musical lives, remembered in story & sound

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. She moved with her mother and sister Hazel to live with her mother’s family, a crowded household, recalled Emma Lee’s cousin, Carl, who also grew up there. He listed them off: his grandmother and grandfather, his father Walter, his four brothers, Aunt Sarah, Aunt Ernestine. Emma Lee and her mother and sister. Fifteen, in his reckoning.
They were farmers, like most everyone else around them; no cash crop, but livestock, and food produced, to live on. “We had garden food. A lot of work was to keep the animals.” Horses, mules, cows, hogs and chickens.
Of her mother’s childhood, Sharon recounted, simply: “they worked. Everybody had to work. They all had gardens… it was just her and her sister and her mom.” Music, then, was made during spare moments. Carl remembered, “If it rained out, and you couldn’t hoe corn, stuff like that, they’d sit out on the porch.”
“They lived up this little hollow,” described Sharon, “and there wasn’t anything else to do. So they would all play music.”
Dick Sturgill, from Cane’s Creek, in Lawrence County, would sometimes come by and play fiddle with Carl’s father, fiddler Walter Brickey. “Sometimes, if they wasn’t busy, they might sit on the porch, and make music for hours,” Carl said. Walter had learned to fiddle, growing up in Hitchens. He played an old fiddle he’d bought for fie dollars, from an old man, Carl said. “I don’t know if he killed the rattlesnake, or who killed it, but he had them rattlers… on the inside of his fiddle,” a common practice by fiddlers at the time.
Dick and Walter were often joined on the porch by Jimmy Riley, a third cousin who “played the banjo some. Their mother played old time clawhammer style, and he played some and his brother Nelson played some.” Jimmy would sometimes play fiddlesticks, on Dick or Walter’s fiddles: “take these little willow, limber twigs,” Carl described, “and beat the strings like that,” he said, his hands moving like a drummers, in the air.
Another friend, Volney Fraley, would come and play his harmonica. And, amidst these men, Emma Lee learned to play.
“My dad, and Emma Lee, when she got to playing fiddle, and Ralph on the guitar, and sometimes Dick Sturgill on the fiddle… But if you heard my dad and Emma Lee playing, you’d swear it was one fiddle. If you single them out, she was better on the bow, I thought, better on the bow,” said Carl.
Emma Lee had picked up the fiddle when she was about 14, in her recollection—in an interview that was part of a field recording of her made by Barbara Kunkle, in the 1970s. “I just picked it up myself,” after a childhood spent listening and watching the men play on the porch. “I would listen to him,” she said of Dick Sturgill’s playing, “when I was just a little girl.”
Back then, Carl said, “You [would] just have to bruise your way through,” children teaching themselves how to play, through trial and error, fiddling around on their parents’ instruments. Emma Lee’s cousins played, too. Carl played a bit of guitar, and fiddle. His brother Homer played fiddle, his brother Ralph played guitar. A second cousin Lake, played fiddle, and would go on to be a well known mandolin player in Portsmouth, Ohio. Their cousins Quentin and Robert, who lived nearby, played mandolin and guitar and banjo, learned from their father who also played banjo, in an “overhand style,” as Quentin described it.
Emma Lee, Carl remembered, was a particularly quick study. “She was just gifted, you know. She just picked it up,” he said. “She was good. She was real good.” Another cousin, Quentin, with whom she played music until very late in her life, said she was a “real dandy fiddler.”
Carl remembers, “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.”
She entered a fiddle contest once, in Elliot County, when she was fifteen. “There were several fiddlers,” she told Kunkle. “I think either four or five. And they were all men, you know. I was the only [woman].”  The contest was held on the Fourth of July in Sandy Hook, part of the town’s Independence Day festivities. About all she remembered of that day, she said, “Was getting the money.” She won the contest. And five dollars.
The family would have square dances at home, and in their neighbor’s homes. “I remember,” she said, “they’d sit me up on a box, and I’d play for three or four hours.” Jimmy Riley would call sets, and everybody would dance. In Sharon’s imagination, the dances were on Saturday nights, and her mother “would just stand up there and play until they were done dancing.”
Perhaps the greatest memory of these dances lies in Dickerson’s fiddling, an energetic attack which suggests swinging partners and a floor thudding with the sound of stomping feet. “No one has ever played a more driving and danceable version [of Texas John] than Emma Lee’s,” write John Harrod and Mark Wilson, of her take on a tune, included on a Rounder Records collection of northeast Kentucky fiddling. They make a similar note of another tune of hers: “While other versions of ‘Susan’s Gone’ suggest that it was a ‘listening piece,’ the sheer straight-ahead drive of Emma Lee Dickerson’s tune is in the tradition of the best dance fiddling….this hell for leather approach… is music that could (and did) move a set of dancers around the floor,” they write of her rendition of another tune. Her fiddling, recorded in 1973, about 30 years since those childhood dances, reflected her musical training as a dance fiddler, inspired by the rhythm of the dancers.
Emma Lee’s mother eventually remarried, Levi Ratliff, who ran a grocery. Emma Lee moved back to her mother's family farm, with her family, where she lived until she got married.