Banjo player Sylvia Cottrell O’Brien (October 23, 1908-December 26, 2001) was born in Clay County, a descendent of the earliest white families in central West Virginia. She learned to play the banjo from her brother, Jenes Cottrell, when she was ‘‘just a tadpole,’’ she recalled. She played in the old-time ‘‘clawhammer’’ style. Jenes, famous as a traditional craftsman and musician, overshadowed his sister during his lifetime.
Jenes and Sylvia lived together in a house built by them and their parents on Deadfall Mountain, near Big Otter, without electricity or running water. Sylvia continued this simple existence until her mid-80s, moving then to a nearby house trailer. ‘‘The Deadfall Mountains they are my home, where the wildcats holler and the wild deer roam,’’ she proclaimed in a poem of her own writing. She recalled midnight suppers when musicians around Otter Creek and Ivydale got together for an evening of old-time music and home-cooked food.
Briefly married and soon widowed, O’Brien worked in a Baltimore boarding house during World War II. She returned home to West Virginia and became a regional celebrity during the folk culture revival beginning in the 1960s. In 1982, the British Broadcasting Corporation filmed O’Brien at her home. In 1989, she received the Vandalia Award, West Virginia’s highest folklife honor. Her banjo repertoire included ‘‘Wildwood Flower,’’ ‘‘John Brown’s Body,’’ and ‘‘Minner on a Hook.’’ Sylvia O’Brien died in Clay County.
This Article was written by Susan A. Eacker
Last Revised on October 22, 2010
Sullivan, Ken. 'We Lived Good Back Then': Vandalia Award Winner Sylvia O'Brien. Goldenseal, (Fall 1989).
O'Brien, Sylvia. Interview by author. 10/8/1997.