the Gentleman Musician from Arlington, Virginia By Sandy Hofferth and Mary Briggs
When “Speedy” Tolliver arrived in Washington, DC from southwestern Virginia in 1939, country music was in its ascendancy. It was the music of southern migrants who were flooding into the city to seek work, and old-time country music was everywhere in the clubs and on the radio, and even at Constitution Hall. So it was no surprise that a 21-year-old named Roy Odell Tolliver from Green Cove, Virginia, a community on the side of White Top Mountain, left home with a suitcase and a Gibson banjo to seek his fortune in the capital area.
Born in 1918, Speedy grew up in a large musical family. His father played harmonica, and his brother Blaine, one of Speedy’s nine siblings, played banjo. It did not take long before Speedy learned to play the banjo as well.
Speedy plays his new Gibson RB-1 banjo,
Green Cove, Virginia, late 1930s.
Listen To Speedy Tolliver's 1940s Recording of Cripple Creek, from the CD, Now and Then.
When he was about nine years old, he lost the hearing in one ear as a result of a life-threatening ear infection. While recuperating, he spent time listening to the radio and absorbing music around his community. “The entertainment back there was just home spun music. You played your own music. . . . House parties and square dances were the main entertainment. . . . People would get together and can each other’s food for the winter until the next season come in, so that’s how the people survived. There was no money.”
The main occupations around White Top Mountain at that time—farming and working in the timber industry—did not appeal to Speedy when he was a young man, nor did his father’s grist mill operations. Speedy started to leave Green Cove several times. At age 17, with his friends Harold Hensley and John Wilson, he struck out for California. They made their way by hitchhiking, busking for a few pennies at villages and county seats to “buy a can of beans and a loaf of bread” and sleeping in haystacks in farmers’ fields. Because there weren’t many vehicles on the road during the Depression, Speedy says that they “did more hiking than hitching.” They arrived at the Ohio River at Cincinnati with only a few coins in their pockets. “They were charging three or four cents to cross the toll bridge into town,” all the money they had. They made it across, but could not find steady work. Hungry, they crossed back into Kentucky and worked on a farm for a few days cutting corn at 15 cents a shock for a sympathetic farmer who also played music. Once he earned enough money for a bus ride home, Speedy headed on back to Green Cove, and the others followed soon after. Speedy says: “that was rough, but I think it did stop me from following music [as a profession] . . . I was glad to get home.” Soon after, Speedy attended the Christian Missionary School in Grundy, Virginia, where fiddler John Stringer was also enrolled. While there, he and John traveled with a school musical group to Nashville and other cities to raise funds for the school.