Liste Here:  Derry Railroad Days

Derry Railroad Days are coming up September 19, 21 and 22. A Hobo Picnic in Derry Station Railroad Park, a parade, and the typical assortment of food, craft and collectible booths and community-based entertainment all are on the schedule.

 

But amid the trackless train rides, Civil War re-enactors, midget cheerleaders and Zumba exercisers this year will be a special event: A group called the “Keystone Rebels” will be performing a Tribute to Sarah Armstrong.

 

“I’m not sure who this Sarah Armstrong is,” responded Russ McKllveen, a member of the Derry Railroad Days committee, to my question about her.

 

John Matviya wasn’t familiar with Sarah either, when the president of the Derry Area Historical Society initially was contacted awhile back by people seeking information about her. He looked up her 1957 obituary but found nothing noteworthy.

 

Run an Internet search on Sarah Armstrong of Derry, however, and some hints emerge. You’ll see references to fiddle players from far-flung places in Virginia, Florida and Ohio playing “Sarah Armstrong’s Tune.”

 

Repeatedly, you’ll see the same photograph: a late-middle-aged woman with shorter, neatly curled hair and wire-rim glasses in a modest print dress, seated in a chair and propping a fiddle in her lap by the fingerboard.

 

That photograph of Sarah comes from a book. In fact it faces the title page in “Hill Country Tunes, Instrumental Folk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania,” written by Samuel Bayard and published by the American Folklore Society in 1944.

 

Bayard was an internationally known folklorist and musicologist with an advanced degree from Harvard, who taught at The Pennsylvania State University from 1945 to 1973. He was a fellow in the American Folklore Society and its president in the mid-1960s.

 

Back in the 1940s, Bayard traveled around northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, interviewing traditional musicians and transcribing their tunes into written music, which he published in Hill Country Tunes. In November of 1943, he met with Sarah (Gray) Armstrong of Derry then transcribed and published 37 of Sarah’s tunes – more than those of any other musician – in the book.

 

Today, among traditional musicians nationwide, Bayard’s book is regarded as the definitive source for traditional music of Northern Appalachia. As Bayard’s cover girl and principal resource, Sarah is recognized nationally as the face and sound of Northern Appalachian traditional music.

 

Except, it seems, in her hometown. That may be changing, though. Fiddle devotees have been finding their way to Derry and bringing new attention to this woman and her locally forgotten musical legacy.

 

Meanwhile, John Matviya has been busy researching her family history, and how she learned her fiddling tunes from her father and uncles, whose surnames were Gray. The “Gray Boys” were known throughout the Derry area in their day, first playing at their farm, and, later, performing at several “dancing grounds” in the area; as did Sarah.

 

The Keystone Rebels’ fiddle player, Todd Clewell of York, PA, can play most of her music and recorded a CD titled “Sarah Armstrong’s Tunes.” Twice on Sunday, September 22, during the Derry Railroad Days, the Rebels will be performing her music and reflecting upon the Grays’ significance within American traditional music.

 

Because the Grays were railroaders, incorporating their musical legacy into the Derry Railroad Days seems like a natural fit. The festival’s mission is to preserve the community’s rich cultural history of railroading and to honor railroaders’ contributions to Derry’s culture.

 

Matviya hopes Sarah Armstrong’s music can become an annual element of the festival. For not only did she and her family contribute to Derry’s culture, but, thanks to Bayard’s documentation, they contributed to American culture as well.

 

The face and sound of Northern Appalachian traditional music should be remembered – and celebrated.

 

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For more information on Derry Railroad Days, visit derryborough.org/rr.pdf.

 



 

Derry’s Contribution to American Music

 

By Dave Hurst

 

© 2013 Hurst Media Works