1889-1976 - Wythe County, Southwest Virginia
With the release of the now famed Folkways anthology of American Folk music, many scholars and collectors became aware of a valuable cross section of great folk music masterpieces recorded during the 1920s and 1930s by commercial record companies. However, as happens with any art form, some pieces among this collection (sid LP's worth), of great pieces stood out above others. Among these standouts was a tune played and sung with fiddle and banjo. This tune, "Train on the Island", has been considered a classic in every sense of the word by collectors. THe singer played great mountain-style banjo and sang with much fervor. His name was J.P. Nestor, and this is the only name to be found on the original 78, and consequently, the LP reissue. Little has been learned about him other than that he died a few years ago, and his middle name was Preston. He apparently went by the nickname "Pres". After recording four numbers on August 1, 1927, in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor company, Nestor and the accompanying fiddle player were offered paid transportation to New York City to make more records.
Unfortunately, Nestor flatly refused to leave the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Hillsville, Virginia area, and was never recorded again. Thankfully, two of the songs recorded at the 1927 session were released. These were "Train on the Island" and "Black Eyed Susie", released on Victor 21070. There has been some speculation that the remaining two songs recorded at this session, "Georgia" and "John, My Lover", were damaged - the masters - in shipment from Bristol to Camden, New Jersey.
Fortunately, the fiddle player who recorded with Nestor in 1927 presents a different picture from the one just painted for Nestor himself. The fiddle player was Norman S. Edmonds. SInce the original recording, Norman (or "Uncle Norm" as he is called by his many admirers and friends), has appeared at numerous old fiddlers' conventions in the Virginia/North Carolina area. Several of the tunes performed by Norman and his band "The Old Timers" have been featured on LPs made at these events.
Norman Edmonds was born February 9, 1889, in Wythe County, VA (the Hillsville/Galax area). His fiddling is done in the true mountain style, holding the fiddle on his chest rather than under the chin. His repertory includes a vast number of tunes, most of which are traditional classics. However, a number of them are little known, and a few have been heard only seldom outside the Galax/Hillsville area. A great deal of this rich tradition has been preserved over the years by Mr. Edmonds' son Rush. According to Rush Edmonds, Norman's fiddle playing was learned from his father, who in turn, learned from his father. Norman, therefore, represents 100 years or more of traditional mountain fiddling. It is interesting to note that his grandson, Jimmie Edmonds, although only 15 years old, is already a very talented fiddle player, thus carrying on the fiddling traditions of the Edmonds family.
Jimmie took up the fiddle when he was about 5 years old, which is almost the same age his grandfather began to learn to play. Following the death of Uncle Charlie Higgins, Jimmie took over the position of fiddler with Wade Ward's well-known "Buck Mountain Band". Recently, after Wade's untimely death, Jimmie has formed his own group and is actively carrying on the tradition of Blue Ridge Mountain music that has been a part of his family for such a long time.
Although Norman Edmonds is now in his 80s [as of 1973], he is still an active fiddler. He was the special guest at the 1970 Galax Old Fiddlers Convention, and one of the best fiddle players to appear, even though he played solo. The song he played, "Monkey on a String", was strong, well-played and a fine example of the knowledge gained in over 75 years of fiddle playing.
Though Norm Edmonds played on the radio regularly and recorded quite a bit, there are not many of his recordings currently available on CD or cassette. An album devoted to Edmonds on the Davis Unlimited label is long since out of print. However, there are a few tracks here and there on various anthologies. Edmonds recorded "Train on the Island" and "Black Eyed Susie", oddly enough as a side man (fiddle) to J.P. Nestor (banjo), which are included on the "Rural String Bands of Virginia" and "The Bristol Sessions" CDs, respectively. The "Train on the Island" recording is also available on The Harry Smith Anthology Box Set and Times Ain't What They Used To Be, Volume 1. Edmonds playing "Breaking Up Christmas" is available on Songs of Christmas from the Alan Lomax Collection. Both "Breaking Up Christmas" and "Bonaparte's Retreat" are available on "Southern Journey, Volume 2"