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Mrs. Sarah (Gray) Armstrong (1883 ~ 1957)

From Hill Country Tunes, Instrumental Folk Music of Southwestern Pennsylvania (1944)

by Samuel Preston Bayard

Mrs. Armstrong, the principal contributor to this collection, was born and brought up in the region of Derry, Westmoreland County, and has lived there all her life. The Grays were a family of Scottish descent. This does not mean, however, that they necessarily know a repertory of Scottish tunes: they absorbed and preserved the local tradition in which they grew up; and the same could be said, very probably, for any other musical family in western Pennsylvania. In the previous generation of the family were five brothers: Charley (Mrs. Armstrong's father), Laney, Dan, Joss (Joshua) and Abe, all skillful on some instrument, and accustomed to playing together for dances, No. 14 in this collection was known as "The Gray Boys' Piece" as they so often played it in concert. All of these men are now gone, and Mrs. Armstrong, who began playing at the age of five, is the sole legatee of their melodic treasure. As a young girl she used to listen by the hour to her uncle Laney -- the most expert fiddler of the group, and the one possessing the largest repertory of tunes -- absorbing his music and learning to play it herself. She also used to play the cello, on which she would help the group out when they were playing in the pavilion at "Kist's Grove" (a dancing ground on the outskirts of Derry), and elsewhere in the neighborhood. About thirty-five years ago, her uncle Laney went to live in the Far West. The "Gray Boys'" ensemble broke up, although its remaining members continued to play individually for dances; and Mrs. Armstrong, with the assistance of her daughter at the piano and her son on the guitar or banjo, has likewise continued playing the old music, either for dances, or on an occasional radio or theater program. The children, however, do not pick up her repertory, and she is left its only preserver. Yet an interesting feature of the Armstrong home is a recording apparatus, with which many of the Gray family's old airs have been taken down on discs from Mrs. Armstrong's playing. She realizes that the old-time music is passing away, and is anxious to have her repertory insured against complete loss.

Several of the Gray brothers were railroad workers, and from musical fellow railroadmen -- some of them Irish fiddlers -- they picked up a good number of their tunes. One of these is No. 48 in the present collection.


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All articles are edited by Mark Tamsula.