William Sherman "Junior" Holstein
William “Junior” Holestine, Old Jake Gilly By Gerald Milnes I met Junior Holestine in 2003 on the grounds of the state capital during the Vandalia Gathering which is held each Memorial Day weekend in Charleston, West Virginia. It is a festival of folklife sponsored by the state of West Virginia’s Division of Culture and History. There are invited musicians, but many other musicians show up to play on the grounds and in the Holestine photos: G. Milnes various contests that are held. Junior was walking around the grounds carrying a fiddle in an old case. I asked him if he played, and he said he did. I asked him if he’d play me a tune, and he said he would if we went around the building to an out of the way place. He seemed shy, and wasn’t sure he wanted many people to hear him. Junior uncased his fiddle, tightened up his bow, and lit into an old-time tune. I immediately knew I was hearing a specia talent.
-photograph by Mark Crabtree, used with his permission.
I wanted to invite Junior to the Augusta Heritage Center’s Old-Time Fiddlers Reunion, so I
asked him to give me his address. He replied
that he really didn’t have any, but he could give
me the address and phone number of his sister
who lived in his area. I took that down and that
fall I wrote to Junior with an invitation to the
Reunion. I heard nothing in reply. I was
disappointed in that I wanted to hear more of
Junior’s music, as I had no contact since that
first meeting. Phone calls to his sister’s number
went dead. Not having any usable contact
information, I had no way of getting back in
Gary Wayne Jordan with Junior in Emmons, WV touch, so my hopes of getting to know Junior
At August’s Old-Time Fiddlers Reunion the next year I was pleasantly surprised when Junior showed up out of the blue. I had sent another invitation, which went unanswered. Junior’s sister had passed away, and I’m not sure what or how my messages found him, but he showed up. Junior doesn’t have a car and never drove, but his nephew by marriage, Gary Wayne Jordan, brought him to the Reunion. Junior played quite a bit of informal music at that Reunion, he attracted some attention and Gary, it turned out, was a harmonica player of considerable talent so several jam sessions ensued. Through Gary, I was able to keep up with Junior and his whereabouts. Gary told me that Junior had gotten back interested in fiddling and was playing quite a lot around home. I decided to pay him a visit and decided he would make an excellent film subject, so with Gary’s help, I started filming Junior. Junior was living in what he calls his “board shack” next to the railroad tracks in Emmons, a small place on Coal River in Kanawha County on the Boone County line. I met up with Junior there on several occasions and shot film of him playing fiddle tunes, telling stories, and showing me around the neighborhood.
I originally knew Junior by the name William Sherman “Junior” Holstein. He pronounces it Holstin. His sister and brother went by the “Holstein” spelling, as did Junior’s father, and I used that for the film. During filming, I noticed seven or eight spellings of Holstein in the local graveyard. As Junior explains on this recording, there is a lot of confusion over the spelling of his last name, and he favors the spelling his mother used, and that which is on his birth certificate, Holestine (The film I made about Junior uses Holstein). All these folks, no doubt, came from the Holstein region of Germany many generations before, having first come to Pennsylvania, to the Great Valley of Virginia, then west from the Blue Ridge into western Virginia, now West Virginia.
During the shooting of that film, “Music of Heaven,” Junior began having some severe mental issues. His music went from lively renditions of great old tunes to a situation where he proclaimed he would never play the fiddle again. Gary has had to retrieve his fiddle from a pawn shop at times, clean it up, and hope that this time; Junior would get back to his old playing self. His mental state was confused with his preoccupation with his religious chances in the afterlife. This, mixed with some bouts of drinking and his disinterest in following any medicine regimen, led to some very rough times that ended with his institutionalization brought on by concerns for his safety by the mental health authorities. The film ends with Junior, having returned home, being resolved never to play again. Gary however never gave up hope, stuck with the old man, and predicted Junior would be back to his musical ways in time.
Time went by and as Gary predicted Junior got straightened out and started playing again. I invited Junior to Fiddler’s Reunions and he was a guest artist at Augusta’s summer Old-Time Week in 2012. In 2013, Gary got in touch with me to say that he thought Junior was playing better than ever, and he was talking about wanting to have a recording of his own. I played back up for Junior at the 2013 Fiddler’s Reunion and decided in the middle of the set that Junior really did need to have his music recorded. He was playing great. I announced from the stage that, although now retired from Augusta, I would try to make it happen.
