The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 9

Feature
The Ashby Family and Friends of Fauquier County Virginia
By Sandy Hofferth

Skip Ashby, a contest finalist at the 2005 Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, is a link in a chain of musicians in the Warrenton area of Fauquier County, Virginia, that reaches back a century and a half. An early Fauquier County history reports that the musicians for a mid-nineteenth century dance at Fauquier White Sulphur Springs (now Fauquier Springs Country Club) were “the Ashby boys.” Skip’s band, the Free State Ramblers, was founded in the 1930s and is still active today, playing for private parties, fairs, and festivals in Fauquier County

John Ashby,1978. Courtesy Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
John Ashby's Fauquier County Hornpipe

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The John Marshall Ashby Family and its Most Renowned Fiddler, John Chilton Ashby

Although we don’t know what instruments John Marshall Ashby played, we know that his son, John Chilton Ashby, born 1915, became one of the most popular and best-known fiddlers of Fauquier County from the 1930s through the 1970s.

John began playing fiddle when he was 11 years old. His early influences were his Uncle Joseph, from whom he learned “Broad Run Picnic,” named for a river flowing through Fauquier County, and John L. Sullivan, from whom he learned a tune played today by most old-time fiddlers, “Johnny Don’t Get Drunk.” Sullivan was postmaster of Bealeton and the local fiddler in the 1920s. Other influences include Walter Graham, John Sinclair (“Rattlesnake Bit the Baby”), and Cy Kines. A signature tune, “Free State Hornpipe,” also known as the “Hornpipe in A” or the “Hilltop Hornpipe,” came from Winchester fiddler, Ralph Lamp. John is said to have composed “Ashby’s Breakdown,” “Going to the Free State,” and the “Fauquier County Hornpipe.”

John Ashby’s “long-bow” style of fiddling was efficient in noting, and powerful and rhythmic in bowing. Though he was one-of-a-kind, his style is somewhat reminiscent of those of West Virginian Clark Kessinger, and North Carolinian Benton Flippen. John was influenced by radio, learning tunes and style from the Crook Brothers (“Lady of the Lake”), the Skillet Lickers (“Liberty”), Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith (“Sugar Tree Stomp”), and Charlie Bowman (“Sally Ann”). His “Sherburn’s Breakdown” is similar to the popular Texas tune “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Recordings of many of his tunes feature fewer chord changes than musicians use today and have a slightly slower pace. To John, rhythm and timing were everything. Skip remembers that his father preferred musicians to stay on the same chord and keep time rather than change chords and risk losing the beat. Skip remembers John telling him once to “just stay in D.” John played for dances every Saturday and the type of dance required a somewhat slower but very regular timing and rhythm.

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The Free State Ramblers

Around 1930 John Ashby began playing in combination with his cousin Irving on banjo and neighbor Edgar Payne or brother Marshall on guitar. By the early 1940s the band had developed into a group they named the Free State Ramblers. This classic band, which played from the 1940s through about 1956, consisted of John on fiddle, cousin Moffett Ashby (Jr.) on guitar, John’s brother Marshall on bass, Morrison Greene on mandolin, and Bill Robinson on banjo. Bill Robinson played in a finger picking as well as a frailing style. Moffett remembers that after using the finger style for a while Bill would switch to “beating” (frailing) the banjo. Moffett recalls a time when Robinson began coming to dances without his banjo, explaining that he had forgotten it. Instead of playing the banjo, he would blow a whistle on these occasions during the “Paul Jones” mixers, to tell folks to stop and change partners.

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As musicians, the Free State Ramblers gained an excellent reputation beginning in the 1940s. Early in their career they competed in their first fiddle convention in Front Royal and John won first place. John and the Ramblers played at Constitution Hall from 1938 to 1943 for the National Folk Festival. In 1946, at the peak of their career, they traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, and won the band competition. In 1947-’49, after winning another contest sponsored by Connie B. Gay in Warrenton, they played occasionally over Gay’s radio show on WARL in Washington, DC. They would travel from Warrenton to Washington, play two or three numbers, and head home. Moffett tells about the time they were hired to perform at a major hotel in Washington, DC and dressed in the stereotype of country musicians by wearing overalls instead of their usual suits. When they got there, the doorman refused to let them in, until they finally convinced him that they were hired to perform. In the Warrenton area they played for dances at places like the Rockwood Dance Hall in Warrenton (now McLanahan’s Camera Shop), the Cliffton Fire Hall, and Midway Hall in Bealeton. Dances went from 9:00 to 1:00 and they made $10 a person. The dances were Paul Jones mixers and round dances and did not need a caller.

Although he played music every weekend for house parties and dances, music did not pay the bills. John farmed and worked as a carpenter by trade. On the staff at Airlie estate for about 11 years, he worked with other Free State craftsmen to renovate the buildings. The founder of the Airlie Foundation, Dr. Murdoch Head, remembered him as a man of “quiet dignity, good humor, and absolute integrity.”

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