In 1939, Odell "Speedy" Tolliver left his home in far southwest Virginia for Washington, D.C. He had a suitcase and a Gibson Mastertone banjo he'd bought brand-new for $135, a small fortune in the Depression. The suitcase was just a cardboard box full of clothes, but the banjo was his whole world.
At 20, he was already a seasoned veteran who'd performed at the White Top Folk Festival, where first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had presided over the annual gathering of the best old-time musicians in Appalachia. Now Tolliver has a fiddle competition named for him; this year's event will be held this afternoon at Lubber Run Amphitheatre in Arlington.
Tolliver's friend John Stringer had moved to the Washington area along with thousands of hillbillies in search of work. A fiddler, he realized how much these displaced migrants missed their homegrown music, and he persuaded his buddy to join him in a band so they could give the people what they wanted.
It was Stringer who'd given Tolliver his nickname back in Green Cove, Va., in the western foothills near White Top Mountain, because he was something of a slowpoke. "Maybe I didn't walk fast enough, so he started to call me Speedy, to sort of speed me up a little bit," says Tolliver. Slow or not, he was itching to escape his native Washington County, where jobs were as scarce as the virgin pine the timber companies had plundered there for decades.
So the boys from Green Cove made the grueling ride north on the winding two-laner that was old U.S. Route 11, as did so many mountain people in the days before Interstate 81. In Fairfax, staying with relatives and working day jobs, they joined with a couple of former North Carolinians and the Lee Highway Boys were born. Throughout the '40s, they played house parties and square dances and roughneck bars like Hunter's Lodge in Centreville. You could hear them on the radio on WWDC and the Saturday morning "Rural Round-Up" program on WGAY, and you could see them on WTTG-TV -- Johnny and Bill and Speedy and Slim in grainy black and white -- one of the first hillbilly groups to appear regularly on Washington television.
There wasn't much money to be had playing "Arkansas Traveler" at 6 a.m. for farmers out milking their cows, and the fiddler often went missing, and by the end of the decade the Lee Highway Boys were no more. But Tolliver had picked up the fiddle, mostly due to Stringer's chronic absences; as a multi-instrumentalist he found plenty of work in the thriving country music scene of postwar Washington. He performed with a teenage Roy Clark on WBUZ; he played with Clark's father "Hoss." Tolliver also teamed with guitarist Eddie Stoneman, of the famed Stoneman clan, in the Colorado Cowboys ("nightly except Mondays") at the Avenue Grill on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, as well as with local string bands of all shapes and sizes whose only common denominator was at least one member nicknamed Slim.
From Northern Virginia honky-tonks to high-society events in Northwest Washington, Tolliver stayed busy, whether as the guest "rustic" fiddler -- in requisite bandanna and bib overalls -- at a debutante's hayride theme party in Spring Valley or as a backup musician for Eddy Arnold and other headliners at Turner's Arena shows presented by country promoter Connie B. Gay.
In the early '50s, though, with new wife Gala and a growing family to support, Tolliver chucked it all to work full time at a U.S. Navy munitions factory in Indian Head, Md. Coming at the peak of Washington's country boom, it was a decision that may have cost him a music career but probably lengthened his life.
"I didn't like the nightclubs because of all the smoke and the drinking and the fights," he says. "It was a very unhealthy environment. They'd start throwing bottles and fighting, and I didn't go for that. It wasn't my dish."
Interesting stuff, but not much more than some pages in an old scrapbook. Then Tolliver rises gingerly from a chair, stands with a slight stoop, and plays his music. After only a few notes, it's clear he possesses a talent that time can dim but never fully extinguish. With a fiddle propped under his furrowed jowls, or his 1935 banjo cradled in his worn hands, he conjures a lost world as real as the one outside his Arlington home.
"Speedy sounds like a place," says Joe Wilson, director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, who first saw Tolliver perform at contests in the '50s. "In his basic style, that loping thing of his, he's still from White Top. He has that sound, and you can still hear that little corner of east Tennessee and western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia -- that Blue Ridge quality -- it's there. There's only two or three counties that sound like that."
You can hear that quality in its all its youthful, raw glory on recordings Tolliver made in the '40s with Frank Blevins, a legendary old-time musician from across the border in North Carolina, not long after Tolliver had made fiddle his second instrument. The duo's twin-fiddle attack on a rendition of "Ida Red" -- at a blistering pace that would cripple any clogger's attempts to dance to it -- reveals an affinity that can partly be explained by the fact that Blevins had cousins in Green Cove. And you can hear echoes of it when the 85-year-old appears at festivals and events such as today's Speedy Tolliver Old Time Fiddler's Contest in Arlington.
Unlike many old-timers, Tolliver remains a competitive force on the festival circuit. Just last year he took second place at a contest in Clifftop, W.Va. (The guy who beat him? "He was a West Virginian," says Tolliver with a chuckle.) His early retirement -- which stretched for more than a decade, until he began performing in public again at events such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1968 (and later for two presidents) -- is one of the reasons his skills have remained remarkably intact; relegating the music to a hobby helped spare him the fate of so many former sidekicks who fell prey to the honky-tonk life. "Most all of those people, they're six feet under," he says. "And I'm still above ground."
Still, Tolliver credits music for keeping him fit and active, and he performs several times a week with various groups in the Arlington area, where he's resided for 40 years. "It's like therapy for me," he says. "It helps me from rusting out." In recent years, he's favored the fiddle; four hernia operations have made holding the banjo a chore.
He is one of those musicians who keep their ears pricked for new sounds. Whatever tickles his fancy is added to his repertoire -- such as the Western swing tinge he brings to the fiddle -- though he manages to make everything come out like Speedy Tolliver. "It's kind of like a mockingbird," he says. "It's fun for me to pick up and take on different styles of music."
For one of his favorite banjo routines, he plays the archaic, claw-hammer style he learned as a boy, then segues into Dixieland and caps it with a three-finger bluegrass flourish -- all on the same song. Like his fondness for Bing Crosby ("I've never heard anybody with a voice like that"), it's the sort of non-purist approach that drives folklorists crazy.
He can't remember where or when he first heard the double-stop bowing technique that drives his fiddling; all he knows is that what came natural to him is hard for others to master.
"A lot of fiddlers can get near it but they can't get the sound like it should be. I had a good fiddler friend -- of course he's six feet under now -- he learned it from me, and it took him a whole year to get it right. And my neighbor down the street, he has a granddaughter who's 14 years old. She comes over and learns to play my style, and this young girl has picked it up and she's doing it as well as I can now. She's going to play in the contest Sunday. She has a talent almost like I did at one time. I think it's born into you."
What most sets Tolliver apart in old-time music circles isn't his virtuosity but his generosity and humility.
Whether it is a cadre of hard-core insiders hellbent on re-creating the drone of some '20s-era hillbillies, or some lawn-chair novices fumbling their way through "Old Joe Clark," Tolliver is there with open ears and encouraging words and helpful licks from his banjo or fiddle.
"He's sort of like my old friend Tommy Jarrell," the late North Carolina fiddler, says Joe Wilson.
"If you were a musician, you were okay in his world. Speedy's that way, too. If you play, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from, you're on his team. He'll do his part to fit in and not to shine above all the others. He'll try to be part of the band."
The ninth annual Speedy Tolliver Old Time Fiddler's Contest will be held from noon to 4 p.m. today at the Lubber Run Amphitheatre, North Second and North Columbus streets in Arlington. The free event is open to all traditional fiddlers regardless of style.