Saturday, January 19, 2013

Elmer Rich and His Old Time Music Time Machine

    In Morgantown West Virginia, Elmer Rich is a legend.  Elmer comes from a musical family you now.  Elmer's Uncle Sanford Rich wrote a popular song called Colored Aristocracy, which was famously played when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Arthurdale WV circa 1936. Arthurdale was a resettlement community for persons displaced during the Great  Depression, a project that the First Lady promoted.  Musicologist Charles Seeger (father of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger) recorded the Rich Family for the Library of Congress (AFS 3306 B2).    I had heard this story several times,and in fact you can here old Elmer tell this story himself, at the 2008 Fiddler's Contest in Morgantown....

          Other comments are from Tom O'Brien. 

Amazingly enough, the event was caught on an old newsreel, and you can see Elmer and his fmaily playing the same song for the First Lady. According to notes from (,  Elmer is playing the mandolin rather than the fiddle.  Elmer's Dad Harry is fiddling, and Elmer's brothers are on banjo and guitar. 

Elmer told me that the title Colored Aristocracy is a tribute to the old Ragtimers that inspired and influenced the tune.  It derives from a book, The Colored Aristocracy of St Louis, by Cyprian Clamorgan.  Also, the term "colored" is perhaps derogatory today, but 100 years ago or so, it was the most polite term possible to refer to African Americans.  

In a way, this song underscores the Ragtime influence on Old Time music and Appalachia.  You will definitely hear echoes of this in the Brew Pub Jam, with songs like "Ragtime Annie," "Tear it Down" or "Raise a Rough House Tonight." 

When you stop and think about it, it's really incredible.  Elmer's musical family reaches way back into the 19th century in terms of their repetoire, and Elmer is still going strong.  He really does represent a time machine.  If I want to find out how West Viriginia fiddlers treated a particular song in the 1930's, I am not limited to library references.  I can just ask Elmer, because he's still doing it!  Elmer's friends, like Tom O'Brien and Mark Crabtree and others, also know an incredible amount about the songs in general and about local West Virginia music history.

And you can play with Elmer, also.  Since I've moved away from Morgantown, I no longer see Elmer and his friends very often, but he hosts a jam at the Senior Center in Westover, across the river from Morgantown. I believe that it's only 3 Fridays per month, so call to make sure the jam is on before you go. Like most Old Time musicians, Elmer is just as relaxed and friendly as he could be, not stuck up in any way, and you would never guess that he is a world renowned fiddler.  Some of the other regulars are also very talented peformers, but newcomers are very welcome as well. You really can sit down and play with a legend if you want.  And no, you do not have to be a senior to attend. 

Elmer and Tom Gibson lead Hanging On to Glory at the Senior Center Jam.  Check out other videos from YewPiney as well. 


  1. Great post! Thank you. Keith McManus posted a link on Facebook that I followed here. So glad I did.

  2. I have always thought that Colored Aristocracy was a reference to the Free, French-speaking African-Americans in New Orleans. I have heard the song "Devil Woman Marie LeVeau" sung to this tune, further re-enforcing that belief. Thank you for this information.

    I used to think I knew a lot of Old Time music, but you are constantly presenting tunes I have never heard and providing new information.

    1. It is possible that the term Colored Aristocracy was in general use to refer to the upper class within the African American community. Of course, it may that the term was coined elsewhere, but we can understand that the book by Clamorgan was where Sanford Rich became familiar with the term. Clamorgan published in 1858, which would have predated Sanford by a few years. I might have mentioned that there was a cakewalk tune also called Colored Aristocracy. I believe that Elmer considers this to be different tune, and insists his Uncle Sanford composed Colored Aristocracy. I have never heard lyrics associated with this tune, and I know nothing about Devil Woman Marie LeVeau. She sounds interesting though, so please give her my phone number if you like.

    2. I looked up Devil Woman Marie, and that seems to be a modern lyric composed by Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders.

  3. Elmer Rich is my great uncle. I love hearing him play his fiddle. In the video featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, Great Uncle Elmer is the 2nd from right. (Left to Right is my Grandfather David, either Great Uncle Harry or Junior, my Great Grandfather Harry, Great Uncle Elmer & a family friend. I never met my Grandfather & Great Grandfather as both died before I was born so that video is very special to me.