Kilby Snow

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Appalachian autoharp virtuoso John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1905, in Grayson County, VA, but his family moved across the border into North Carolina when Snow was still a toddler. A precocious musician,…
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Appalachian autoharp virtuoso John Kilby Snow was born May 28, 1905, in Grayson County, VA, but his family moved across the border into North Carolina when Snow was still a toddler. A precocious musician, he won the title of Autoharp Champion of North Carolina before he was even six years old. A left-handed player, Snow technically did everything wrong on the autoharp, but his upside-down and backwards approach and his unconventional methods (he would strum with his left hand below the chord bars, for instance) ended up completely reinventing the possibilities of the instrument. Although his repertoire consisted of traditional mountain songs and instrumentals, his so-called "drag note" system and his penchant for modifying his autoharps to his own physical and tonal specifications, not to mention his bluegrass-like velocity, make him arguably the first modern autoharp player.

Snow's haunting and beautiful version of "Wind and Rain," an Appalachian variation of the old British murder ballad "Two Sisters," remains the standard against which all other versions of the song are measured. Officially "discovered" by Mike Seeger, Snow recorded a single album for Smithsonian Folkways in the 1960s. Although his recorded output was small, his impact, especially among aficionados of the autoharp, is immense. He died on March 29, 1980.