In 1979, Senator Robert Byrd traveled to Russia to meet President Leonard Brezhnev. “We exchanged gifts. I presented a copy of my album, Mountain Fiddler, and he gave me a book of his speeches. I had played ‘country fiddle’ since I was a boy in the hills of West Virginia. The words and music of these traditional old tunes are a window on the early settlers and thus the roots of our great country.”
This is among a handful of personal stories in Senator Byrd’s 2004 polemic, Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. While in Russia he had one objective, to school the Russian president on American Constitutional history. Although President Carter had signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (SALT II), it was up to the Senate to “Advise and Consent.” And as Senate Majority Leader, Bryd took that responsibility very seriously. In years to come he would demonstrate this commitment again, holding take his tiny pocket edition of the Constitution in his hand as he reminded (to no avail) President George W. Bush that Constitution grants the power of war to Congress, not the Executive Branch.
On the track “Cumberland Gap” Senator Byrd introduces the song with an anecdote about the coal miners that would board with his foster mother when he was a child. A fiddle player from the age of 12, he remembers them “singing and whistling” the verses. In Losing America, he tells a slight variant of the story. He recalls being able to look at the boarders and know who would cheat his mother on rent. “I was seldom wrong. Something about eyes, the tone of voice or the body language tipped me off.” He continues, saying that he felt that same way when looking at Donald Rumsfeld while questioning him on his involvement with Saddam Hussein prior to 9/11.
Byrd had something sorely lacking in the Senate today. Common sense. He know what it was like to be poor and he knew what it was like to work hard for what little you have. A student of history, Senator Byrd warned us that we were sleepwalking; allowing the government to wage an illegal war in our name. His was the loudest voice of opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Senator was stubborn. As Majority Leader he was known to leave a meeting when arguments became too contentious and would pick up his fiddle and play, sometimes for hours, until the assembled group had come to see things from his perspective. But he was also thoughtful, allowing his beliefs about civil rights to be challenged and changed over time.
The songs on Mountain Fiddler demonstrate the Senator’s skill as a musician and singer. Mostly composed of traditional classics, they are as heart warming as they are fun to listen to. I am happy that he was able to pass away while still doing what he loved– serving our country in the US Senate. God Bless West Virginia and good-bye Senator Robert Bryd.
Will the circle be unbroken? / By and by, Lord. By and by / There’s a better home a’ waitin’ / In the sky Lord, in the sky