Babe McCallister, banjo, Ben France, Billy Walker, Charley Dodd, civil war, fiddling, Henry France, Henry Peyton, history, J.T. "Pomp" Wentz, Jack McComas, Lincoln County, Morris Wentz, West Virginia, William S. Rogers
By the time of the Civil War, Benjamin France of Cabell County was the chief fiddler in the lower Guyandotte Valley. One person interviewed by Fred B. Lambert referred to him as “the best of all” in a list of fiddlers that included even Ed Haley. Of course, I was immediately interested in him.
According to Lambert’s notes, France was born in 1844. He “learned on a gourd fiddle, and was able to play when he entered the army. He served as a Rebel soldier, throughout the Civil War, entering the army, at the age of 17 years. He was noted as one of the best fiddlers of his time. He won two or three times, in contests, but his medals do not show when, nor whether they were first rank. Henry France, his nephew, says he could play all the old fiddle tunes, and could play all night without repeating the same tunes even once.”
France was a resident of Long Branch, near the Lincoln County line and died in 1918.
“From Cabell County, the principal fiddlers were Morris Wentz, Ben France, William S. Rogers and Charley Dodd,” according to J.T. “Pomp” Wentz, a riverboat captain who spoke with Lambert. “Banjoes were not used so much, in those days, but later Rev. Billy Walker and others used to play them very well. As a fiddler, Ben France played with the most ease of any man I ever saw. Morris Wentz played with some difficulty compared with Mr. France, but he could play almost anything. Morris Wentz used to play: ‘The Cold Frosty Morning’, ‘Going Back to Dixie’, ‘The Arkansas Traveler’, ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ (this pleased Billy Bramblett, the Frenchman), ‘Ducks in the Pond’, ‘The Puncheon Floor’, ‘Hop Light Ladies’, ‘The Boatsman’, ‘The Cackling Hen’, ‘Sourwood Mountain’, ‘Soldiers Joy’, ‘Little Birdie’, ‘Old Dan Tucker’, ‘Granny Will Your Dog Bite?’, ‘Liza Jane’, ‘The Shelvin’ Rock’, ‘Knock Kneed Nannie’, ‘Chippy, Get Your Hair Cut’, ‘The Rebel Raid’, ‘Turkey in the Straw’, ‘Sugar In the Gourd’, ‘Ginny, the Gal With the Blue Dress On’, ‘Old Joe Clark’, ‘Birdie’, ‘Old Napper’, ‘The Forked Duck’. After dancing the ‘set’ down, they would close with the ‘winder’.”
Apparently, the popular tunes of the day were “Forked Deer” and “The Peach Tree”.
“Babe McCallister, ‘a darkey’ owned by a farmer named McCallister from upper Mud River, was a master of ‘Forked Deer’,” one fiddler raved. “He ‘played the fiddle with the ‘free arm movement,’ the wrist joint only working, the elbow joint still, while the wrist joint was in active movement. To hear the coon on ‘Forked Deer’, his favorite tune, and call the cotillion figure was a great treat. Could I have inherited such talent with my fondness of and for the violin, it would have been dead easy that I should tour the universe and earn a million playing only ‘Forked Deer’ and ‘Peach Tree’.”
Further up the Guyandotte River from the Cabell County towns, in present-day Lincoln County, were fiddlers of lesser note.
“Some of the best fiddlers I ever knew in Lincoln County, were Henry Peyton, father of ‘Blind’ Bill Peyton, and Jack McComas, both of whom played before the Civil War,” said Pomp Wentz.