musical lives, remembered in story & sound

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.

So who was that woman, behind such powerful tunes? Emma Lee Dickerson, to those within the old time community in Kentucky, was a woman whose story was unknown. Fiddlers who had heard recordings of the archive, spoke her praise, but had never heard her in person; there were rumors, from one fiddler, of a woman in northeast Kentucky who’d once won a fiddle contest. “It hit me right off the bat,” said noted Lewis County fiddler Roger Cooper, impressed by her fiddling, “I thought, who in the world is it?

With the help of John Harrod, I got in touch with one of Dickerson’s daughters, Sharon Nunley, a woman who responded with surprise, that someone might be interested in her mom, and in her fiddle playing.

And, in a moment that changed my life, I played one of those tunes, for Sharon, a generous woman, sweet and eager to talk about her mother’s life. I played Cross Key, a lonesome tune, and closed my eyes.

When I opened them, there was Sharon, wiping tears from her eyes. “I remember that one,” she said. “I don’t think I would ever hear anyone play like my mother, again.”

And, then, she told me about her mother. Here is her story.