Monday, January 25, 2016

Old-time Fiddler Found his Muse in West Virginia

The following story was written by Sandy Wells and appeared in the January 25, 2016 edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail (links below)

In his Fort Hill home, champion fiddler Paul Epstein demonstrates the musical prowess 
that earned him a first place award in the senior division of the Glenville Folk Festival last year. 
A founder of FOOTMAD, he performs regularly with his contra dance band, the Contrarians

He hitchhiked around the country. He lived in a cabin in Maine. A quest for warmer weather lured him to West Virginia. A back-to-the-lander from Pennsylvania, he found his sweet space in Roane County.

He settled eventually in Charleston. He counseled troubled teens at Daymark. For 25 years, he taught school. For a decade or so, he worked with the West Virginia Writing Project. Now, he’s making a new label for himself as an environmental activist.

But nothing in Paul Epstein’s intriguing life defines him more than the music. Through it all, there was always the music.

In West Virginia, he discovered old-time mountain fiddlers and recognized his true calling. Something about the fiddle touched his soul. So he learned to play. Taught himself. Just like that.

With kindred old-time music fans in Roane County, he started the Booger Hole Revival, a band bent on bringing back mountain music.

In Charleston, he helped form FOOTMAD, an organization devoted to old-time music and dance. That spawned his current contra dance band, the Contrarians.

He retired from the 9-to-5 world three years ago. Now, music no longer plays second fiddle. At 63, still vibrant and involved, he finally can focus full-time on the instrument that captured his heart.

It’s paying off. He won first place last year in the state fiddling contest.

He believes his father, a violinist, would be proud.

“I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a city the size of Charleston in Lehigh Valley, about 60 miles from Philadelphia.

“My dad was a social worker, head of social services at Allentown State Hospital nearby. My mom raised four children, three boys and a girl. It was a good life. I excelled at school most of the time, though I was somewhat of a troublemaker at times, a typical boy.

“My father played violin in community orchestras. He loved classical music. I hated classical music. I grew up with popular music on the radio.

“I took piano lessons until I was a teenager and said no more. It didn’t fit my view of myself at the time. My older brother started playing a little guitar, so there was a guitar around and I learned a little of how to play. In my early 20s, I got my own guitar and started playing that.

“I dropped out of college and traveled the country hitchhiking with my girlfriend. It was 1969. The world was in turmoil. I was not excited to go to college. I went to a couple of big protest rallies. My hair was long. I guess I was a hippie for a few years.

“I had a few jobs to get money. I worked construction and drove a cab. I had a little money, like graduation gifts that my parents had saved for me, a couple thousand dollars that we lived on for a couple of years.

“My dad was pretty tolerant of all this. My mom was definitely fuming. I don’t regret it at all. Everyone grows up a different way, and I had to find my own way.

“It gave me more time to play music and learn more about music. I spent some time learning guitar and started playing in a band. I started on a stand-up bass in a band in Maine. They were playing bluegrass and some Irish music.

“I was hearing these melodies that I loved and I remembered them. I started picking out the notes on guitar.

“I got hold of a mandolin and started playing tunes on mandolin. Once I was in West Virginia and heard my first old-time fiddlers, the old guys playing at festivals, I had to start playing fiddle.

“We’d been living in Maine out in the woods. I built a little cabin there. We were looking for a warmer place. This was the early ’70s. I guess you could say we were back-to-the-landers. We landed in Roane County, a little place on a road leading to Green Creek beyond Frame.

“I settled in this empty building that had once been a church, just a wood frame 24-by-24 building. We lived there for a while. People referred to this as the Booger Hole Church. A booger hole back then was kind of a place of ill-repute. There apparently had been a moonshiner in the hollow and maybe some shootings, colorful stuff people could tell stories about.

A photo from the early 1980s shows fiddler 
Paul Epstein (left) with the Back Road
 Travelers, a successor to Booger Hole Revival, 
the band he helped organize in Roane County
“There were a lot of people there like myself there who had come from other places. We started a band called the Booger Hole Revival because we were reviving old-time music.

“I was playing fiddle. It’s the instrument to me that most defines old-time music, that and the banjo, but there was already another guy playing banjo. It was challenging. But the fiddle had all that energy.

“I never have taken a single lesson on guitar or fiddle. I just learned by ear and recording things and listening to records and tapes, just working on it.

“Booger Hole lasted six years, ’77 to ’83, when we changed our name to the Backwood Travelers. We didn’t have a lot of expenses in those days. We had been able to buy a piece of land. We raised a garden.

“We had the money that came in from playing in the band, and I would do odd jobs. I worked for a logger for a couple of years. In ’77, my daughter was born and I married the woman I traveled the country with.

