From Violin to Fiddle: An Interview with Ann Whitley

“I have always wanted to sing since I was very small,” says Ann Whitley, an avid singer and fiddler player of Dahlonega, Georgia. For many children in Lumpkin County, she is simply known as Mrs. Ann. She is a staff member and former president of Pick and Bow Traditional Music School, an after school program that teaches children grades 4th through 12th traditional Appalachian Music. I am very fortunate to have come up through this amazing program, and I grew up listening to her sing and play. I am now a student at Berea College and was curious to find out how Mrs. Ann found her way to old time music and recently had the opportunity to interview her.

I asked her about her parents and if they could also play music. She related, “Mother played the piano pretty well, and they bought one for the house when I was taking lessons . . . . She also sang alto at church, so I sat next to her. That was a big boost for me in my developing the ability to sing harmony, because I always had her harmony alto part in my ear during church. Our dad couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket, bless his heart, but he loved the fact that we all were musical, and he supported my brother and me in every musical endeavor we wanted. My brother and I started singing together probably when he was in high school and I was in junior high. We still love to sing together.”

One of my favorite stories Mrs. Ann tells is from when she first started playing the violin and her mother’s reaction: “She (mother) would come to the door of the room that I was playing my violin and get this silly little grin on her face and say, ‘Can you play that tune, far far away?’ I tell that to the beginning fiddle students and especially their parents because it’s not a pretty sound when you’re learning to play the violin or the fiddle.”

On top of working with Pick and Bow, Mrs. Ann is also in a group called the Rosin Sisters, a group of three women, Mrs. Barbra Panter, Mrs. Jan Smith, and Mrs. Ann Whitley.  Together they perform old-time songs with hauntingly beautiful three-part harmony.

I asked how she went from playing in All-State Orchestra in high school to playing in an Old-time band.  She shared,

“I came onto the old-time music scene in Atlanta in 85 or 86…. I already played violin but I wanted it to be a fiddle, not a violin…. We were all country dancing, square dancing, contra dancing, and then 9-11 happened. Our hearts were hurting. We were all sitting around in a circle going around asking ‘How are you doing?’ and someone said, ‘We need to sing!’ and Jan said, ‘How about every Thursday night at my house?’ So about a dozen of us went to her house and we sat around her table. And there wasn’t any music except for words. If people said, ‘Oh, I think the group would like singing this song.’ We’d print up the words and pass them around the table. All of us were good singers and most of us could sing harmony and we really meshed. That still goes on every month or so… Well, Jan and Barbra got to talking, “Let’s get together and try some of these songs with our instruments.” Cause this was all acapella singing. They got together once or twice and said, “You know, let’s get Ann in on this,” and so I got invited. That was in 2005 or 6. Basically that’s how the Rosin sisters got started.”

I then asked her about how music had affected her, and she said, “Honestly, Hannah, I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for this old-time music scene I got into in the mid-80s. I don’t know where I’d be because I was at a big crossroads of my life back then and I needed a community in the worst way. And it was this old-time scene that just nurtured me and gave me more friends than I could ever imagine I would ever have. From going to the first cliff-top in ’90 and meeting so many people… Going to Augusta in ’88 and meeting all those people and going to Swannanoa all those years. I know I would be a totally different person, and I wouldn’t be such a happy person. It was fortune that got me involved with the right people at the right time. That’s just really what life is all about: being at the right place at the right time.”

At the end of our talk, she talked a little about Pick and Bow and how she was passing the torch of Presidency on to a younger person. She said it was about time and that a new person will bring new ideas for the programs. She ended our talk by saying, “It’s just so wonderful to have so many young people, that’s the beauty of passing it on to the young people, that they’re in our lives. You are in our lives and you will pass it on and this music will keep going. And, that’s a good, good thing.”

Article Written by Hannah From