musical lives, remembered in story & sound
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Emma Lee Dickerson

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 1. Oh, the sound of her fiddle!

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“I saw her when she was young, a teenager. Play the fiddle, Charleston dance, and sing, all at the same time. I never see nobody do that but her."                                         -- Carl Brickey, her cousin

When I first heard a recording of Emma Lee Dickerson playing music, I was captivated :  the driving pulse of her bow, the wild finger picking of the guitarist, playing behind her.

I learned a few of the tunes she played, listening closely to the ways she bowed each tune, the way she phrased it, the way her fiddling relentlessly drove to the end of each phrase. Her fiddling is not smooth— her bow moves up and down, for nearly each note, with such fire and vigor. Adapting my bowing style to incorporate the back and forth drive of hers, the tunes become fierce, powerful things, as I began to feel and play the tunes.

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 2. Early Days & Front Porch Fiddling

emma lee photo1.jpgEmma Lee Dickerson was born in 1923, and began to play music as a young girl on Little Fork, a rural farming community in Elliot County, in northeastern Kentucky. Her father, fiddler Alonzo Theophilus “AT” Johnson passed away when she was ten months old, his fiddle left for her hands.

Emma Lee Dickerson - 3. A Quiet Home

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Emma Lee, with one of her three children.It was the son of one of Levi's co-workers, Wilson Dickerson, who successfully wooed Emma Lee. No easy task, in Carl’s remembrance. “There was other boys interested in her, but she wasn’t interested in them,” he said.

She was “backward,” he said, by which he meant she was a shy, timid young woman. “I don’t know how your dad did it,” he said to Sharon. Oh, she replied, he was a dashing, handsome man, that’s how.

Emma Lee Dickerson : 4. Fiddling

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Emma Lee went for long stretches without playing. She played as a young girl, her cousin Quentin explained, in an interview in 1973 and then “she quit until a year or two ago when I came back down and said Emma Lee, I know you can play the fiddle, now quit this fooling around. She picked that fiddle up, and the tunes she played when she was a girl, she started right up, just like she hadn’t never been away from it.”

Emma Lee went for long stretches without playing. She played as a young girl, her cousin Quentin explained, in an interview in 1973 and then “she quit until a year or two ago when I came back down and said Emma Lee, I know you can play the fiddle, now quit this fooling around. She picked that fiddle up, and the tunes she played when she was a girl, she started right up, just like she hadn’t never been away from it.”

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 5. Looking Upwards

 Near the end of her life, Emma Lee, in Carl’s words, “got saved.” A woman who hadn’t grown up particularly religious, she, as an adult was an active member of her church, which she helped found. As she grew older, she found new inspiration and dedication towards Christianity.

Emma Lee Dickerson -- 6. Legacy

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 Emma Lee’s playing is preserved, her legacy made, in a number of recordings, housed in archives in Kentucky. In home recordings made by Quentin and Carl Brickey, and by friends of Emma Lee’s, at jam sessions, she can be heard playing a few fiddle tunes, backing up her friends as they sing.

 
And, on one side of a tape, she can be heard, playing guitar and singing, no holds barred, high and lonesome, in duets with Quentin. Those recordings are at the Morehead State University Archives. Truly magnificent singing, there.