(above: fieldwork excerpt videoed at Ross Brown’s home in Hiwassie, GA, by D. Day.)
from “Mountain Valley Music:”
Ross Brown, fiddle, accompanied by Don Fox on guitar. “Snowbird,” “General
Lee’s Surrender,” and “Sweet Marie.” Recorded at the Campbell Folk School,
Ross Brown was born in Townes County, Georgia in 1909. His dad had a hundred-acre apple orchard in Hiawassee. He had four sisters who sang and played piano, and remembers them singing parlor songs and hymns. Ross began playing fiddle at the age of 12. His first and most important mentor was an itinerant blind fiddler named Uncle Joe Swanson:
“Uncle Joe Swanson, he was a blind fiddler. He lived with his sister and brother-in-law. He would go all over the country and spend the night with you. He’d stay with you a week at a time and playa fiddle. ‘Course, in that time we had one of those old pump organs, and there was always somebody in the family or in the settlement that was good on-organ. And he’d tune up to that organ, and he would play … oh, he’d play ’til two or three o’clock in the morning. He played, oh I’d say, over a hundred tunes. I’ve never heard another fiddler ever touch him, by the way. I learned alot of ’em (tunes) from him … “
In the old days, “your main band” was a fiddle and “an old banjo with a groundhog head.” Ross remembers that the first guitar in Townes County was tuned in an open G chord like an banjo. This alternate guitar tuning is also known as “Sebastopol” or “Spanish” tuning, and is a holdover from when the guitar was a parlor instrument. Many Black guitarists (including local musician Hardy Fain, now over 90 and in a rest home in Andrews) played “John Henry” in this tuning, chording the strings with a knife.
Ross’s main opportunities to play were “get-togethers” and square dances: “I played for no telling how many candy-bakings and candy-pullings. A candy-pulling, you know, you took that old homemade syrup, and boiled it until it got real thick, and then you’d let it cool, and then you’d go to pulling it. It’d turn yellowish-white. And then when it got cold it’d break just like stick candy … [I’ve played for] hundreds and hundreds of square dances … [They’d] start in long up in the fall, have one in somebody’s home, then next week in somebody else’s …You didn’t go unless you were invited I’ve been to where they danced ’til midnight and then had a chicken supper and sat around awhile, and started dancing ’til the chickens were getting off the roost the next morning … [Dancing was] about the only pastime we had back in them days.”
Once he married, Ross quit making music altogether for several years, concentrating instead on raising and supporting a family by working “plumbing and electric.” In the mid-’60’s, he started up playing again in earnest, helping to found the Georgia Mountain Fair with the likes of Fiddling Howard Cunningham and the Eller Brothers. He has since played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, at Berea College, at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap, at Mountain Heritage Day at Western Carolina, at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga, and at the Campbell Folk School. He has recorded several records, providing fiddle accompaniment for friends such as Jim Southern and the Southern Sounds. Perhaps his best record is Goin’ Back to Georgia, with the Eller Brothers on Flyright Records. On this album, the late Eller Brothers and Ross Brown performed what can beconsidered genuine north Georgia old-time dance music of the kind that Mrs. Campbell must have heard back in the ‘teens and ’20’s.
A left-handed fiddler, Ross plays a specially adapted fiddle, usually kept in standard tuning. Though he can play bluegrass, he prefers playing the way he learned growing up. Recognized as a valuable cultural resource by his peers, Ross Brown will soon be performing in concert with George Reynolds and the Foxfire Boys.
Ross’s accompanist, Don Fox, is an old friend from Hiawassee. Mr. Fox, a retired poultry-and-egg farmer and truck driver, is widely reputed to be the best all-round musician in the area. He is accomplished on several instruments. Don has played over the years with several of the other groups on this tape, and also appears here playing banjo with the Mashburn Brothers.
These three fiddle tunes Ross says he learned from Uncle Joe Swanson. The first, “Snowbird,” appears to be a local tune, perhaps named after Snowbird Creek in Graham County. Robbinsville fiddler Mike Rogers learned the same tune from the late Manco Sneed, an important part-Cherokee fiddler from the town of Cherokee. “General Lee’s Surrender” is a waltz, like “Snowbird” in the key of G. There is a coverlet pattern by the same name. “Sweet Marie,” possibly a parlor tune from the late 19th century, is played in the key of D.