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John Christopher Haddox
Associate Professor, School of Design and Community Development

Sherman Lawson

Sherman Lawson with fiddle

-Sherman Lawson in 1952.  Photograph courtesy of Janice Glenn

Sherman Lawson (1894-1982) was an excellent Logan County old time fiddler (or as he sometimes said, a “hoedown fiddler”) and we are able to hear his music in both commercial and field recordings.  In September 1928 he traveled to New York City with Frank Hutchison, to record there for OKeh Records; Frank had already recorded for them on three previous occasions. In the studio they recorded Cluck Old Hen; Old Corn Liquor; Sally Gooden; Wild Hogs in the Red Brush, Alabama Girl, Ain’t You Comin’ Out Tonight; and Hell Bound Train.  Alas though the first three recordings of old Appalachian tunes were never issued.   There are however three sets of field recordings of Lawson’s playing: Mr. Lawson’s son recorded his fiddling in 1956, Patrick Gainer recorded thirteen of his fiddle tunes, and in 1963 and 1964 Mike Seeger recorded two interviews as well as Mr. Lawson’s fiddling, at Switzer in Logan County.

 

Mr. Lawson played many of the old favorite Appalachian fiddle tunes.  On the field recordings we hear him play, for example, Blackberry Blossom (he said it’s his favorite, and he learned it from Blind Ed Haley), Cripple Creek, Arkansas Traveler, Forks of Sandy, Billy in the Low Ground (about which Mr. Lawson said “I’ve knowed it all my life”), Forked Deer, and Sourwood Mountain which he learned from his father, who was also a fiddler.

 

Sherman Lawson told Mike Seeger that he learned to fiddle when he was about ten years old, by playing a gourd fiddle his uncle had made for him.  He said he learned almost everything from his father about playing the fiddle, though of course he learned many tunes from Haley and other fiddlers and later on from records. He said the first tune he learned to play as a child was What’ll I Do With The Baby-O, an old time breakdown fiddle tune well known in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

 

Lawson played with many of the great musicians in the area; in addition to Hutchison he is known have played with Little Johnny Hager, Dick Justice, Robert Barker, and if he didn’t play with the great Clark Kessinger he certainly heard him at fiddle contests, where Mr. Lawson once won second prize.  And Sherman spoke many times of his admiration for Ed Haley; he learned tunes from him when Haley would come to the Logan courthouse steps to play whenever the court was in session though apparently Sherman never played with him.

 Sherman in the 1960s

-Sherman at home around 1963.  Photograph courtesy of Janice Glenn. 

Sherman Lee Lawson was descended from a line of Northumbrian Lawsons who had arrived from England in the early years of the nineteenth century; they settled in what is now Logan County and their land holdings were in the Stollings area, where Sherman was raised. In 1830 the census indicates that his great great grandfather was in possession there of three enslaved persons.  In 1833 his great grandfather Lewis Lawson was appointed as postmaster, and in 1840 his household included three enslaved persons; in 1850 Lewis Lawson had considerable land holdings there. Sherman’s grandfather Guy Lawson fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and thereafter farmed in Logan County.  Sherman was born there in 1894 and in 1900 he was living at Skin Creek in Logan County with his parents John Marshall Lawson and Nancy Gore Lawson.  He was raised on a farm near Stollings where he said he had to work hard, like his father and grandfather before him. By 1910, at the age of fifteen, he was working at The Logan Planing Mill Company, where he learned the carpentry trade.  He married Ada A. Johnson, a relative of Frank Hutchison, in 1913 and in 1917 he was working as a carpenter on Dingess Run for an Ethel, Logan County, construction company.  In 1920 he was working as a coal mine machinist at Stollings, in 1930 and 1940 he was a carpenter in the mines there, and in 1942 he was living at 7 Pine Street in Logan and employed by the Norfolk & Chesapeake Coal Company.  Mr. Lawson died on 1 November 1982.

 

—Gloria Goodwin Raheja, February 2021.

 

Sources:  Raheja’s research for her forthcoming book Logan County Blues: Frank Hutchison in the Sonic Landscape of the Appalachian Coalfields, especially as it was focused on Mike Seeger’s field recordings of Sherman Lawson archived at the Southern Folklife Collection in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, and the Gainer and Lawson Collections of Mr. Lawson’s fiddling at the West Virginia University Library’s West Virginia and Regional History Center.