“Then I started working for Daymark Inc., for Patchwork. I started taking college classes at West Virginia State and got into the teacher education program and continued with Daymark until about ’85 when I graduated.

“I had always said about social work that I wouldn’t want to do that. People said I was a natural at it. I grew up in a family of social workers, so I understood how to talk to people.

“I listened to these troubled teens and found out what their issues were and tried to help them set goals to do better. I enjoyed working with people, but you don’t get a lot back from troubled teenagers.

“I thought elementary education would be a good spot for me to get a job I could stick with. The burnout rate working with troubled teenagers is hard work. But so is teaching.

“I taught for 25 years, first in Clendenin, then I moved to Ruffner Elementary and moved into Charleston. I divorced.

“I helped start FOOTMAD (Friends of Old Time Music and Dance). I was the first president. A group of us got together and started having meetings about how we were going to put together a nonprofit organization to sponsor folk music.

“For a period, working full time and going to school full time, I didn’t do much with music. That didn’t last long. I started going to the FOOTMAD dances and joining the pickup band that gradually became a band to play for contra dances. We were called the Trusty House Band. FOOTMAD named us because we were always there for them. Then we became the Contrarians, our band now.

“In the early ’90s, I started writing a lot more songs. This was around the time I was getting divorced. I wrote a bunch of songs and did a CD of my own songs, ‘Lessons Life Taught Me,’ and I was playing as a singer-songwriter.

“The songs are folk-country, what they call Americana, a mix-up of country blues and whatever genre that would fit a song I was writing. I was also writing a lot of fiddle tunes and children’s songs.

“Before I did the CD of original songs, I did a cassette and then a CD of songs I had been writing for the kids at school. I called it ‘School Bus Comin’.’

“The Contrarians for the last 10 or 15 years have been playing once or twice a month. We started with out and backs, going out for a Saturday night dance in Columbus or Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Louisville or Lexington or Cincinnati. We are a pretty well-known band for contra dancing in the mid-Atlantic region.

“Sometimes we get hired for a dance weekend that will draw people from the region, maybe 200 people. They will hire two bands and two callers and there will be dancing all weekend.

“Last year I won first place in the senior division of the Glenville Folk Festival. I don’t consider myself much of a contest fiddler but in retirement, I decided to put a little more time into preparing for contests.

“As a teacher, I got involved with the National Writing Project. I took some workshops and classes from Fran Simone at the graduate college and eventually I ended up leading the local Central West Virginia Writing Project. I did that for about 10 years.
In 1996, Paul Epstein married Rita Ray, a name long 
associated with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. 

“I recently wrote a song called ‘Green Revolution’ about climate change. I have gotten more involved in environmental issues, especially after the chemical spill into the Elk River. I always supported environmental issues, but I never considered myself any kind of an activist. But I started writing more songs on that topic and wanted to share them with people who were activists.

“I went to many of the rallies and became involved in raising money for the West Virginia Environmental Council and actually formed a little project through CAG (Citizen Action Group) that I called AWARE (Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment). I wanted to use it as a vehicle for getting other artists like myself to come together to help raise money for environmental issues in West Virginia. It hasn’t been wildly successful. We raised a few thousand dollars.

“It’s just another thing I’m interested in and will continue to do. As a retired person, I’m not looking for a full-time job or mission. I have my music, my environmental work and I continue to write songs and sometimes go out and perform them.

“It’s been a great life. I was glad to be able to retire when I turned 60. It gave me more time to focus on my music.

“I might not have had time or energy or desire to learn the music if I hadn’t had that period where I wasn’t driven to do anything else. If I had stayed in college and gone on the track that was set up for me in those days, I probably wouldn’t have had time to pursue those things.

“The things that didn’t go as well as I would have liked, I probably learned from. It made me who I am, and I like who I am. So I’m not going to waste time imagining what might have been.

“My dad died in 1996. I think he enjoyed the band and was proud of it. He was a very open-minded man. He loved music, and he loved his children. Even though I bewildered him sometimes, he allowed me to be who I chose to be.”

Reach Sandy Wells at or 304-342-5027.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Lose Weight Permanently? We'll See

In November 2013, a little over 2 years ago, I embarked on a change in my eating habits, following the recommendations of a book called, The 2 Day Diet: Diet Two Days a Week, Eat Normally for Five by Dr. Michelle Harvie and Professor Tony Howell. This is where I started.

Beginning weight 11/3/13: 209
Height 5'8" Age: 61
Beginning waist size: 43 in.

