Corbett Stamper

Interviewed 29th September 1982 by Frank Weston


I was born James Corbett Stamper in Grayson County, Virginia, in the 9th district 13th December in 1910. My father was Matt Stamper, he played fiddle and picked banjo just about all his life. And my uncle, his eldest brother played fiddle. My father’s father also named Matt he’s buried down here in this cemetery was a fife player in the civil war and he also played organ and piano. I was six years old when he died I just barely remember seeing him. My mother didn’t play but her daddy had six brothers, three of them played the fiddle and were about the best around Smyth County, and Ashe County, North Carolina. I also had three brothers that played, two of them are now dead and the other one joined the church and quit playing when he was about 30 and never would play no more. I started playing probably at 6 years old, clawhammer banjo. Then about two years later my brother bought me a fiddle. I listened to my brother play and I could play a tune everybody says within about 30 minutes. The first tunes I learned to play were Sourwood Mountain, Cripple Creek, Johnson Boys and Jimmy Sutton. I learned Jimmy Sutton on banjo from my eldest brother.

Corbett Stamper

Photo copyright Sylvia Pitcher

Well, I played a little for dancing, Flop Eared Mule and Chinese Breakdown. I liked the fiddle so much that I stopped playing banjo in favour of the fiddle when I was about twenty years old. My brother Floyd was the best banjo picker and Kyle Creed at Mount Airy plays just about like he did. Luther was my oldest brother; he played fiddle, banjo and guitar then Bobby who just played fiddle and banjo and Floyd. Floyd was seven years older than me. Luther and Floyd were good singers too. I was a good singer until about thirteen when I lost my voice. My father and his brother were two of the best singers in church at White Top up here.

I used to play dances with Raymond Thompson, Raymond played mandolin, I think he’s dead now. Yeah I guess he was one of the first around here to play mandolin. Bobby Halsey was one of my father’s tunes. I’ve tried playing it but I couldn’t get it, there ain’t much to it though. No, I don’t know who Bobby Halsey was but in fact I’m a kin to Halseys down here in the lower end of Grayson County. I played with fellers who went around on a campaign, didn’t have no fiddler with them. One of them was Wade Ward banjo picker and another younger feller.

How did you get to know Albert Hash?

Albert’s mother lived on Helton and rented a field of corn one time with us and they came over to hoe corn one day. Up about ten thirty-eleven o’clock it came up to rain, a big thunder storm. She said “it’s too wet to hoe today”. Well after it quit lightning and thundering, I had a little old fiddle and I reached under the bed and pulled the fiddle out and I played Sally Gooden and I believe Old Joe Clark, Albert was about pretty close to thirteen years old. I noticed he was close up around his mother’s knees and he was whispering to her. She said “Corbett Albert wants to hear you play more of this fiddle”. I played about an hour then. He said “I want to be with you, I want to learn to fiddle”. I said “I have a five string banjo here too”. “Well” he said “I’d rather learn the fiddle than the banjo”. I told him any time to come over and he came over, I believe I messed with him about a month and a half. After about three months he went to playing the fiddle. I went to West Virginia and come back home and he’s down on the side of the road next to the school and playing Soldier’s Joy, boy he was sawing that good you know.

I went to West Virginia for work in timber for Pocahontas …? Company cutting props and ties. No, I didn’t get much schooling. I spent some of my childhood farming and I cut timber for saw mills. Me and my brother cut all of this mountain up here next to White Top Mountain. They call it the Bluff Mountain.

I wasn’t in West Virginia for long the first time but I liked West Virginia I stayed out there (later) for a while. I didn’t take no fiddle with me and (there) come along some fellers one night going to a square dance at Wileyvane(?) up the road about five miles. I was watching them play outside the company store at Big Bend, West Virginia and I was kind of noticing things and one of them said “You can make music” and I said “A little” he says “What do you generally play?” I said “The fiddle but I haven’t had one in my hands for four months now”. He said “Play us one then”. So I said I’d like to play with all the rest of you”. So we played Chinese Breakdown, I said “Can you play Arkansas Traveller?” and he hadn’t heard of that before. I told him that’s as old as Arkansas State, so he said “Go ahead and play it”. They asked me to go with them but I told them I wasn’t hardly fixed for that, but asked them how often they came and they said about every other Saturday night. I said “Well I’ll try to help you some. We’d play to one or two o’clock and they was bad to get drunk you know, I didn’t like the idea of that. The fellers I was with wasn’t too bad but there were others. The musicians names were Mister Larry/Lowry (?), Jack Hicks and Frank… ? I was staying just in the edge of West Virginia. Pocahontas is in Virginia and this was twenty to thirty miles north of there in West Virginia. I boarded with my sister who lived there, this was about 1928/29.

Did you continue to play all through your life?

There was a period when I quit and Albert Hash said he did the same when they brought that rock and roll in. No, I didn’t give up when I got married, and after I did quit I got back in quite easy. My oldest sister’s boy, he bought a fiddle and gave it to me to get me started again. He couldn’t play. He lived in Maryland. He bought an old time Gibson guitar for $700 and left it with me about three years and I’d carry it with me. Lots of people could play guitar but couldn’t play fiddle. I played at the auditorium at Marion at the old senior citizens.

When did you re-start?

Well I didn’t throw it down for too many years but Albert (Hash) reckoned he threw it down for about twenty years. I don’t go anywhere much now. I played down here at Mount Rogers School House and over at the mountain a few times, I like to play with Thornton Spencer (Albert Hash’s brother-in-law). I like for him to play guitar and me fiddle, I can really wring the juice out of it. He’s a good fiddler and good banjo player too. His wife (Emily) plays banjo so good he liked it and he’s picking banjo too.

