1896-1975, South Hills, Kanawha County
Clark Kessinger was a fiddler’s fiddler. As writer Charles Wolfe pointed out, “[Kessinger] ripped into a tune like a hungry man faced with a plate of fried chicken. When he played a waltz, he could bring a tear to the proverbial glass eye.” He was a fierce competitor and a master showman.
Clark Kessinger was born near the Lincoln/Kanawha county line on July 27, 1896. He started playing banjo at age five but soon switched to fiddle. At an early age, Kessinger’s father took him to local saloons where he would fiddle and dance for the patrons, taking in $10 to $15 a night in tips – more than his father made in a week. During the 1920s, Kessinger’s reputation grew as he won fiddling contests throughout the Kanawha Valley. Accompanied by nephew Luke, Kessinger was regarded as the “fiddler to beat” at contests and the “fiddler to hire” at dances. The Kessinger Brothers, as they were known, were among the earliest performers on the air when Charleston got its first radio station in 1927.
In February 1928, a scout for the Brunswick record label set up shop in nearby Ashland, Kentucky, and requested that Kessinger audition. His recording of “Wednesday Night Waltz” went on to be top seller and launched a recording career for the Kessinger Brothers. By September 1930, the two had recorded more than 70 sides – the best-selling fiddle records in Brunswick’s sizable catalog and arguably some of the finest southern fiddling ever recorded.
Tunes like “Hell Among the Yearlings,” “Sally Ann Johnson” and “Poca River Blues” quickly became fiddling standards. And, while others copied his repertoire, no fiddler alive could match his technique. His smooth and powerful bowing, perfect intonation, unmatched tone, and careening improvisations drew the attention and praises of classical violinists and traditional fiddlers alike. The sparkle in his eye, devil in his smile, and occasional jig dancing kept audiences calling for more.
As the Great Depression took its toll on the recording industry, Kessinger settled into a working life as a house painter in the Charleston area, playing occasionally for local events and dances. He married twice and raised six children.
In 1964, Kessinger was visited by a young folklorist and researcher named Ken Davidson. He told Kessinger about the revived interest in folk music and encouraged Kessinger to participate in some of the regional fiddle contests. That August, Kessinger won first place at the famed Galax Fiddler Convention in Galax, Virginia, and began his second triumphant career as a fiddler.
Over the next seven years, Kessinger recorded, traveled and performed widely. He was featured at major folk festivals across the country, won top honors at fiddlers’ conventions and contests, performed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry and appeared on national television.
Kessinger suffered a stroke in 1971, which effectively ended his performing days, though he continued to play and teach privately until his death in St. Albans on June 4, 1975.