Robert Byrd, The Fiddling Senator

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In addition to being the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Robert Byrd was a talented old time fiddler. In this archival tape, Sen. Byrd talks about how the fiddle played an important role in his political life.


Today we're marking the passing of West Virginia's senior senator, Robert C. Byrd. Elsewhere in the program, we've heard about his evolution from segregationist to supporter of civil rights and his long career on Capitol Hill, where he speechified and filibustered with the very best.

But there was another arena where the senator raised his voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Old Joe Clark")

Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): (Singing) Old Joe Clark's dead and gone. I hope he's doing well. Make me wear the ball and chain till my ankle swelled. Fare thee well Old Joe Clark, fare thee well I say. Fare thee well Old Joe Clark, I'm a-gonna wait and see.


That's Bobby Byrd, mountain fiddler. When he was growing up in a small West Virginia coal town, he heard songs like "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" and "Old 97." In 2004, he talked about that.

Sen. BYRD: Well, I just loved that music, and of course, I also loved my music teacher. And she talked me into getting my foster father to buy a fiddle for me, a violin. And I enrolled, and I studied that music from the seventh grade through the twelfth.

That fiddle has opened many doors for me. I've gone into hostile groups that back in those coal-mining towns might have been a group made up of United Mining Workers, or it might have been the opposition in those days. It might have come from the state House crowd.

I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. I wanted to be a friend of everybody's, so I took my fiddle around with me. A Republican lawyer told me when I filed for the House of Delegates in 1946 to take that fiddle. He said Bob, you take that fiddle and make that your briefcase.

You go to any meeting you can get into. You get the ladies' garden clubs or go to the fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows, and you just take that fiddle with you. You play a tune or two, put the fiddle down and quote a piece of poetry and tell them what you stand for and sit down. And that's what I did. And I led the ticket. That fiddle got me places where I couldn't have gotten in at all.

BLOCK: That's the late Senator Robert Byrd, talking with the public radio program "American Roots."

(Soundbite of music)

Sen. BYRD: (Singing) (Unintelligible) I'm gonna take my money (unintelligible) as long as your arm. Long as your arm, long as your arm, whiskey (unintelligible) as long as your arm.

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