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“There’ll never be another her. She done everything in the world that she could. She was a midwife, she was a musician, she was a mother, she was a wife, and she was a workhorse. She done everything there was to be done except drive a car.”
--Lillian Pierson, her daughter
Effie Smith was born in 1902, in Sturgeon, Kentucky, Owsley County. Owsley County is 50 miles west of Hazard, 50 miles south of Clay City, 50 miles east of Mt. Vernon, as the crow flies over the mountains. At the time of her birth, the county had a population of around 7,000, pioneering farmers and loggers; it is land on the edge of the coalfields, but not in the midst of coal country that brought mining and miners into the mountains.
She was born to James Franklin and Rachel Strong Smith, the fifth of eleven children in the family. She and her siblings attended school at a one room schoolhouse; Effie, intent on learning as much as possible, repeated the eighth grade after completing it once. “She was a whiz at figuring things, you know, math,” her daughter Pauline remembered.
Effie’s grandfather, John Smith was a fiddler, known as “Fiddler John,” and, inspired by his music, she taught herself to play, at a young age.
She was about five, her daughter Pauline imagined, when Effie started to play fiddle. “She loved the fiddle,” she said, “Took it after her grandpa… Her mom would tell her to do something, a chore of some kind, and she would get her fiddle, put it under her arm, you, know, and go do the chore, too.” She didn’t want to leave her fiddle unattended, leaving her brothers or sisters to pick it up while she couldn’t. “I guess she wanted to learn to play it herself,” Pauline supposed. Effie came from a musical family; in her daughter’s remembrance, most of her mother’s siblings played an instrument.
Effie didn’t stop at the fiddle. She played, in Pauline’s reckoning, “anything, just about, that she picked up. Mom could play the fiddle, the mandolin, the guitar, banjo, harmonica, the Jew’s harp.”
“She could play anything that had a tune to it,” another daughter of Effie’s, Lillian, remembered. “If there wasn’t a tune, she’d think one up. She was something else.”