by Anne Kimzey
Noah Lacy, fiddler and Sacred Harp singer from Sand Mountain, died recently at the age of 85. He was treasured both by fellow musicians and singers and by music scholars for his dedication to the musical heritage of his community. In 1991, he received the State Arts Council's highest honor for the traditional arts, the Alabama Folk Heritage Award.
It is not surprising that music was such an important part of Noah Lacy's life. It was a Lacy family tradition. Noah's grandparents sang shape-note hymns from the book, The Sacred Harp, by B. F. White, and his father was a singing school master who taught this distinctive, four-part, a cappella singing style in the small farming communities on Sand Mountain. In a 1991 interview, Noah Lacy recalled, "I was just born to it. I don't remember learning. Just as far back as I can remember, I could sing. Of course my family always sung. They would sing at home and go to singings too. And I just learned from them." Until the last year or two Noah Lacy and his wife Margie were very active singers, traveling the state every weekend to attend Sacred Harp singings. These are typically all-day community events held in rural churches featuring a noontime feast knows as "dinner-on-the-grounds."
But music in the Lacy family was never limited to the religious tunes of The Sacred Harp. Old-time string band music filled the family's leisure hours. Noah's father, brother and uncle were all fiddlers, and by the age of 15, Noah had taken up the instruments as well. He practiced in secret on his brother's fiddle and one day his father happened to hear him playing. "He just thought I picked it up and went to play," said Lacy. "'Just a natural born fiddler' was what he called me."
Noah Lacy grew up in the 1920s and '30s in the era of string bands. Originally he patterned his musical style after Clayton McMichen and Lowe Stokes of the Skillet Lickers, a band popular at the time of early county music recordings. Lacy and his band played for dances in the homes of friends and neighbors. He also won many fiddle contests in the region. (Music example "All Around the World" in RealAudio)
A favorite story recalls the time his band provided music at country fairs for riders on a mule-powered, merry-go-round knows as a flying jenny. If the operator had a full load of passengers, Lacy said, "he'd drop a nickel in each one of our shirt pockets. But if he didn't get a good load, he'd just drop one nickel in one pocket and then we had to divide that. We'd make five or six dollars a day a piece. Of course, that was big money then. We'd just get a dollar a day working on the farm for anybody."
Noah Lacy never made music his main profession. He farmed for a living and sawed lumber between crops. Until his death, he and his son Chester operated a small sawmill on their property. Chester, who is also a musician, is one reason Noah Lacy remained such a strong fiddler. The two played music together for more than 40 years.
Fortunately before his death, Lacy participated in a project that documented the music of Alabama fiddlers. His recordings are preserved in the Birmingham Public Library archive and in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress. One tune is featured on the record album "Possum Up a Gum Stump: Home, Field, and Commercial Recordings of Alabama Fiddlers."
Anne Kimzey is a folklorist with the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Alabama Folkways welcomes readers' comments and contributions. Write: Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 N. Hull St., Montgomery, AL 36104. The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
If you would like to hear a Folkways Radio Series interview with Noah Lacy on RealAudio format click> here, or go to the Alabama Folkways Radio Series index page for information on downloading the free RealAudio Player.