Music Comes Naturally To Son Of Hammons Legends
The Hammons Family of Pocahontas County, West Virginia are known around the world for their distinctive old-time music that reflects the early Appalachian frontier of West Virginia. Nine members of the Hammons clan, Edden, Pete, Maggie, Sherman, Burl, Lee, Currence, Mintie and Dona will be inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame this year. That ceremony has been rescheduled to November.
The Hammons Family were musicians and singers performing songs about hard times and love lost. They were storytellers who talked about everyday life in riddles, poems, and funny tales. And they shared their wisdom and humor with anyone willing to listen.
In a special report as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, Heather Niday has this story about 19-year-old Trevor Hammons, who is helping ensure that his family's musical legacy lives on.
A New Generation
Trevor Hammons is the great-grandson of Lee Hammons. He never met his great-grandfather, or any of the other inductees. And while many musicians appreciate the contributions of the Hammons Family, for Trevor it's far more personal. For him it's all about ensuring that legacy remains a family tradition.
Trevor is a quiet young man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. That is, until he picks up the banjo. At festivals and competitions, his style of banjo picking draws crowds and wins awards. The Vandalia Gathering is an annual festival held in Charleston, West Virginia devoted to old-time and bluegrass music. At the Vandalia Gathering the past few years, he’s been one of the top five musicians in the old-time banjo category, an honor usually awarded to older musicians.
Trevor said he tries to preserve his family’s style of music by using the same old-time Appalachian style of finger picking on the banjo that was used by his great-grandfather Lee Hammons and by Sherman Hammons. It’s a style of finger picking similar to clawhammer that uses the thumb and tips of the fingers to play the strings in a downward motion.
In the 1940s, Earl Scruggs introduced his bluegrass style of playing the banjo that uses picks on the thumb, index, and middle fingers that allow the musician to play the notes much faster. Trevor said he uses his family’s specific clawhammer technique because he wants to see his family's unique style of music continue to be played and appreciated.
“Lee had a really light touch, and when I play his tunes, I like to use a really light touch to make sure it’s exactly the same," Trevor said. "I try to get it to my ear how it would sound exactly like he would.”
Trevor doesn’t know how or if Lee was related to Sherman, but he does know they were good friends. He said Sherman had a very different style of playing.
“Sherman, he used a really firm just driving hand. They had the ability to control how it sounded ‘cause they understood it just like I do. He had to figure that stuff out and it’s really hard.”
A Seed Is Planted…
He first heard Lee playing the banjo when he was seven or eight years old. The music was from a recording done by local musician Dwight Diller and included old-time tunes such as "Calloway", "Soldier’s Joy" and "Pretty Polly". Trevor remembers the effect it had on him.
“When I heard that, it had this haunting sound to it and it sounded really old and it just kind of caught my attention.”
Trevor was eight years old when he began taking music lessons. At first, he began learning guitar. But after a few months, he wanted more of a challenge.
“After you learn the basics on guitar, you’re just keeping time, especially with old time unless you get into flatpicking.”
But then, Trevor saw one of his friends playing a banjo at a local jam session in Marlinton. He remembered those old recordings of his great-grandfather, and decided he had to learn the banjo.
“I loved it, the sound of it. I told my mom the next week before my [guitar] lesson, I told her I was sick, ‘cause I didn’t want to go. I wanted to play the banjo.”
…And A Musician Begins To Grow
His teacher Pam Lund saw through the ruse, and said she would let him try her banjo if he came to the lesson. From the very first note, Trevor said playing the banjo came easily to him.
“Whenever I picked up the banjo, it was like I flew away with it, it came so natural to me. I don’t like to say it, but I didn’t have to try to play it.”
His music teacher Pam didn't want to be interviewed for this story. She said she preferred to have the spotlight on Trevor, as she does with all her students. But Trevor's musical education would probably not have happened if not for her. When she moved to Pocahontas County in the 1970s, Pam learned the songs of the Hammons Family from other musicians who'd played with Lee and Sherman. She, in turn, taught the music to her young students, including Trevor.
"Pam, if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I appreciate anybody more in this world than her because I wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for her," Trevor said.
A Legacy Worthy Of Preservation
Through Trevor, Pam has ensured that the legacy of the Hammons' music will continue within the Hammons Family. To lose that connection would be a big loss said Carl Fleischhauer, a folklorist retired from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He said the Hammons had unique talents; they excelled at their musical craft.
“It’s not exactly that they were different and what they knew was different from other people, it was that in a sense it was more distilled and brought to a finer polish," Fleischhauer said. "Why is Rembrandt the better painter than the other painters who were active in Holland at that time? He’s not different, he was just better than they were.”
Prior to his work with the Library of Congress, Fleischhauer worked at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which at that time was part of West Virginia University. He met Dwight Diller, a West Virginia University student from Pocahontas County who was working with the public television station to produce a show about the Hammons Family. Fleischhauer wanted to know more about the Hammons, so he and Diller spent several months visiting and recording the Hammons in Pocahontas County.
In the course of doing these recordings, Fleischhauer met Alan Jabbour, a musician and folklorist at the Library of Congress who had also visited the Hammons on his own.
Together, Fleischhauer and Jabbour made numerous visits in the early 1970s to Pocahontas County. They came to watch the Hammons Family play music. They asked for their permission to record them, so they could preserve their songs. In 1973, they compiled these recordings into a double album recording for the Library of Congress, “The Hammons Family, The Traditions Of A West Virginia Family And Their Friends.” Today it’s considered the comprehensive album of the family’s musical legacy.
Fleischhauer said there was so much more to the Hammons than just their music. He said almost every family member had a rich sense of place and past and a wonderful skill at storytelling. That’s why he also recorded interviews with the Hammons of their stories and riddles and tall tales.
Trevor grew up listening to stories about how they lived from his dad and from uncles, aunts and cousins. Some of the Hammons, like Sherman and Maggie, stayed close to home and lived off the land. Trevor said others, like his great-grandfather Lee, had to leave home to find work to support a growing family.
“He didn’t play music for over 50 years; he left and went to work. He worked so many different places – logging, a duck farm, anything he could to help his family. And he came back and he picked up the banjo and he could still play it," Trevor said. "He quit playing for so long, but it was for a good reason.”
Trevor said he sees a lot of his great-grandfather’s story in his own experience. He too is finding a way to continue his music while making a living through labor-intensive work.
After Trevor graduated from high school, he attended college, but quit when his mother became ill. It would be almost impossible to support himself and help his mother if he only taught and performed music and stayed in Pocahontas County. So instead, he’s chosen to work at a lumber mill, so he can stay close to his homeplace. Eventually he’s hoping to take a course in commercial truck driving and to find work that will allow him to stay close to home.
Passing The Music On To The Next Generation
In 2019, Trevor taught a weeklong course in banjo at the annual Allegheny Echoes music workshop series in Marlinton. He's hoping to teach again this year. The camp, originally scheduled for late June, has been postponed until later in the year. In the meantime, Trevor said he hopes to be able to teach banjo to students over the internet to continue to pass on his musical knowledge to more people.
He's also excited to play his family’s music at the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Charleston. That event, which had been scheduled for April, has now been rescheduled for November 14th.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a collaboration with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.