Bill Hicks once referred to Franklin George as “A legend in his own time”. Alan Jabbour stated that Franklin was “one of the most influential musicians of the last half century in Appalachian music”. Calling Franklin George a musician is like calling ramp a vegetable: It’s true, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
William Franklin George, a life-time Wes Virginian, was born in Bluefield, WV October 6, 1928. He is the only child of a nurse from Berlin, Tennessee and a carpenter from near Ingleside in Mercer County, West Virginia. His early years were spent in Bluefield, WV where he attended school from first to tenth grade. He then enrolled in Greenbrier Military School where he was a member of the school’s winning Greenbrier Military School Rifle Team. He was considered a good student and he never “walked the beat”.
After graduation, Franklin returned home and was then drafted into the army where he served for two years. During this time he was the only piper (bagpipes) in the 4th infantry Division. After that he went to Concord College, graduating in 1957 with a B.S. in Biology. He and his wife Jane now live in Roane County (WV) in the small village of Walton, WV.
Music has been in the George family for many, many years. Franklin was exposed top the traditional music of Appalachia at a very young age. His father and his grandfather were both banjo picker and fiddlers. When he was only a little boy, too small for regular-sized instruments, his father made hi a small banjo and diddle. He recalls that on rainy days they would all tune up instruments and “set the rafter a-ringing with music”. Franklin was reared in the folk traditions of the region, falling initially under the musical influence of his grandfather, who is credited with his early musical education.
The first tunes he ever tried to pick out were on a piano. He could pick out tunes with one finger when he was about four years old. When he was around five he started taking piano lessons from Mill Ella Holroyd who lived in Athens. A he was waiting for his second or third lesson he heard one of Miss Ella’s students the same tune that he had been practicing. Frank said to his teacher, “She’s playing my tune but it’s in a different key”. And Miss Ella told Franklin’s mother, “You’re going to have trouble out of this one”.
Franklin began picking out tunes on the banjo by age seven and he was playing the fiddle by age nine. He placed second in the state of West Virginia in piano playing when he was nine. In addition to his musical family background Franklin seemed to have a natural talent for many musical instruments.
Franklin’s musical education received a large boost from outside the family when his father’s friend and fellow carpenter, Jim Farthing, began to play music with young Franklin. From about 1938 until Farthings death in 1962, Franklin had regular exposure to Farthing’s technique on the fiddle and to his knowledge of traditional mountain music. This exposure was the key influence in Franklin’s musical development. Farthing is given credit for Franklin’s mastery of the fiddle, an introduction to a large body of traditional music, and a style of playing different from what he had learned from his family.
Franklin became an accomplished musician, particularly in the authentic fiddle and banjo styles of southern West Virginia and neighboring southwestern Virginia. He has continued to play, teach, and mentor young and old alike in the traditions of Appalachian music, culture and history.
Franklin George is he most well-known and influential folk fiddler to come out of West Virginia. He’s one of the last to have learned his music in the traditional way, within his family and community. As a young man, Franklin sought out the legendary old-time musicians, men and women with their musical roots in the last century. Frank learned the spirit and the detail of their music , and made passing that music on his life’s work. By the time Franklin was in his thirties, he was well known in the field of genuine mountain music in the past 30 years has learned some of the music of Franklin George.
Franklin’s interest in music is rooted in his fascination with people, he remembers the past masters of old-time music as more than musicians. He remembers their family histories, their personal habits, their dogs,; he knows who they played music with in their early days, and where they got their instruments and strings and whiskey; he repeats the stories they told, and the stories told about them. No one but Franklin George plays music from such an understanding of the people who produced it. When Frank fiddles, ghosts dance. Frank knows more than anyone about the little differences which once twisted Appalachian music in such a rich tangle of local styles.
In the 1930’s and 40’s, when other young musicians with similar backgrounds were opting for the newer styles of bluegrass and country music, Franklin was one of that rare breed who stuck with the traditional style.
Franklin seems to have the temperament of the early pioneers. His independent spirit searches for expression free of conformity’s pressures. He is a man of sly humor flowing from a warm humanity. In addition to being an excellent fiddler, banjo picker, and bagpipe player, he is also a mountain philosopher.
At a time when conformity pressures squeeze so many into patterns, he remains remarkably independent and manages to spend much of his time doing things he really likes. Franklin is a student of history which he sees as valuable in understanding present day problems. He is a book lover who respects the vital understanding to be had sometimes only from books.
