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Musician Lewis Johnson ‘‘Uncle Jack’’ McElwain (January 3, 1856-April 30, 1938) lived his entire life on Laurel Creek at Wainville, near the community of Erbacon in Webster County. He was the most respected fiddler in central West Virginia during his lifetime. He took part in many fiddle contests, and no one can recall him ever being beaten. McElwain’s fame and talent touched numerous fiddlers in his day, including members of the fiddling Carpenter, Hammons, and Wine families. The noted southern West Virginia fiddler, ‘‘Blind Ed’’ Haley, was known to have made trips to Webster County to visit McElwain and trade tunes. McElwain often traveled with another Webster fiddler, Tom Jack Woods, said to have been seven feet tall. McElwain’s most notable contest win was at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Although we have no recordings of McElwain’s playing, oral history reveals much about his playing style and repertoire. He is said to have played in the ‘‘old West Fork style.’’ This refers to the West Fork of the Little Kanawha, where the McElwain family lived before coming to Webster County in the 19th century. A former neighbor and old-time fiddler recalled that when Uncle Jack played ‘‘Old Sledge,’’ his best tune, ‘‘you seemed to rise up three feet off the ground!’’ McElwain’s legacy is firmly entrenched in the playing of numerous central West Virginia fiddlers of recent years who credit their tune sources to ‘‘Uncle Jack.’’

This Article was written by Gerald Milnes

Last Revised on December 07, 2015

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Sources

Corbin, David A. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Milnes, Gerald. Play of a Fiddle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.

Cite This Article

Milnes, Gerald "Uncle Jack McElwain." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 07 December 2015. Web. 10 December 2018.

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