Clarence “Tom” Ashley was born on Sept. 29, 1895 in Bristol, Tennessee. The Ashley family were Irish Immigrants, who had settled in Eastern Virginia and had a passion for the ballads and folk songs that blended the tunes of their ancestral home with the rhythm of American folk music. Clarence’s mother Rose-Belle Ashley, was known as an excellent singer, and his father George McCurry, was a fiddle player. However, his father was run out of town after it was found he was an adulterer, having “married” four or five different women. After that Clarence and his mother moved in with her parents, and Clarence chose to take their family name of Ashley.
When he was twelve, His mother and grandmother taught him what they knew on the guitar, and Clarence picked up to it well. He also worked on memorizing the songs and dance tunes of his community. Whenever there was a barn-raisin or community get together, there was almost always some music, and Clarence was a regular in the band get togethers. Clarence, or as everyone knew him “Tom”, was an intelligent and sharp young man, but he decided to drop out of school in fifth grade, to help earn money. When he was sixteen, a traveling medicine show passed through and played a couple songs for the townsfolk. When the medicine show headed out again, Tom was with them, and this started his musical career.
After a few early recording sessions in the late 20’s, the nation was hit with the Great Depression, and Clarence had to earn a living doing odd jobs, working as a coal miner in West Virginia for some time. It wasn’t until the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s that Clarence could make a living off his music. While he did well on the festival circuit, his biggest influence was his knowledge of folk songs. Along with others like Doc Watson and Clint Howard, Clarence recorded many of the old ballads and tunes that had been passed down but never recorded. He is also credited with the first recording of “The House of the Rising Sun”, which he learned from his grandmother.
A classic example of Appalachian Folk Music, here is Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie”: