, dedicated his life to collecting, promoting and preserving the music of the Southern Appalachians. During his life, he came to be known as the “Minstrel of Appalachia,” and he is considered by many to be the father of the American folk festival. Among others, he founded the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, and the Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival, held annually at Mars Hill University.
As he has done for many years, Howell is scheduled to perform at this year’s Lunsford Festival, which is planned for October 5.
“Lunsford saw the value in these old mountain tunes and ballads,” Howell said. “For years, people would scorn this music, calling it ol’ hick mountain stuff, the music of ignorant people. But Lunsford knew the mountain people and he saw the music for what it is: an art form.”