The Hunt for Sherman's Fiddle

After hearing recordings many years ago—probably in the mid-1980s—of Sherman Lawson playing the fiddle, I set out to learn what I could about the fine fiddler from my home area of Logan, WV. While I’ve greatly improved my skills at tracking down both the living and the dead, I cringe when I think back to how ineffective I was at it back then.  I knew a few Lawsons in Logan, but didn’t really turn up anything from those leads.  I’d try things here and there, but lost sight of the goal and decided it was not meant to be. 

Several years ago, around 2015 or so, I reopened my interest in Sherman and turned to Facebook to see if I could turn up anything on a local history site. Lo and behold, it was not too long before I connected with someone who thought they could help me with my specific goal of finding Sherman’s fiddle.  I did not want it for myself, but rather just to see it and perhaps play a tune on it.  While the message exchanges raised my hopes, I ultimately opened a message that the person who owned the fiddle had no interest in showing it to anyone.  I had no name of that person, and didn’t really want to prod any further with the person who had been trying to help me.

Sherman and family

-Sherman and family.  Granddaughter Janice, is in the arms of her grandmother, Ada Lawson.  Photograph courtesy of Janice Glenn.

It was not until I met Gloria Goodwin Raheja back in 2019 that I got back on Sherman’s trail.  Gloria and I were talking about Sherman and I mentioned that I was pretty close to tracking down Sherman’s fiddle, but that the trail ultimately went cold.  Gloria replied that she had seen the fiddle many years ago on an earlier trip to southern WV for her research.   “His granddaughter in Charleston met with me, showed me some great pictures, and showed me the fiddle.”  When she told me the name of the granddaughter, I recognized the name as the mother of one of my dear childhood friends…both of whom I’d not seen in decades. 

Turning again to Facebook, I sent a message to my friend in February of 2021 telling her I had an odd question for her:  was she the great granddaughter of Sherman Lawson?  Luckily, she quickly responded back in the affirmative!  We talked with each other on the phone shortly thereafter—me explaining my interest in Sherman, and she going on about how Sherman’s music permeated her childhood.  Before long a plan was hatched for me to visit my friend and her mother in Charleston on my next trip to Logan.  I talked with both a few times prior to the trip and was assured that Sherman’s fiddle was beyond playable.  It had been repaired a few times, but was in sad shape these days, so I’d just have to see and hold it, but would not be able to play it.  I suggested that I’d bring a few of my luthier tools with me and see if I might be able to get it in playing condition on the trip, or at the least, to take it home with me and repair it. 

A few months later I was at the home of my friend with her and her mom…the fiddle’s owner.  Expecting to open the case to a completely busted fiddle, I instead opened the case to a fiddle that needed the bridge put back into place, and the strings tightened—the soundpost was still in place.  In a matter of minutes I was playing Miss McCloud’s Reel on the fiddle of Sherman Lawson, much to the delight of his grand and great-granddaughter! 

Sherman's fiddle

After our visit I was on my way to Logan for more field work for this project.  The following day brought some chill and grayness--a perfect time to look around a cemetery! While I didn’t know exactly where Sherman was buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery, I had a feeling that he would lead me there.  After making one pass through the large cemetery, I decided to head over to near where the old original cemetery began.  As Sherman’s marker is a ground level plaque, I could not see it without exiting the car.  At some point I just felt it was time to park the car and walk around a bit.  As I expected it would be, Sherman’s grave was approximately 20’ from where I parked.  I thanked him for leading me to the site, pulled out my folding chair, had a seat beside his grave and offered up a little fiddle tune of thanks for his music. 

-Chris Haddox, 2021

Join me for a little tune on Sherman's fiddle at his family's home:  
Sherman's fiddle
Join me for another tune at Sherman's graveside: 
Fiddle tune at Sherman Lawson's grave

Listen to Sherman fiddle for Patrick Gainer sometime in the 1950s

Blackberry Blossom Fiddle Tune
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Sourwood Mountain
Cripple Creek
Forked Deer
Levicy Fork
Rickett's Hornpipe
Old Sally Goodin
Arkansas Traveler
Dusty Miller
Trouble Among the Yearlings
Sally Johnson
Tennessee Waggoner