In 1975, Alan Jabbour and I began a project to document the fiddle playing of Senator Robert C. Byrd, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 92. Sen. Byrd was aware that Alan and I had produced an extensive set of field recordings of the music and tales of other West Virginia musicians, notably the Hammons family of Marlinton. The Hammons project took place in the early 1970s, when Alan was the head of the Archive of Folk Song (later known as the Archive of Folk Culture) and I worked for the public television station at West Virginia University.
Alan met Sen. Byrd at a public event where the senator played his fiddle and sang. In 1975, Senator Byrd contacted Alan about making a recording of his own. I drove over from Morgantown and Alan and I carried out our first session at Byrd’s home in McLean, Virginia. In 1976, Alan moved back to the Library as the director of the American Folklife Center and I joined the center’s staff toward the end of the year. Before long, Alan arranged for the senator to be recorded on the stage of the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium (no audience). I took photographs.
The initial recordings were added to the Library’s collections but Senator Byrd broached the idea of releasing an LP of his playing and singing with musical backup. Alan contacted an old North Carolina friend, Barry Poss, who then worked at County Records. Barry suggested we engage a group of top-notch bluegrass professional musicians to accompany the senator and bring in one of the region’s best engineers to make the recordings.
In sessions in early 1978, this stellar group — Robert Byrd, Doyle Lawson, James Bailey, and Spider Gilliam, aided by recording engineer Bill McElroy — laid down 14 tracks for the County label. They were recorded right in the U.S. Capitol. In October, the new release was presented with much fanfare at Discount Records near Dupont Circle in northwest Washington, DC.
This year, County went back to the original masters and digitally re-released the recordings as a compact disc (County CD-2743), illustrated with photographs from the Folklife Center’s collection. Advance copies of the new CD were sent to the senator’s office as his health was failing and, as chance would have it, the re-release of “U.S. Senator Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler” coincided with Sen. Byrd’s passing.
Listening to the recordings today, I join many in a feeling of real loss. But at the same time the music brings back a smile — especially when I hear the great politician sing, “I’ve gambled down in Washington, I’ve gambled over in Spain, now I’m down in Georgia to gamble my last game.”