Mark Crabtree had recorded the fiddling of Elmer Rich (AHR-029) a few years before in Morgantown, and I liked the sound he got, so I asked, and Mark agreed, to spend a few days at our cabin on Shavers’s Fork near Elkins with his audio equipment recording Junior. It would be a live mix, a fairly simple set up with no more Junior with fiddle maker and friend Harold Burns than three instruments playing at once. Joyce Rossbach, Augusta’s director, agreed that the recording should be on the Augusta label. We all met there at the cabin on November 11, 2013 and recorded on the 12th. Gary brought Junior, Mark got set up, and I invited my son Jesse to add to the musical mix. Jesse had played some at Reunions with Junior and visited him with me at his “shack” in Emmons. Junior liked his playing and indicated he would like to include Jesse on some of the cuts. I became the default guitar player, and both Jesse and I add banjo on two cuts. The CD represents 24 cuts of tunes and spoken words chosen from about 50 selections that were recorded.
Junior is the most natural fiddler I have ever personally encountered. When he starts into a tune, I don’t believe he has the least idea where he is going with it. The amazing thing is that most of the time he pulls it off. To him, Junior with friend, Junior Allen each rendition is like entering an open door, without knowing what is on the other side. He rips into tunes like a dog on a bone, and seems to inspire himself at times to take daring chances. He likes to play off of someone else’s fiddling, so Jesse Milnes filled that bill on some cuts on this recording. The repertoire here includes most of Junior’s older tunes, both from local repertoires and some from the larger more generally recognized repertoires of regional fiddlers, most notably, Clark Kessinger, who Junior greatly admired. He also plays a large mix of widely known early commercially recorded country tunes and songs from Hank Williams, Jimmy Rogers and others, that are not included in this release.
As Junior notes, Clark Kessinger was a genius with the fiddle and having witnessed his playing live, I agree. In his shy way Junior makes a modest comparison between Clark’s and his own music. Clark Kessinger Junior shouldn’t have been shy about playing before anyone, and I am sure Kessinger recognized his talent, proven by his asking him to fill in for him at the engagement Junior mentions on the recording. Clark surely influenced his Poca River Blues, Chicken Reel and Kanawha Waltz. Junior especially notes “Son” Snodgrass and “Squirrelly” Dangerfield as being talented fiddlers in his neighborhood. Son taught him Cabin Creek, Shellin’ Down the Acorns, and Birdy and Son played most of his tunes in the key of C. Junior remembers Son played the Kentucky tune, Maysville. He learned the title tune, Old Jake Gilly, from his father. Early radio fiddlers like Curly Fox influenced him to play tunes like Listen to the Mockingbird, Lost Highway Blues and a few of the other standards heard here.
Although I suspect Junior has played the fiddle for thousands of beers and drinks in the beer joints and in the bars of Kanawha and Boone Counties, he has never made much money, if any, with his music. As a natural talent, he has not gone unnoticed by other musicians in his area. He often speaks of playing at bonfires and community gatherings where, surrounded by other local players, he feels most at home. He is naturally shy and quite modest, and does not have the personality it takes to go out and hustle gigs. As he states, music means a lot to him, and just playing it with neighbors and friends, or even just by himself, brings him great satisfaction.
This is community music. It is old-time mountain music. It is inspired by, listened to, and has always represented the values of Junior’s home area. While Junior also plays a large variety of early country music standards by favorites like Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers, this recording is limited to the traditional repertoire that is represented in his material. Junior also plays guitar and banjo, and loves to sing an early country repertoire.
-written by Gerry Milnes, 2013 Used with permission of the Augusta Heritage Center, Elkins, WV.
Junior plays fiddle on every music cut and does all the vocals on the CD. Jesse Milnes plays fretless banjo on John Hardy, and plays accompanying fiddle on Katy Hill, Leatherbritches, Sally Ann, Poca River Blues, Birdy, and Rovin’ Gambler. Gerry Milnes plays guitar on all cuts except he plays banjo on Mississippi Sawyer.
1. Cacklin’ Hen
3. Pretty Polly
4. The Steam Engine
5. Family History
6. Cabin Creek
7. Katy Hill
8. New River Train
9. Shellin’ Down the Acorns
10. Old Fiddlers
12. John Hardy
13. Sally Ann
14. Poca River Blues
15. Clark Kessinger
16. Chicken Reel
17. Mississippi Sawyer
19. Rovin’ Gambler
20. Listen to the Mockingbird
21. Lost Highway Blues
22. Old Jake Gilly
23. Kanawha Waltz
24. Amazing Grace
Live mix recording by Mark
Produced by Gerald Milnes
Junior with friend Jerry Roberts
This recording is a project of the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College, made possible with funding from
the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk & Traditional Arts.