In 1958, Franklin attended the Galax Fiddlers Convention where he met other fiddlers and old-time musicians. This was an introduction to other fiddlers who played the old-time style that Franklin had been playing during the years when he was learning. He began to attend many of these old-time festivals--- and he began winning the festival contests playing both fiddle and banjo.
He played in many of these festivals including the Union Grove Old-time Fiddlers Contest, The Galax Festival where he won second place, and the West Virginia Folk Festival at Glenville each summer, where he won first place in both fiddling and banjo picking contests for three years in a row. Franklin is also quite talented with the bagpipes. At the West Virginia Folk Festival parade he was quite a figure marching with his kilt and tam while playing his bagpipe music. Another of Franklin’s interest is his old muzzle-loading rifle which he often has with him during Festival contests.
He makes a living at varied things. He particularly likes outside work, and his eyes light up as he tells of experiences working with mountain surveyors in knee-deep snows and vast wilderness. The idea of being tied to a job with hourly wages is distasteful to Franklin.
But let an announcement of a fiddling or banjo picking gathering get around and Franklin’s interest is afire. Frank and his wife Jane met at a craft festival at Cedar Lakes in 1966. At this time, Jane was a West Virginia extension agent. She was so impressed with his talent that she invited him to participate in the first Mountain Heritage extension program at Hawk’s Nest. She introduced him to everyone in West Virginia involved in this program. Before this time, Franklin had been attending one festival in West Virginia, the one held at Glenville, West Virginia.
Franklin’s life has always revolved around music. Besides fiddle and banjo, he has played the hammered and plucked dulcimers, bagpipes and harmonica. He has performed at festival and craft fairs. He and his wife Jane have given lectures/demonstrations on traditional mountain music and dance to young people. He also has taught fiddle, banjo, and dulcimer for the Mountain Heritage School in Union, West Virginia. One of the most important contributions that Franklin and Jane George have made is the Mountain Heritage Youth Programs that they developed. Begun in March, 1968, as an experiment, the idea quickly captured the attention of junior and senior high youth. The Georges did extensive work with the 4-H program in West Virginia getting hundreds of youth interested in their roots as a result. Many of these youth have learned to dance, play an instrument, or perform a craft as a result of the teachings of Franklin and Jane George.
Franklin now stands at the top rank of West Virginia’s old-time musicians. He has made a conscious study of the musical traditions he excels in, tracing his own musical origins through the direct and indirect influence of specific musicians for many generations.
He has mentored particular groups of younger musicians, especially in British Isles and Appalachian string band music, and his message to them is to “keep it pure”. As an outspoken man, he will not tolerate less.
Franklin was born in the midst of cultural change but he chose to play old-style. He has performed all over West Virginia at public and private meetings some of which are: The Vandalia Gatherings, The Sunrise Festivals, The Mountain State Art and Craft Fairs, 88 other local fairs and festivals, many youth camps, 18 conferences and national meetings (state colleges and universities; National American Legion Convention, National Music Educators Conference, Smithsonian Institution as well as local meetings). He was featured on three foreign tours as part of a group presentation.
He has been recorded many times; once for a West Virginia series which was shown to all 8th grade students in West Virginia schools. Franklin is not entirely a soloist. He has performed with or for many celebrities including Dr. Patrick Gainer, Billy Edd Wheeler, John Jackson, Perl Buck, Jesse Stuart, Tommy Jarrell, Libby Cotton, Janette Carter, Jim Comstock and Alan Jabbour (the director of the organization which collected recording for the Library of Congress).
In response to an interview question from Michael Meador concerning where he had performed, Franklin gave the following answer: “Outside of the state, places like Yale, Harvard, the Smithsonian, Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, University of Chicago, Port Townsend outside Seattle Washington, Black Point, north of San Francisco. Port Townsend was where they had the American Fiddle Styles Workshop. In this state, I’ve played at Marshall, WVU, and Morris Harvey College. There’ve been so many schools---everything from kindergarten to universities all over West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Probably every college in West Virginia. Another place was Southern Methodist University at a real good festival. Once a lady from Voice of America interviewed me and Aunt Jenny Wilson from Logan County for a program called “Critics Choice” and beamed us around the world.
Franklin has received any awards including the prestigious Vandalia Award in 1994, and the Footbridge award from FOOTMAD in 2005. In 1983, he was featured on the cover of Goldenseal. Through the Great Depression, Internet and all of the modern pressures to change, Franklin has remained true to his musical heritage. One only has to “Google” Franklin George to find Volumes of references to him and his music.