At 85, Roy “Speedy” Tolliver knows a thing or two about longevity. He attributes his own to his music”Music is good therapy,” he says. “It gives you something to do and relieves tension.
So on average, the Arlington-based fiddler and banjoist performs three times a week.
Tolliver is something of a legend in local old-time music circlesArlington’s annual fiddle showdown, now in its ninth year and slated this year for Sept. 28, was christened the Speedy Tolliver Old Time Fiddler’s Contest a few years back. And in 2002, the cultural-affairs branch of Arlington’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Resources landed a National Endowment for the Arts grant with a proposal to shoot a documentary about him.
It’s not just that Tolliver is highly regarded in local old-time music circles, explains Mary Briggs, the division’s director of cultural development. “He’s also extremely generous with his talent,” she adds. “He’s particularly interested in seeing young people pick up the traditional instruments.” She recalls one Speedy student, a girl of 13 or 14, who “can do a mean double shuffle.”
Briggs & Co. tapped Paul W. Ehrlich, a local filmmaker they’d worked with previously, to document Tolliver’s life and work. The resultSpeedy: Arlington County’s Master Musician Roy “Speedy” Tolliverhas been screening on Tuesday evenings this month on Channel 31, Arlington’s local-government cable channel, and is set to air this fall on Channel 69 (now Channel 33), Arlington’s community-access broadcaster. DVD and videocassette copies have been added to the collection at the Arlington County Public Library.
The not-quite-40-minute film, which Ehrlich says evolved from some 20 hours of footage shot at nine sessions between June and December of 2002, shows Tolliver jamming with other musicians and recounts both his early music-making years and his relocation to the D.C. area.
Following the example of his father, a banjo and harmonica player, and his brother, also a banjoist, Tolliver first took up the instrument when he was 9 or 10 years old and living in Green Cove, a town in the foothills of southwest Virginia. He learned by listeningto 78s, to the radio, to other players.
The fiddle came later, when Tolliver was in his 20s. “[We] had one member of the band that wouldn’t show up when we should practice,” Tolliver recalls, “so I figured maybe I’d learn to play the fiddle too, and fill in. So it’s taken its roots from there.” His skills also extend to guitar, stand-up bass, and mandolin.
Around 1939 or 1940, Tolliver moved to the D.C. area and joined a band that came to be known as the Lee Highway Boys. Though they performed at parties and made live appearances on early television, Tolliver recalls in the film, they never made much money.
He took a breakfor some 15 yearsto raise a family, working at the U.S. Navy installation in Indian Head, Md. “He played a little bit now and then, but he didn’t play in public,” recalls Gala Tolliver, his wife of 52 years.
But in 1961not long after he took a job as an assistant supervisor at the General Services Administrationthe family moved to Arlington, where a musician friend encouraged him to start playing more regularly.
Since then, he’s played in bands at Smithsonian facilities, at picnics on the White House grounds (once for President Carter, once for President Reagan), and for the Roosevelt family at an event marking the centennial of Franklin Roosevelt’s birth. Twice, in 1981 and 1983, a cultural-exchange program took him to Europe with the Over the Hill Gang band.
These days his roster includes performances with Andrew Acosta and the New Old-Time Pickers, plus twice-monthly public jams with the Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association.
“It gets you out of the house,” Tolliver says. “It’s better to rust out than to wear out, so I keep on fiddling.” Joe Dempsey