By reducing carbs and increasing vegetable and protein intake severely two days a week and more moderately the rest of the week, over the course of eight months, I lost about thirty pounds and five inches in waist size. I continued eating a maintenance version of the recommendations, but over time slacked off and allowed more carbs into my diet. Gradually pounds started accumulating. A few time since then I have made feeble attempts to return my weight to 180, or 185, or 190 pounds, but each time after a losing a few pounds, weight loss eluded me, and I decided to be happy with the new weight and just hold the line. So here I am today, at 197, having gained more than half of the initial loss back, and imagining the possibility that I will soon be back where I started and no longer able to fit into the new jeans I bought when I reached my low point. 

For those of you who know me or followed my blogging back then, I was posting my progress several times a month and wrote about learning to control my hunger, getting over my carb addiction, and how much better it felt to conquer the cravings I used to feel. So why am I back where I was? 

Partly, it is the insidious addiction that carbs encourage, but, due to a new book I am reading: Always Hungry? Conquer your cravings, retrain your fat cells, and lose weight permanently by Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School endocrinologist Dr. David Ludwig, I now believe that there’s been something else at work—my own metabolism and the uncanny ability of the human body to store calories in order to preserve fat. 

Surprisingly, one of the reasons I may have had trouble keeping my weight off may be that I tried to eat not only fewer carbs, but also lower my fat intake and eat low fat foods. Dr. Ludwig recommends eating butter and other ‘healthy’ fats, like nuts, and warns that low fat substitutes often contain hidden carbs. Though I haven’t yet started implementing the recommendations in this book, I look forward to losing this weight again and keeping it off.

While I won’t post weekly “weigh ins” as I did last time, I will keep you posted on my progress. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Guns Serious, Climate Emergency

Which is a greater threat to our health and safety—gun violence or climate change? President Obama suggests that everyone concerned about the stranglehold the NRA has over Congress should make the support of “common sense gun reform” a litmus test. In West Virginia, this would give us few choices on election day.

The NRA is at the heart of most politicians’ fears of supporting even the mildest restrictions, such as expanded background checks. But they have gotten a lot of help from the conspiracy theory President Obama referred to in a recent town hall meeting that the federal government has a secret plan to register, then confiscate all private firearms in preparation for implementing a totalitarian regime. 

Unfortunately, conspiracy theories and wholesale rejection of science that we used to be able to laugh off as ideas held by tiny slivers of the population are now cynically used by mainstream politicians to garner support from increasing numbers of misinformed, suspicious Americans. And the prime example of that is climate change, which I would suggest is a much more important litmus test for 2016.

Yes, guns in America kill and injure thousands, and reducing that number is an important goal, but failing to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) being added to the atmosphere every day has the potential of resulting in catastrophic impacts on a global scale. I should not have to list them: rising sea levels, increased droughts, disease, hyper-destructive weather events, extinctions, populations on the move, and more.

Most Republican politicians, and West Virginia politicians from both parties still either deny the planet is warming, deny that it is human caused, or claim that there is nothing we can do about it. They often say that China and India will continue building coal burning power plants that will offset any of our efforts.

The recent Paris Agreement belies this claim. Almost 200 nations, including China and India, agreed on a plan to implement measures to limit global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius, considered a tipping point beyond which already serious effects become catastrophic. 

No one is calling this agreement perfect. It is non-binding. Each country must set its own goals, decide how to achieve them, report back to the world on their progress every five years, and to the extent they are able, decrease their emissions goal over time. 

As a world leader, historically the world’s largest overall emitter of GHG, and the largest emitter per capita, we have a unique responsibility to make and meet goals under the Paris Agreement. This will not be easy, but it is certainly possible.

Let’s face it—we are addicted to cheap fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. They have literally fueled American prosperity. We see gas fall under $2.00/gallon and cheer. We love our low electricity bills that have been provided by cheap coal. Hydraulic fracturing has brought cheaper natural gas into our homes. But what do they really cost? What will we pay in increased flood damage and worsening storms?  

As a nation, we were addicted to tobacco, and I remember buying cigarettes for $.30 a pack. What did it really cost America in lost time at work, doctor visits, heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema? Today cigarettes cost about $6.00 a pack, and many fewer people are willing to pay that price, which is saving lives. 

If we increased the cost of fossil fuels by applying a fee for their production and importation, we would make them less desirable and set the stage for the development, growth, and acceptance of alternative energy sources. Citizens Climate Lobby ( has a proposal to impose such a fee and return all the money collected to households, which would in most cases reimburse them for the increased costs of fuel during the transition to alternative sources.

Find out what the position of candidates for office is on climate change and carbon fee and dividend legislation, and support those who face the future with optimism by dealing realistically with the biggest challenge of our time.

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher, writer, and musician living in Charleston.