West Virginia fiddler Senator Robert Byrd died in Fairfax County, Virginia, on June 28. Having represented West Virginia in Washington for almost 60 years, in late 2009 Byrd became the longest-serving member of Congress in United States history. Byrd was a serious and accomplished fiddler who played both for the love of old-time music, and for the popularity his fiddling brought him on the hustings.
Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., in 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. After his mother’s death in the 1918 flu pandemic, he was taken to southern West Virginia to be raised by his uncle Titus and aunt Vlurma Byrd, who renamed him Robert and gave him their own last name. He began to learn how to play the violin when he was in the seventh grade, and played all through high school. He particularly admired the music of Clark Kessinger.
In Byrd’s first elected office he represented Raleigh County in the West Virginia House of Delegates, from 1946 to 1950. In the coming years, as he campaigned for seats in the West Virginia Senate, US House of Representatives, and US Senate, Byrd found that his fiddle was an asset in winning over voters. “I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” he told NPR’s Michelle Norris in 2004. “I wanted to be a friend of everybody’s, so I took my fiddle around with me. A Republican lawyer told me . . . ‘Bob, you take that fiddle and make that your briefcase.’ . . . That fiddle got me places where I couldn’t have gotten in at all. “
Continuing to perform even as his political star was rising, Byrd played at the Grand Ole Opry, and appeared on Hee Haw. In 1978 he recorded an album, U. S. Senator Robert Byrd, Mountain Fiddler, for County Records, accompanied by Doyle Lawson, James Bailey, and Spider Gilliam. At the time the album was recorded, Byrd was Senate Majority Leader. In 1982 he was forced to give up fiddling due to a tremor that developed in his hands.
Senator Byrd’s fiddle recording has recently been reissued by County Records.