The Cabin: tradition & place in Romney, West Virginia

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Traditional Appalachian musicians from Hampshire County, West Virginia and the surrounding area are fortunate to have a great venue where they can share their music and friendship. The Cabin, as it is known by these musicians, is located near the town of Augusta, in the Potomac Highlands area of eastern West Virginia. Due to the generosity of owner Paul Roomsburg and his family, many musicians have enjoyed this unique place where old-time music is shared and passed down to new generations of players.

The log structure is located on the Roomsburg farm about nine miles east of Romney, WV, the county seat of Hampshire County. It is thought to have been built prior to the Civil War and was last inhabited in 1972. When it was first used as a place for musicians to meet and play in October of 2001, it was a two-story structure that had a small kitchen attached with no electricity or plumbing. The kitchen part was falling down, so Paul asked a few friends he played music with to help tear it off and clean the cabin. With the installation of a ‘new’ antique woodstove the old cabin became a new venue where music was the focus. “With the cabin being vacant, we took advantage of the opportunity and gave it a new life as a meeting place for music,” said Paul. 

Many of these “cabin musicians” were participants in Paul’s family’s annual music weekend and pig roast called the Pigtown Fling that was held at their house from 1982 through 2016 (see Goldenseal Magazine, Summer 2018, West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History). This new venue quickly became a popular gathering place for area musicians who had previously played occasionally at each other’s houses.  

The cabin building consists of one main room downstairs that is approximately 18 feet by 18 feet and two smaller rooms upstairs. Very little has been done to change the inside appearance from how it looked in 1972. Inside you’ll find a mixture of simple armless chairs that are spread in a circle around the room. On one particularly cold, winter jam session 33 musicians were counted in that room which made for a very tight fit. Typically half that number attend a session. Often musicians bring snacks to share and on special occasions a pot of soup beans and an iron skillet of cornbread await the musicians when they take a break from playing.  

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Among the traditional Appalachian tunes played at the cabin are Waterbound, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss, Soldiers Joy, Stay All Night, Cindy, Barlow Knife, Saint Anne’s Reel, Mississippi Sawyer, June Apple, Crow Creek, and Forked Deer. While traditional music is mostly played it is not exclusive to old-time. Musicians continue to bring their musical influences that invigorate the sounds coming from the cabin with their wide ranging tastes in acoustic music.  

Rob Schuweiler, Bunker Hill, WV said, “Among the pickers are farmers, artists, teachers, professional musicians, investment bankers, luthiers, government retirees and PhDs. You would never know this by looking at or playing with them. The music is the great leveler. I think the common characteristic of all these people is their essential goodness. People who are authentic, without guile, earthy, trustworthy and plain speaking, who understand precious times make memories, the value of others and beauty of place. It is these that are the binders for the music made here. I have played many kinds of music since I was a kid, but the unique “Cabin” experience is rooted in string band music handed down ear-to-ear since the first pioneer set foot.   For me it is when the musicians lock into a groove that the experience of playing together becomes hypnotic and powerful. It is a form of communication that has to be experienced close-in to understand. The Cabin Jam is deeply important to me musically but above all it is the special character of the attendees that is the magnetic draw.“

Jim Morris, Springfield, WV explains, “When I moved to Hampshire County almost 20 years ago I was burned out from playing cover songs for bar gigs. I had gotten rid of amps and electric guitars and figured I was done with music. Then I heard folks playing what I learned was old-time music and found out they played regularly at an old cabin not too far from me. Though I was totally unfamiliar with this type of music I was welcomed by the group at the cabin and they were friendly and patient as I learned how to play these traditional tunes. Since then I’ve come to call this group my closest friends. I tell Paul Roomsburg that he and old-time music revived my joy of playing and pretty much saved my musical life!”

Cabin musician Red Henry of nearby Winchester, Virginia said, “In other jam sessions you may find restrictions on the material played, but at the cabin there is but one rule: there are no rules. The music flows from everyone there according to how they feel that night, and it is enjoyed and appreciated by all.”

Many professional musicians who have performed at the local Hampshire County Arts Council venue in Romney and at other nearby venues have been invited to the cabin after their shows and have enjoyed late evenings there while sharing their music. There bands from the British Isles have blended their music with that which is presently played in Appalachia: the same music which in part had originally inspired what is now called old-time music. And professional bluegrass musicians have added their textures to these old-time tunes making for a beautiful blending of sounds.

All musicians are welcome at the cabin including all skill levels. Ed Meyers of adjoining Mineral County, WV, said, “Playing traditional music at the cabin is a continuation of the way this music was passed down to our generation of musicians.  Sloan Staggs, (Hampshire County musician and mentor to Paul), and Israel Welch, (Mineral County musician and iconic local fiddler), were from the last generation and were central in teaching the next generation of traditional musicians in our area.”

Sharing this music has become the main theme of the cabin experience.  

Paul’s Grandsons Lane and Kade Suddath (12 and 10 years old respectively) live nearby and have a lot to say about the cabin.  

Lane Suddath, Augusta, WV describes the cabin as, “a place to relax and have fun. I have been coming to the cabin for as long as I can remember. My Granddad owns the cabin. He got my Dad into music and my Dad got me and my brother into music. I play the bass. I like the cabin because you can relax there even when you are not playing music. I like how the cabin is very rustic. The cabin looks like it was made in the mid-1800s.” 

