Speedy Tolliver was born in 1918 in Green Cove, a small hamlet in Virginia's southwestern highlands. It was from his home community that he inherited a rich musical legacy rooted in the Anglo-Saxon and African ancestry of the region's early settlers. During his youth, social occasions provided time for musicians to get together to relearn tunes or to pass their particular renditions on to others. Thus melodies and songs were retained by the community as part of their cultural heritage. Examples of such tunes from Speedy's repertoire include "Cripple Creek," "Liberty," "Golden Slippers" and "Ragtime Annie."
But Speedy was--and remains---no preservationist. During the late 1920's into the 1930's he was becoming well versed in popular music and culture. Commercial recordings and radio profoundly influenced his musical growth. He would have been nine years old in 1927 when the pivotal Victor Talking Machine Company recording sessions were taking place in Bristol, on the Virginia/Tennessee border just a few miles from Green Cove. Though they were not the first recordings of American traditional music, the Victor sessions jump-started the country music industry and launched the careers of such musical legends as the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Speedy's family owned both a radio and a crank-model record player, so, early on, he had access to a variety of music and embraced not only country music, but jazz and blues. As Speedy listened he absorbed what he heard by playing along with it on his banjo both to fix melodies in his memory and to develop new technical skills, a habit he still maintains.
In 1939 Speedy made a life-defining decision to migrate, along with legions of other southern highlanders to the Washington DC area. By that time he was already musically sophisticated and ambitious. The country scene in Washington was beginning to blossom with music both by and for the white Southerners who had come to the nation's capital looking for work and a better life. As a member of, first, "The Lee Highway Boys," Speedy quickly mastered the violin to be able to fill in for the band's fiddler who often went missing. Later, as a multi-instrumentalist, he was part of a succession of professional "hillbilly" bands that played regularly around the Washington metro area. He performed with, among others, Eddie Stoneman of the famous Stoneman Family, as well as Hoss Clark and his young son Roy. During the 1940's, Speedy was a regular on WGAY's radio's "Rural Roundup," a weekly early morning "hillbilly music" offering. A play list from a 1947 segment of the program illustrates the hybrid roots of Speedy's music as it includes traditional mountain melodies peppered with tunes adapted from jazz and popular genres, such as Benny Moten's "South."
Speedy was one of country music promoter Connie B. Gay's stable of musicians, playing sessions with stars like Grandpa Jones and Chubby Wise. Conversely, however, he was also a regular member of the Sammy Ferro jazz/swing orchestra. Ferro was well known in the Washington D.C. area as both a musician and a band leader who led a big band at Glen Echo Park's Spanish Ballroom. Clearly, the natural curiosity that had lead Speedy, as a youngster, to assimilate music from all available sources remained strong. He integrated his banjo and fiddle styles into Ferro's big band as enthusiastically as he played his own roots music. One of his favorite tunes from the big band era is "The Waltz You Saved For Me," made popular in the 1940's by Wayne King and his Orchestra.
In 1950 Speedy gave up his life a professional musician for a regular job and to care for his growing family. He played in a Dixieland band with work colleagues but did not return to playing his own brand of country music until the late 1960's, and, then, not as a profession. Speedy had started out as a banjo player, and, when, in his twenties, he took up fiddling he already had a well-developed repertoire that he easily transferred as his skills developed. These days, Speedy rarely picks up the banjo. At age 87 he says that, with its heavy resonator, it is too cumbersome to bother to carry around. The fiddle is lightweight and more accommodating to his energy and strength, as well as to his stylistic ramblings. Speedy plays out several times a week in jam sessions or as a member of various and sundry bands. A jam session with Speedy might include musical leaps from the traditional "Sally Goodin" to big band hits like "The Waltz You Saved for Me," then take a surprise turn to the old Russian melody "Dark Eyes."
Asking Speedy for specifics about where he may have learned a particular melody is usually futile. He recalls tunes within general time frames but rarely can pinpoint the exact source or circumstance through which he came to own the tune. His tunes mark his progress through the ages. They entered his memory at varying times, but, when he reawakens them to sound, they are all similarly configured by his accumulated skill and design sense. He plays what he likes and it comes out sounding like "Speedy."