Banjo Women header
Photograph of Sylvia O'Brien Sylvia Cottrell O'Brien in the living room of her Deadfall Mountain home, September 1997.   Photo by Geoff Eacker  

SYLVIA COTTRELL O’BRIEN was born in 1908 near Otter Creek in Clay County, West Virginia. When she was seven, her family moved to the top of Deadfall Mountain. Sylvia lived the rest of her life in the house her parents built there because, as she tells it, “The Deadfall Mountains they are my home; where the wildcats holler and the wild deer roam.” She chose to maintain a way of life similar to that of her ancestors—drawing water from the springhouse and heating up the huge wood-fired cook stove in the kitchen for warmth and sustenance.

Sylvia learned to play the banjo from her brother Janes Cottrell when she was “just a tadpole.” When musicians in the area around Otter Creek and Ivydale got together for “midnight suppers” which included an evening of old-time music and home-cooked food served at 12 p.m., Sylvia opted for playing banjo in the living room over cooking in the kitchen.

In 1989, Sylvia O’Brien received the Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honorific. Her banjo repertoire included such traditional songs as “Wildwood Flower” and “John Brown’s Body,” a nineteenth-century tune about the martyr who was hung at Harper’s Ferry. Sylvia said on John Brown and the history of this tune: “I thought that they treated him bad, that he didn’t need that kind of treatment for the slave man was set free anyhow. And I just kind of worked that up myself.” She died in 2001

Banjo clipart

The interview by Susan Eacker with Sylvia O’Brien is not available, so we have substituted one conducted by Ken Sullivan for Goldenseal magazine, used with the permission of its editor, John Lilly, as well as video-tape footage of Sylvia O’Brien by Russ Barbour, used with his permission.

KEN SULLIVAN INTERVIEW:  Transcription
RUSS BARBOUR FOOTAGE:  Video

PERFORMANCE:   “John Brown's Body”

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