How long has Fiddle and Bow Society brought traditional music to the Triad?
Here’s a clue: “Join us tonight at 8 o’clock for the premiere of ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ here on Public Radio for the Piedmont, WFDD FM, Winston-Salem, N.C.. ‘Fiddle and Bow’ is next.”
That was Jan. 2, 1982, a few months after Fiddle and Bow staged its first concert at Tanglewood Park with singer-songwriter John McCutcheon.
“A Prairie Home Companion” stayed on the air for decades, but Fiddle and Bow Society outlived it (even if the Fiddle and Bow radio show did not). The non-profit organization, which bills itself as “The Triad’s Folk Music Society,” is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
Don Bergey, a music fan who taught exercise physiology at Wake Forest University, first attended Fiddle and Bow shows in the 1990s at the old Rose and Thistle restaurant.
“We were getting these artists who were nationally and internationally known in little Winston-Salem, top folk singers from England and Scotland,” he says. “I was just amazed by it.”
English and Scottish folk singers included Martin Carthy, Peter Bellamy and Ed Miller.
“We’ve had musicians from all of the British Isles – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales,” says Sonny Thomas, the organization’s co-founder.
Fiddle and Bow has featured musicians from all over the world.
“Fiddle and Bow Society has brought music to the Triad that would not have otherwise had a venue,” says Jonathan Byrd, an acclaimed singer-songwriter from Hillsborough. “They also created a listening experience that would not be found in the Triad – and hardly at all in the entire Southeast – for decades.”
The society has presented Byrd, McCutcheon and other singer-songwriters, including John Gorka, Utah Phillips, Joe Crookston and Garnet Rogers. Concerts have also featured Celtic musicians (Aoife Clancy, Tannahill Weavers), folk luminaries (Peggy Seeger, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Si Kahn), Piedmont blues singers (Etta Baker, Guitar Gabriel), legendary instrumentalists (Dan Crary, Norman Blake, John Fahey, Martin Simpson), old-time musicians (Joe and Odell Thompson, Tommy Jarrell, Frank Proffit Jr.) and younger performers keeping older traditions alive (Stray Birds, Zoe and Cloyd).
Fiddle and Bow’s origins lie with Thomas, a Wilkesboro native who came of age during the folk revival of the late 1950s and early ’60s – an era when a folk song about a man from his home county, “Tom Dooley,” became a chart-topping hit single.
Thomas ran a music store on Hawthorne Road, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, from about 1978 to 1980. Jam sessions at the store evolved into more formal concerts.
Local musician Bill Stevens approached Thomas about presenting music in an environment more conducive to listening than noisy restaurants and bars. Thomas used a mailing list he had assembled from the store jams, and Fiddle and Bow was born.
“Many times I drove down to Chapel Hill to see various concerts, because there really was nothing happening here involving professional-level folk musicians,” Thomas says.
Fiddle and Bow dramatically changed that, says Paul Brown, a traditional musician who has performed for the organization.
“Those early days were special, because old mountaineer musicians were still playing and within reach of Winston-Salem, the folk scene was vibrant, and the old-time, blues, bluegrass and Celtic scenes were all surging,” he says. “It was an exciting time, and Fiddle and Bow was one of the magnets for performers, volunteers and listeners.”
Brown, a veteran announcer for National Public Radio, was host of his own long-running show on WFDD, “Across the Blue Ridge.” He credits “the indefatigable, dedicated Sonny Thomas” and “his merry band of collaborators,” as well as Rose and Thistle owner Mike Turco.
“It takes the right people, the right venues and the right opportunities at one time and place to make success,” Brown says. “Mike clearly wanted trad (traditional) music in the community, and he created a great performance space and a safe harbor.”
The Rose and Thistle closed when the infamous Hawthorne Curve on Interstate 40 (now Salem Parkway) was rerouted. That sent Fiddle and Bow into a long period of venue changes that continues to this day. Home venues since then have included the Community Arts Cafe, Blessings and Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania, all of which have closed or moved.
Fiddle and Bow also faced challenges with its finances and organization. Bergey joined its board in the mid-2000s.
“After two or three meetings, I asked, ‘How much money do we have?’ Nobody knew.”
He helped Fiddle and Bow become more professional and to scale back from a schedule that had expanded to one concert a week. “When you have a show every Friday, you’ve got to book some people who aren’t so hot,” Bergey says.
Fiddle and Bow had settled into a pattern of one or two shows per month before the COVID pandemic.
The organization has been working to secure a new home base and to break through the invisible wall between Winston-Salem and Greensboro.
Concerts staged at the Upstage Cabaret in downtown Greensboro since 2019 have included Scottish folk singer Jim Malcolm and Americana duo the Kennedys.
“It’s rare to find good listening rooms – the room becomes part of the performance,” says Mark Dillon, a commercial music instructor at Guilford Technical Community College, president of Fiddle and Bow since 2019.
One of the organization’s hallmarks has been treating artists well. Fiddle and Bow has worked to pay artists as much as possible within its small-nonprofit limits.
Officers and volunteers, including Stevens and immediate past President Peg Parham, have hosted artists in their homes.
Thomas and his family once put up English folk legend Martin Carthy for several days when he had a gap between shows.
“I did double takes seeing him standing at my sink doing dishes,” Thomas says.
Fiddle and Bow staged an annual music festival from the early 1990s through the mid 2000s. The organization has survived in part thanks to grants from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem.
Thomas has been recognized with awards at the state and local level for his work with Fiddle and Bow, earning the title of Arts Volunteer of the Year for Winston-Salem in 1987.
He and Bergey both retired from the Fiddle and Bow board at the end of the 2010s, passing the torch to other volunteers working to keep traditional music alive and well in the Triad.
“I think it’s important to remember its contributions, and I hope circumstances align for it to keep going strong,” Brown says. “I think the presence of Fiddle and Bow helped pave the way for the music scene we have now in Winston-Salem.”
Learn more at fiddleandbow.org.