Did you ever play at White Top Festival?

Yeah I played just a little there a time or two. I was always a bit afraid up there, there would be a mighty crowd and things would get pretty wild sometimes. They had a calaboose up there they put ’em in. A Man got killed up there. One man Jack Finlay of Konnarock, he killed his father-in-law and killed a boy. He got drunk one evening and they didn’t know they were fooling with as bad a man. He just got drunk. They put him in the calaboose and he just about tore it up.

Was he any kin to Albert Hash? (Albert had an uncle named Finlay)

Albert’s uncle old man George Finlay from Bluff Mountain, boy he was a good fiddler. I remember hearing him the first year I ever went to school and he played for an entertainment at the old school house. He played Did You Ever See the Devil Uncle Joe and he was sitting in an old time chair and got to leaning backwards and directly he went over. He said “Catch my bow boys” and somebody caught it. He was afraid of breaking his bow. He had a brother Joe played banjo, I don’t know about fiddle.

Did you ever know any of the Blevins family that made music?

Yeah I know Colonel (?) Blevins that lived out here on Greenville, he played the fiddle awful good. He has arthritis and can’t walk any more without support. He needs one of them roller things.

Jont Blevins? (Banjo Player)

Yeah he’s an old timer he’s up around eighty years old, 慶ause I’m done seventy. He lives down here at this bridge might be half a mile.

Frank Blevins?

Yeah and Dent Blevins you heard of him he’s awful good on banjo and guitar, plays in churches everywhere. The time we went to Marion we played a tune called the Purple Robe. I always liked that tune but I’d never heard it on the fiddle but it’s mighty pretty for fiddlin’.

Did you learn any tunes in West Virginia that you didn’t already know?

I learned two or three but can’t remember the names, it’s been a long time.

Did you ever make any records?

Yeah me and Thornton Spencer and Blanton Owen from Indiana. We played a lot of tunes and I thought they were all gonna be on there, we played Arkansas Traveler and a whole lot of tunes. I played in the key of D, key of E, key of C and A. Only one track was issued, Cumberland Gap.

Do you ever re-tune your fiddle or keep it in normal tuning?

Well you’ve got to re-tune for maybe some of them old timers like Black Mountain Blues but I never did like that. Albert could play that pretty good but I never did practice that (tune) much.

You know Wayne Henderson of course.

Oh yeah I know Wayne Henderson, the first time I ever played with him was the first time I ever played with a bass fiddle, there’s a big row of us. I said “I don’t see why you sent for me, Thornton Spencer’s here he is the best fiddler in this country and Dean Sturgill” he’s another fiddler from down across the North Carolina line.

I played with Walt Henderson (fiddle playing father of Wayne and one time leader of the Rugby Gully Jumpers) at Albert Hash’s house, Walt was a good old time player.

Did you learn any material from recordings?

Yeah I’ve learnt a whole lot of Banmon Grayson, G B Grayson: Don’t Go Out Tonight My Darling, What Are We Gonna Do With The Baby, Handsome Molly. I was over at the commissary at Konnarock one Saturday morning and he’d been there playing and was just leaving and it was back when times was really bad about 1927/28. They took in $45 and some say that old man played the Whitehouse Blues. I had never heard that before, none of his records ever had the Whitehouse Blues on it. Always Been a Rambler, he played that.

Did you know Henry Whitter?

He picked with G B Grayson he picked guitar a little bit like nobody else. G B Grayson got killed he was riding an extract truck towards Mountain City (on the running board) He hung on the outside and got knocked off and killed.

I went down to Galax (convention) with Albert (Hash) and Thornton (Spencer) one night. I wasn’t signed up in the contest or nothing. Albert went over and spoke to someone and came back and sat down and an announcement came over the loud speaker “We got Corbett Stamper here from White Top Mountain who taught all these top fiddlers here to play and we’re going to have him on in about five minutes”. I had never played there in the early days. I have had high blood pressure since I was 31 years old. (Corbett also mentioned during conversation that he had lost the sight of one eye at the age of 15 due to a cataract. Later in life he had hardening of the arteries) You have to be there three days and three nights to win anything and I told Albert I’m a poor man but I don’t need money that bad to lay out overnight.

Could you name other people that you taught how to play?

Lacey Blevins raised in West Virginia until he was about grown and came to Helton awhile and after he married he went across the mountain and lived. I don’t know, I’ve learned a lot of people how to play the fiddle. One man Clarence Ashley was an awful good guitar player, me and him would go places. I’ve played on White Top with him. He wanted to play fiddle, it took me two years and I said that “that man will never play the fiddle”. Well I don’t know where I’d been, but I’d been gone a few months and got back home and he was with a bunch of fellers and he had a fiddle and he says “Let’s play Alabama Jubilee” and he played that and he fiddled it all over, every string on the fiddle. I met (Clarence Ashley) when he was hauling lumber from Helton in box cars. He was an awful good banjo and guitar picker and a good singer.

I don’t expect to get out and play much anymore but yeah I still play around the home. I learned a lot from the old time graphophone it’s the easiest way, The Skillet Lickers and also on television Pop Stoneman and his girls, that girl of his (Donna) plays a fine mandolin. His wife played a good fiddle.

Albert Hash has some of my music over there on tape.

Do you have children that play?

I have four girls but they don’t play.