Woodford Harmon “Woody” Simmons was born on Becky’s Creek, a rural community near Mill Creek in Randolph County WV, on November 13, 1911. His first instrument was a banjo made by his father in the blacksmith shop on their farm, and the first tune he learned to play was Silent Night. He was eight years old. A few years later, at thirteen, he started on the fiddle. He learned music from every conceivable source and soon had a repertoire of hundreds of tunes which he could play on fiddle or banjo, mandolin or guitar. He was never a full-time musician but always had a day job, often operating heavy equipment or driving trucks. For years he played music every night of the week but he still got up every morning to go to work.
Woody played on the radio, for innumerable dances, in houses and clubs, for festivals, concerts, county fairs, weddings, and funerals. Once he even played while riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle standing up! He also played in many, many contests. Every visitor to Woody’s house was immediately struck by the enormous number of trophies and prize ribbons that filled his living room. There were hundreds. Throughout his life Woody was a fierce competitor at fiddle and banjo contests. In 1968 he broke his back in an accident and his arms were partly paralyzed. When he finally learned to fiddle again, he worked up “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and played it at a contest in Marlinton, WV. Woody recalls that he “won first place on that old tune. But actually that was the only tune I could play.” He’s had a heart attack and open-heart surgery and once played a fiddle contest wearing a heart monitor. Woody had been confined to the hospital but the doctors decided to let him go. One doctor said “Better be over there than laying in the bed, and if he dies, well, he’ll die happy.” He won first place in that contest too.
Woody knew at least 450 tunes of all types. He learned his music wherever he could, from friends and neighbors, other musicians, from radio and records. Woody tells of one episode: “I came out of the Moose Club over in Durbin. I had a recorder in my car at that time and Bill Monroe was on the radio and he played Johnny Blacksmith. And I made a tape of it right there and learned it. “ He had been playing some of the tunes for more than 70 years, while others he learned just a few years ago — at an age when most musicians have put up their instruments for good. He made all the tunes his own, adding a distinctive touch to produce a recognizable Woody Simmons style.
On Friday, June 3, 2005, Woody Simmons died after a brief illness. He was active until shortly before his death. Although injuries had slowed his playing in the last few years, in October 2004 he was the featured guest at the Augusta Heritage Old Time Week where he performed with energy and skill. His death caught many of us by surprise. His obituary appeared on the front page of the June 6, 2005 edition of the Elkins, WV Inter-Mountain newspaper under the headline Legendary Musician ‘Woody’ Simmons Dies at 93. They reported that he played music at night for more than 30 years at the Log Cabin Inn in Elkins while holding down day jobs running a service station, maintaining a fleet of trucks, and hauling coal; that he began to work after school at age 14 grading roads, and helped build the first cement road from Valley Bend to Beverly (WV) in 1926, then at the age of 17 worked on a lumber driving team. He left the legacy of his musical competitions — more than 100 trophies and more than 200 winning ribbons — to the State Cultural Center in Charleston WV where they will be displayed. He is buried beside his wife Laverne and son William in the Brick Church Cemetery in Huttonsville. We miss him greatly.
Woody’s playing here was recorded on a waxed cardboard disc in 1950.
-From the audio documentary Double Geared Lightning: The Story of Legendary West Virginia Fiddler Woody Simmons.