“I was playing the old-time music. There’s a style that the old folks had, that they ain’t using today.” —Harvey Sampson
Harvey Sampson (1909-1991) was from Nicut, West Virginia on the Calhoun/Braxton county line, an isolated area with a “wild and woolly reputation” and a distinctive collection of crooked, modal old-time Appalachian tunes. Harvey was one of seven children, born into a family of singers and musicians. His father and brother were fiddlers, and Harvey started out by accompanying them on banjo as a child, learning from his father a repertoire of over one hundred traditional “twisty, crooked, or even spooky” tunes that included “Flat Foot in the Ashes.”
The Sampsons often made their own instruments. In a recording in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection’s Sound Archives, Harvey said that “his father and other local fiddlers shaped maturing gourds on the vine [to make homemade gourd fiddles] by placing them between a pair of boards.” Harvey himself made his own banjo when he was eight years old:
“I put this flour sack bag [across a banjo hoop] and cut me out a head. Later on I figured out where those notes was supposed to be and I took wire and put frets on that. I don’t see hardly how I done it, ’cause I didn’t know hardly what I was doing.”
After spending his childhood and teenage years as a banjo player, Harvey began playing fiddle during World War II when he took a job building aircraft in Maryland. When the war ended and he returned to West Virginia, however, he focused on farming, finding little time left for any instrument for the next fifteen years.
“The fence was needing repairs and the pasture fields needed cut over. I had 80 some acres and I didn’t have no time to fool with playing no music[,] and I didn’t have nobody to play with nohow.”
Eventually a nearby musician, Phoebe Parsons, went looking for someone who could play authentic old-time music with her. She found Harvey, he picked up his fiddle again, and the two musicians began performing together.
A few years later, younger musicians began seeking Harvey out to play music with him and to learn his unique and historic style of playing. In late 1984, when Harvey was seventy-five, he joined some of these younger musicians—fiddler Frank George, banjo player Larry Rader, and guitarist Charlie Winter—in the Big Possum String Band. The band recorded a seminal album of fiddle tunes titled Flat Foot in the Ashes in 1986 and inspired a later band to perform under the same name.
Harvey died in 1991, but not before he ensured that the music of his family and home would live on.
“Boy, when you get a chance to hear Harvey play, you’re hearing the real thing.” —bandmate Larry Rader