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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Youth Spotlight: Fiddler Steps Into History

July 26, 2011

Virginia old-time fiddler Ryan Halsey enjoys adventures that begin with a step back in time.

At age 18, he has been playing fiddle and participating in living history re-enactments for half his life. One of the reasons is to honor his family, who has taken part in every war since the French and Indian War.

Each year Halsey participates in 20 to 30 living history events, including Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam War re-enactments. His uniforms, from his socks to his knapsack, have to be authentic to allow him to participate in the re-enactment.

Not only are his clothes authentic, but so are his musical instruments. He owns four fiddles, three of which are antiques. Two are from the 1860s and 1870s and were constructed in Germany and France. The third is a cigar box-style homemade fiddle typical of the Depression. He also owns five banjos built before 1930.

All of these instruments (except the cigar box fiddle) were owned by his great-great-uncle Bruce Mongle, who played with such famous musicians as Ralph and Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, and Bill Monroe. Halsey says, "I am proud to own these family instruments and keep the history alive."

When participating in re-enactments across the nation, Halsey's authenticity spills over to camping and cooking. "It's not as most people view it. Because of my passion for history, I do not use any modern amenities such as Dutch ovens or event tents. Many of the soldiers ate poor food and slept on the ground, no matter the weather. To honor what those brave men did back then, I do the same."

For a re-enactment of the American Revolution, Halsey can portray a British infantryman as well as an American "Tory" fighting in a Royal Provincial Battalion. For the War Between the States, he can play a Union or a Confederate soldier, depending on the event. For World War II, he portrays a German infantryman and for the Vietnam conflict, he can be the average Army soldier.

"I always research my mannerisms and equipment to make sure that I am as accurate as possible," he notes. "I'm not just a re-enactor, I immerse myself in the time period. Many veterans say that I act like 'the real deal,' which makes me feel great, because I have done what I meant to do."

As a re-enactor, Halsey has been in independent film projects like Freedom, shot on location in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. The story focuses on two Union officers who escape after being captured by the Confederate army during the Battle of Rogersville, Tenn. Major roles were played by Barter Theatre actors, supplemented by more than 100 Civil War re-enactors, including Halsey who played authentic mid-19th century popular music.

Halsey also has been in larger projects such as National Park Service videos for their historic parks and The Wereth 11, a film about African American soldiers who were murdered by German SS after they surrendered in Belgium during World War II.

Halsey started playing the fiddle when he was nine years old. "I had always loved bluegrass and old-time music," he recalls. "I went to one concert and told my parents I was going to learn to play the fiddle like the guy in the band. I'm actually surprised that I did."

Through his music and re-enactments, Halsey has had the chance to meet celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Matt Damon, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, and the opportunity to play with many great musicians including Doc Watson, Wayne Henderson, Jeff Little, Sunny Ledfurd, and Luke Kaufman.

Halsey says, "I have been inspired by every single country, folk, or bluegrass musician because they are keeping America's music alive. However, old-time Appalachian music is my love, and that's where I focus my musical abilities." Halsey especially enjoys the music of fiddle and banjo player Tim Eriksen, "widely regarded as the best ballad singer of his generation" (BBC Radio) and "among the world's finest folk practitioners" (Toronto Star) for his expertise in traditional song. Halsey also listens to Victrola recordings of fiddler "Gid" Tanner, one of the most recognized names among country music enthusiasts of the 1920s and '30s. Tanner's Skillet Lickers was one of the most influential string bands that recorded during the formative years of the country music industry.

At age nine, Halsey also loved anything related to the military, including history. In fourth grade, the gym teacher at Watauga Elementary, Rob Salyer, was a re-enactor and appeared in the blockbuster film Gods and Generals, which covered the Civil War before the climactic battle of Gettysburg, Pa. Halsey says, "When Salyer found out about my love of history, he invited me to come to an event with him, which I did soon after. I've been hooked ever since then."

Now Halsey does living history presentations for local schools, including playing authentic music. Halsey also plays for local churches and radio stations and has performed at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Va.

Halsey plans to stay involved with the region's rich heritage in music and history. He also rides bulls and takes flying lessons, which he plans to continue.

A recent graduate of Abingdon High School, he will attend Virginia Tech University as a part of the Mining and Minerals Engineering Department, then he plans to "work underground and work my way to the top of the coal industry.

Re-enactor Ryan Halsey's clothes and musical instruments are authentic for each portrayal.