musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lella Todd -- 5. Fiddling so memorable


Claude passed away in 1951. Upon his death, Lella moved from Powell County to Winchester, in Clark County, where she stayed with a number of relatives and friends, among them Serena, and a woman named Ms. Quisenberry, whose sons she’d take out hunting and fishing. In those years, Serena said, as her aunt moved from house to house, “the one thing she always took with her was her rifle, and her violin.”



She continued to play music, and at some point rekindled an old musical relationship with the Judds, Vernon and Zora, who played banjo and guitar, respectively. Estill County banjo player Earl Thomas Jr, who learned to play banjo from his father, was a young man at the time, and joined their jam sessions, on occasion.



Lella, Earl said, was “one of the sweetest persons you ever knew. She was a real good musician.”

He still remembered the way she played, her distinctive approach. “She used her fingers [on her left hand]… she’d roll them notes in there buddy, I mean to tell you, perfect. Now she was truly an old time fiddle player. And there was no hot-dogging in her fiddle playing… she wasn’t trying to show off playing the fiddle. She just played the tune.”

She still had the touch, but was, by then, an older woman. Earl thought wistfully of what sort of fiddler Lella must have been in her prime: “buddy, if you could’ve met her ten or fifteen years ago… buddy she’dve been great. I mean, she… had all the makings of a great fiddle player. We just didn’t get to hear it.”
Those jam sessions, Lella playing with Vernon and Zora and Earl, was some of the “prettiest music you ever heard.” Her fiddling with Vernon’s banjo playing was, in Earl’s words, “like putting on a pair of gloves. They were perfect…. They hammered down on that thing.”
“I can just see her right now,” Earl said, imagining Lella with her fiddle, in front of him, tuning it: “she’d stick that fiddle neck right between her knees, you know, and she’d sit down there and twist them keys… them things squeaked and scratched.”

Earl remembered the times he played with them, with great fondness. “Her and Vernon, would… think of some of these old tunes, and they would try to hammer some of them out. And some of them, I don’t know if they got them all right or not, but they would try them.” He remembered a moment, working on one tune in particular: “We sat and worked on that one tune, oh for half an hour. And they finally figured [it] out. Burned [it] son, they went after it. I loved playing with her, I really did. She had good timing, she had real good timing. She wasn’t jerking and carrying on all the time. Old Vernon just sit there and grin,” he said, laughing.

“We’d play, heck… if we got together at 6 o clock in the evening, it’d be one o’clock before we’d quit. And she’d hang right in there, buddy, right in there. She’d stay up, I guess, ‘till she bout fall over.” They’d stay up, playing hoedowns, square dance tunes, and a waltz every now and then.
Earl didn’t play with Lella very many times, before she passed away in 1976. “I would sure love to have been able to play with Lella a lot. A fellow… could’ve learnt a lot of old tunes off of her.”
We are left, with a series of recordings; Lella Todd, with Zora and Vernon Judd, Gus Meade and Mark Wilson there, too. Asa Martin, and his band came down, to record them, at Travis Wells’ house. Lella’s fiddling, sadly, is often nearly drowned in the sounds of other instruments. But if you listen closely, beneath the clang of the banjo, there’s Lella, rolling the notes just as Earl said she did. And, I imagine, smiling and giggling in between takes, just as Letha said she did.