Roy Odell “Speedy” Tolliver

Roy Odell Tolliver

Born in 1918, Speedy Tolliver is a native of Green Cove, located in the Virginia’s southwestern highlands. It was from the Green Cove community that he inherited his musical legacy. Like many musicians of his era, he began playing as a child by secretly picking out tunes on an instrument—in his case a banjo—that belonged to a family member. Mr. Tolliver recalls that the first song he mastered was “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.” As he has said, in his community one would go from house to house and drop in on social events to play a little music. This was the way traditional melodies and songs were retained, modified and passed on. Speedy plays entirely by ear, so, as he listened he absorbed what he heard by playing along, both to fix melodies in his memory and to develop new technical skills, a habit he still maintains.

His family was well off enough to have owned both a radio and a crank model record player, so at an early age he had access to and became influenced by multiple musical sources. During the late 1920s into the 1930s he was becoming well versed in popular music and culture. He was nine years old in 1927 when the pivotal Victor Talking Machine Company recording sessions were taking place in Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border just a few miles from Green Cove. Commercial recordings and radio profoundly influenced his musical growth.

The 1930s was also the era of the White Top Folk Festival held annually for a number of years just a few miles from Speedy’s home. As a teenager, he participated and was consistently among the prizewinners in the banjo competitions there, competing alongside a cadre of top old-time musicians of the era such as Wade Ward, Emmett Lundy, and many others.

In 1939, at age 21, Speedy made a life-defining decision to migrate, along with legions of other southern highlanders, to the Washington DC area. By that time he was already musically sophisticated and ambitious. The country scene in Washington was beginning to blossom with music both by and for the white Southerners who had come to the nations’s capitol looking for work and a better life. As a member of The Lee Highway Boys, Speedy quickly mastered the violin to be able to fill in for the band’s fiddler who often went missing. Later, as a multi-instrumentalist, he was part of a succession of professional “hillbilly” bands that played regularly around the Washington metro area. He performed with, among others, Eddie Stoneman of the famous Stoneman Family, as well as Hoss Clark and his young son Roy.

In 1950 Speedy gave up his life as a professional musician for a regular job and to care for his growing family in Arlington. He played in a Dixieland band with work colleagues but did not return to playing his own brand of country music until the late 1960s, and then not as a professional but as a serious amateur. Most notably, he was part of the legendary Tony Alderman’s Over the Hill Gang, as well as the Sprouts of Grass with Sandy Hofferth, Sid Rosenberg and Bill Taylor. He toured through Europe twice as part of Joe Wilson’s National Council for the Traditional Arts “Friendship Ambassadors,” and has been featured multiple times at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington DC. Since returning to performing, he also resumed competitive playing and began to collect ribbons from such contests as the well-known Galax, Virginia and Clifftop, West Virginia festivals, winning first place in the senior category at Clifftop in 2005.

Now in his 90s, Speedy still plays several times a week in jam sessions or as a member of various bands. He continues to teach students in his home, to perform and to compete.

Speedy’s musical development was influenced by and therefore accompanies the story of the depression era Appalachian migration and how rural culture changed and was changed by the urban environments it touched.

2009 Virginia Heritage Award Winners