The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 6

I'm Going to Take a Trip
By Joe Riggs
Jim Snow. Photo: Joe Riggs

The world of autoharp sounds has been greatly diminished by the recent passing of Jim Snow. Jim died at home on April 16, 2008, from cancer. He was 65 years old. Jim was born to Kilby Snow and Lillie Blanche Isom in Carroll County, Virginia. Like his father, Jim loved music, and his first instrument was a guitar, but his favorite instrument was autoharp. From early childhood, Jim absorbed Kilby’s autoharp playing and techniques, and when Mike Seeger tracked Kilby down on a tip from Pop Stoneman, Jim was there to play guitar and harmonize on vocals for the recording sessions. For some years following the death of his dad in 1980, Jim put down his guitar and harp and went into musical hibernation.

Having become irrevocably obsessed with the Kilby Snow autoharp sound, which I first heard on some of those recordings that Mike Seeger made, I began to research Snow in order to write a story about his life and music. I found that the information available from libraries and archives was scant. To this day, the best sources for details on his music are the liner notes by Mike Seeger that accompanied the two LPs, Country Songs and Tunes with Autoharp (Folkways 3902, 1969) and Mountain Music Played on the Autoharp (Folkways 2365, 1965), and Shanachie’s Traditional Music Classics video with Seeger and Snow. The late Mary Lou Orthey, founder and publisher of Autoharp Quarterly, knew of my quest for information about Kilby Snow, and called one day to say she had met a man, Mike Hudak, who had just purchased two Orthey harps and had performed with Snow. She had asked the Hudaks if I could get in touch with them, and permission was given. I did some interviews and played with Hudak, and set up my harp roughly according to what he said Kilby Snow’s setup had been.

I also wanted to get to know Jim Snow, and over a span of several years I made numerous inquiries trying to locate him, but without success. Then one day I obtained Jim’s address through the late Donnie Weaver and his wife Linda, of the Weaver-DeBusk family. I immediately wrote Jim a letter and introduced myself, mentioning the research I had been doing on his father, and asking if I could come up to visit him and gather information for an article about Jim himself. I also sent him copies of what writing I had done so far. We agreed on a date for the interview, and I drove to Jim’s home near the Herr’s Potato Chips plant in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, where we met for the first time. Bonded by our shared love of the autoharp sound developed by his father, Jim and I formed a friendship that would last many years.

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