Midnight Serenade: J.W. “Babe” Spangler By Tim Thompson
It’s a Saturday night in 1929, and a 13-year-old girl steps onto the streetcar on Third Avenue in the company of an older man carrying a fiddle case. At Fourteenth Street and Main, in downtown Richmond, Virginia, they change to another car and ride east on Main Street, into the heart of “Tobacco Row,” the complex of large tobacco factories concentrated here in the old capital of the Confederacy. Nestled among the multi-story brick factories is a smaller building with a sign that says “Edgeworth Tobacco, WRVA.” The man and his daughter, Jean Spangler, go into the outer waiting room and wait while the gospel singer, Harlan R. Wilkinson, finishes his show. Then they go into Studio B, and “The Old Virginia Fiddler,” J. W. “Babe” Spangler, is on the air.The Musical Spanglers of Meadows of Dan
John Watts “Babe” Spangler was born on November 15, 1882, in Meadows of Dan in Patrick County, Virginia, and his brother Charles Langhorne “Tump” Spangler was born three years later. Their father, Wallace Wolford Spangler, born 1851 in Meadows of
Courtesy Jean Hollins and Grace Watkins
Listen to Babe Spangler's "Midnight Serenade"
Dan, was a legendary fiddler whose influence is cited by many Virginia musicians of a generation that happened to be interviewed during the mid-20th century folk revival. Jesse and Pyrhus Shelor, Lawrence Bolt, and Taylor Kimble, among others, testified to Wallace’s influence. His granddaughters, Jean and Grace, remembered him as a large man, a carpenter with big hands, and a “hale fellow well met [man] . . . old-time-mountain and real smart and strong; had a lot of intelligence but just not a lot of polish.”
Tump recalled the way some tunes came into his father’s repertoire. Wallace apparently brought the tune “Rich Mountain” back from Wise County when he went west to cut cordwood as a young man. He played regularly and shared tunes with several local fiddlers, Randall Farmer from Hillsville, Si Hazlewood from below Stuart, and Green Wint, Pat Gilber, and Al Scales. Wallace’s half-brother, Richard Scott Spangler, was known for playing “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Devil’s Dream,” and “Fisher’s Hornpipe. Jay Scott brought the tune “Cabin Creek” back to the group from Atlanta. Sometimes Wallace would surprise his sons with a “new” old tune like “Ways of the World,” which he didn’t commonly play. Wallace’s first cousin, Winfield Scott, told Tump that his “Dad could play the fiddle . . . sitting in a chair, before his feet’d reach the floor. He learned to play that young. Just took it up, natural talent, seems.”
“Uncle Babe is here and we’re going to have music!”
The family returned to Patrick County on visits in the summer time, and Babe’s talents were fully appreciated there. His daughters relate:
Jean: “Up in the mountains, they say when they saw his truck they knew they were going to have a dance that night.”
Grace: “They would pass the word. “Uncle Babe. Uncle Babe is here and we’re going to have music.” And they’d go to somebody’s house, and boy, that place would rock!”
Jean: “Top of the mountain would be there, just by word of mouth.”
Grace: “When they knew Dad was going to be there, they’d say—usually the Reynolds’, they’d say, ‘ Come over to the Reynolds’, we’ll have a dance.’ And Dad would go, and they’d always have a guitar player and a banjo player, and they’d do their clogging and country dancing . . .”
It’s hard for us to imagine the impact of the radio on everyone when it began to become commonplace in the middle 1920s. There had never been anything like it before. If you wanted to hear a real musical performance, you could go to the schoolhouse for a dance, but you might not hear too much of the music over the thunder of the dancing feet. If you lived in the city, or a larger town, you might have a vaudeville theater that would provide a variety of singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, dog acts, and even the occasional fiddle player. Even if you had a phonograph, you had to get up every couple of minutes and “turn the record over,” and then, again, to hear the same thing again.
Radio brought live performers into your living room. It transformed a public performance into a private experience, and created a perception of intimacy between the performer and the listener that made the family gathered around the crystal set, trading the earphone back and forth, and later the Philco, feel like the fiddler was playing “just for them.”
And when they had the opportunity, through a radio show post card in a tobacco can, or even when a telephone was handy, the audience responded directly to the performer with personal messages of appreciation. Cards, letters, telegrams, and telephone calls poured into WRVA, Richmond, Virginia, in response to the “Corn Cob Pipe Club,” and especially to the “Old Virginia Fiddlers.” Two surviving undated typescript request lists addressed to the “Old Virginia Fiddler” represent only a small sample of listener response. Of the total of 81 requests listed on these sheets from the early 1930s, 69 percent were from north of the Mason-Dixon line; almost 15 percent were from Canada. The music may have been regional but the response was national and even international.