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Lesson 22: Lady of the Lake

Words on Technique – coming soon

Lady of the Lake

About the tune: This tune is widely attributed to John Ashby, who recorded it with his band, The Free State Ramblers. He might have learned it by listening to the Crook Brothers, a band that played on the Grand Ole Opry radio show. (There are several other tunes called by this title that sound very different and have different sources.)  Benton Flippen was also known to play a very similar version as Ashby’s version.

John Ashby

“There is a gay, foot‐tapping quality to old‐time fiddle music that is, physically, almost irresistible. Some part of you inevitably begins to keep time to the bright, inviting rhythms of the fiddler. On Monday evening, the [audience] foot‐patted, bobbed and weaved and occasionally stomped as they listened to John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers, a fiddle band from Virginia.” —New York Times article, 1972

John Ashby (1915-1979) was born near the town of Warrenton in Fauquier County, part of the Piedmont region of northern Virginia, where his parents and three older siblings lived in an “old farmhouse […] on a gentle grassy ridge overlooking pastures and creeks.” The Ashby family had a long history of making music in the area. As reported in the Old Time Herald magazine, “an early Fauquier County history reports that the musicians for a mid-nineteenth century dance […] were ‘the Ashby boys.’”

Influenced by a fiddle-playing uncle, musical neighbors, and radio shows, John started playing fiddle when he was eleven. One of his sisters would later describe his early practicing as constant and “nerve wracking,” but admitted that he eventually got better.

As his fiddling improved, John learned to play all kinds of tunes, from obscure local ones like “Broad Run Picnic” (learned from his uncle and named for a river flowing through Fauquier County) to widely-known old-time tunes like “Johnny Don’t Get Drunk.” John also composed a few tunes of his own—“Ashby’s Breakdown,” “Going to the Free State,” and the “Fauquier County Hornpipe.” He played in the traditional “long-bow” style typical of his area, described as “efficient in noting, and powerful and rhythmic in bowing.”

By his mid-teens, John had started playing old-time stringband music with his brother or neighbor on guitar and his cousin on banjo. They and a few others formed the Free State Ramblers band in 1937. The band often won local musical competitions, were paid to play at local dances, performed regularly on a Washington, DC radio show, frequently opened for Patsy Cline, and played in concerts and contests as far away as Cleveland and New York City.

The Free State Ramblers remained popular for decades, but sometimes played their roles a little too well: “[John’s cousin and bandmate] Moffett tells about the time they were hired to perform at a major hotel in Washington, DC and dressed in the stereotype of country musicians by wearing overalls instead of their usual suits. When they got there, the doorman refused to let them in, until they finally convinced him that they were hired to perform.”

Besides playing music, “John farmed and worked as a carpenter by trade,” spending about eleven years renovating historic buildings on the nearby Airlie Foundation’s property, where coworkers and supervisors described him as a man of “quiet dignity, good humor, and absolute integrity.” His family remembers him as being thoughtful and kind, an easygoing man who played great music, remained “low-key” about his talents, loved his hound dogs (but called them all “Fred”), and “would always take the time to help a young fiddler, if he was asked.”

Though band members have come and gone over the decades, the Free State Ramblers still play regularly around Fauquier County; they’re currently led by John’s son, Skip Ashby, who took up long-bow fiddling when his father died. As the Foghorn Stringband pointed out after meeting Skip, “there aren’t many bands that have carried on continuously for over 80 years.” John Ashby and his family and friends must have done something right.

Additional Resources:

History of John and the Ashby family – The Old-Time Herald magazine

Short bio of John Ashby – The Field Recorders’ Collective

Interview with John’s niece, Nancy Sessions

Interview with John’s son, Skip Ashby

The Foghorn Stringband writes about meeting and playing with Skip Ashby and other Ashby family members

Photo of John Ashby playing fiddle in 1978

New York Times article (1972) referencing a live performance (also recorded) by John Ashby and the Free State Ramblers

Jon Bekoff and Nate Paine playing Lady of the Lake

Dwight Lamb playing a similar version of the tune