“Every October, we have the ‘Cabin Weekend’. People set up campers in the field and have a good time. Most times there is more than one jam going at a time. It is a time to see friends and just have fun. At Cabin Weekend, you don’t always have to play music. My friend and I throw the football for a long time. Most times I am at my camper either listening to stories or music. Cabin Weekend is a time to relax and reunite with friends.”

“The atmosphere in the cabin is unique. The cabin floor shakes when we play music because everyone is keeping time and really getting into the music. We don’t have a set list or even an idea about what we play next. We play one song, talk for ten minutes, then someone just starts playing a song and everyone joins in. When we have a cabin jam, you can usually hear the music from the road. People come from all over just to play music. The cabin is definitely special place to me and everyone that comes.”

Lane’s brother Kade adds, “The Cabin is very special because I can do a lot of things there, like play music and play with cousins. I also get to hunt there. It means a lot to me to go to the cabin!!!! It’s fun to play music with all of the other generations of my family.”

Christi Hicks, Romney, WV said, “The cabin is a welcoming place where people from all backgrounds are there to learn or play music. I’ve never seen anyone leave there not feeling like part of a community and valued. I’ve enjoyed taking my children there to unplug and learn the music of their Appalachian heritage and our shared unique American story. It really is a community gathering place and one that has expanded well beyond Hampshire County’s boundary.”  

Red Henry adds, “There is an openly expressed welcome for anyone who comes in the door, from novices to professionals and an openness to learning new tunes to play.”

Greg Smits said, “The drive from State College, PA takes about two and a half hours but is well worth it for the music and socializing. Over the years of coming to the cabin I’ve learned quite a few tunes that I rarely hear except there, and I’ve met many interesting people. Driving all that way and playing tunes often past midnight is a great way for me to recharge my mind.”

Ben Townsend, Romney, WV, said, “For me the cabin has been an incredible place to get closer to the values and traditions of Hampshire County’s historic past. By learning first about the tunes, and then gradually about places they were played and the people who played them, I feel like I have been given an opportunity to respect, revere, and resemble my ancestors and to carry a bit of them along as a part of my own personal character.”

The popularity of the cabin as a musical center inspired the participants to make some improvements, so an expansion was undertaken. A replacement kitchen with a new chimney was built in the same location as the old kitchen that had been removed. Three new porches were built as well. A buzz of activity on a sunny Saturday in October 2010 resembled a barn raising as about 20 musicians turned carpenters added much needed space to the cabin. Now there are several places under a roof for concurrent jam sessions.

Cabin sessions have always happened on an irregular basis. An occasion such as a holiday or a birthday may provoke a musician to contact Rick Pegg who voluntarily sends an e-mail message to alert those who have asked to be on the list about a jam session. Or a session will happen just because there hasn’t been one in awhile. It is always a good time at the cabin regardless of the number of participants.

The cabin was documented in the PBS documentary Arts & the Mind: The Art of Connection. Film makers attended a cabin session and saw three generations of family musicians and friends sharing this unique experience. (Starting at 16:05, https://www.pbs.org/video/tpt-documentaries-arts-mind-art-connection/)

Joe Hypes, Summersville, WV, said, “The cabin, while giving the participant an excellent opportunity to learn and share music, is almost a living, breathing entity that shares its soul with the musicians, no matter their age or ability. When we gather, we can put aside our troubles, differences, and just enjoy the camaraderie. It is truly a good and hospitable place.”

Rick Pegg, Rio, WV, paints a picture for us of his cabin experiences. “It’s early yet. An old pickup pulls off the single-lane rural road to a small, dirt and grass covered parking area. The driver steps out, reaching behind the seat to pull his well-worn banjo case, duct taped at the seams, and a small rope in place of the long missing handle. The night sky is filled with stars, the likes of which are unknown from the more populated areas far to the east. He walks flashlight in hand until the unoccupied hand-hewn log structure emerges from darkness. The door is held in place more by the frame than rusty hinges and scrapes across the wood floor as it opens. One by one the vintage oil lamps are lit and placed on shelves along the walls of the small room with low ceiling. A hand axe is retrieved from against the wall to split tonight’s kindling for the antique wood stove. There’s nothing to do now but sit and wait for the fire to do its job. Warm enough to remove a coat, to cradle his banjo and noodle a few old-time tunes. Soon, others with fiddles, banjos, guitars, and a variety of traditional instruments will arrive. Another epic Cabin Jam.”

The Cabin has a special feel. A vintage wood stove, oil lamps, and small rustic jam space in rural West Virginia create the traditional setting. Add just the right mix of friends, stories, and laughter; with an old yellow dog lying at the fiddler’s feet.   

Joe Herrmann, Paw Paw, WV, said, “The musicianship in and around Hampshire County is formidable. The cabin has become a unique venue for the sharing of that music. The most important part of the cabin has become the important community of musicians and friends that have grown from it. Paul has generously provided a place for this to happen where all are welcome regardless of musical experience.”

Paul is reluctant to take credit for the popularity of the cabin however, noting that many of the attending musicians help maintain the cabin. “Why do people want to come to this old building out in the county? Why are bugs attracted to the light? This music is like the light in that it inspires everyone who comes to the cabin. They want to hear it, play it, or just come and see it made. Everything we’ve done at the cabin has been because ‘it’s all about the music’.”

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