H.K. Silvey, the Ozarks fiddler who made it to the moon
This story, originally published in the Ozarks Alive! blog, is reprinted with permission. To read more of Kaitlyn McConnell’s posts about the people and places of the Ozarks, visit ozarksalive.com.
THEODOSIA – When fiddler H.K. Silvey was a boy in rural Ozark County, a down-the-road town seemed nearly as far away as the moon.
“In fact, a town 15 miles away — that was another world to us,” he says from his home on the outskirts of Theodosia.
Considering that fact, imagine the surprise when the Ozarker built a career that literally took him to the moon. The journey, however, wasn’t complete without coming home to Missouri. After all, the Ozarks is a much better place to be.
“The thing about it was: I never lived anyplace where the people were like the people here,” says Silvey. “The people here, they’re neighbors.”
Silvey wasn’t born with a musical instrument in his hand, but he’s held one most of his life.
He came to be back in the early 1930s, christened Hubert Kestel Silvey. “Very few people know me by my name,” says Silvey, who goes by his initials. “I’d daresay there ain’t a dozen people out of the family that knows my name.”
Life was simple then, filled with family, farming and fast-fingered Saturday nights when locals played old-time tunes.
“Nearly every weekend, somewhere at somebody’s house in the community, we had a cookout or ice cream social or something and music,” he says, a contrast to the ways of today. “Today, the only music these kids are hearing is what’s coming through them speakers. I can hear them coming up the road here — boom, boom, boom -- I don’t know how they stand it.”
‘Nobody would let me fiddle’
When Silvey was around 11, he got his fingers flying at those parties with a guitar. After a few years, though, it began to get old. He didn’t really want to play the guitar.
“I wanted to play the fiddle, but nobody would let me fiddle,” says Silvey. The fiddle owners were afraid he’d tear up the delicate instrument.
After high school, life took Silvey away from Ozark County. He moved to Kansas to work for Boeing, where he met his wife.
“We’d probably dated for three months before I found out she was engaged to a guy in Arkansas,” says Silvey. After hearing that the surprise fiance was coming into town that weekend, Silvey told her she could choose between the two of them, and he’d accept her decision either way.
“So, on Monday morning, she called me from work and said, ‘Well, I gave his ring back to him’ and broke her engagement,” says Silvey.
They were married a few months later, beginning a 58-year — “58 and a half,” he’s sure to include — union before Judy’s passing in December 2013.
Back when they were young and newly married, work shot the couple like pinballs across the western United States.
Silvey rose through the ranks of the aerospace industry, moving for work to Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, California, Arkansas, South Dakota and back to Missouri for a few months in 1964.
For years, he worked for Boeing. Later, he switched to the Martin-Marietta Corporation when Boeing wouldn’t let him work with missiles. But a few years later, right before he was set to start a new job in insurance, he decided to stop by and visit his old manager at Boeing.
The manager just had one question: Would Silvey come back to Boeing?
Silvey said no; he’d been unhappy with the company and didn’t think he was interested.
“He said, ‘If the money was right you’d come back, wouldn’t you?’” recalls Silvey. “I said, ‘Well, it’d take a lot.’ He said, ‘Well, just name your price.’
“So I just doubled my salary from what I was getting before. He said, ‘Can you be in New Orleans Monday morning?”
Silvey’s “yes” technically moved him to Louisiana, but it also took him to the moon.
Playing by ear
That opportunity, for which he worked in quality control, centered on supporting Boeing’s work with the Saturn booster rocket project. In a race for space, it was a job that carried a lot of stress and responsibility.
“Being in quality control, I had inspected a lot of the systems that went in,” he says. “If something goes wrong, something don’t work right or blows up, the inspector who accepted it is the first guy on the carpet.”
After years of work, that day of major reward came in 1969. That’s when blast-off resulted in a lunar landing by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
“You’re just on pins and needles,” says Silvey of the mission’s liftoff from Earth. “Once it gets up and separates, our booster drops off — you don’t know what a relief that is.”
Even though Silvey wasn’t on board the spacecraft, his name was. “All the people who worked on that booster have their name on microfilm in a capsule buried on the moon,” says Silvey.
While Silvey worked on the Saturn project, he spent evenings away at nightclubs for stress relief.
“The work I was doing, it was tedious and had me tied in knots most of the time,” he says “But (nightclubs) gave me break.”
After all, he was there to play — the fiddle, that is. “I’d usually make 50 to 60 bucks in a weekend, and that kept (my wife) from having to work,” says Silvey, who notes the couple had four children by that time.
He was even sought for recordings, like when he got a call from a recording studio in New Orleans who needed a fiddler to play backup for a country musician. There was one problem.
“(They) started passing out sheet music, and I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don’t read music,’” recalls Silvey.
But he did hear it.
“I said, ‘You go through it and just leave out the fiddle part,’” says Silvey. “‘Go though it and let me hear it.’”
After a couple of times through, he picked up the fiddle and played as his ear told him it should be. For the album’s 10 or so songs, they did that routine.
“So I played my part, and the guy said, ‘How in the hell did you do that?’” recalls Silvey. “He taught by music, and he just couldn’t visualize anybody playing by ear.”
That practice kept him primed for a move back to the Ozarks. After the Saturn project wrapped up, Boeing offered him work in Seattle, Washington, but he wasn’t interested. He knew he couldn’t go there, especially since his two daughters were teenagers.
“I told the wife, ‘I don’t want to go to Seattle because maybe both girls will get married out there, and I won’t get up and leave them girls,’” he said. “‘They may leave me, but I won’t leave them, and that ain’t where I want to live the rest of my life.’”
So Silvey moved back to where he knew best.
“Bought an old farm and set up a dairy operation, and gave everybody in the family a job,” says Silvey.
Coming back home
All went according to plan: Both of his daughters married local boys and live right down the road. One owns the town’s hardware store, and the other has been a teacher for right at 40 years.
Coming back home gave Silvey a chance to get back to the start of his song. It also allowed him the opportunity to get reacquainted with local musician Alvie Dooms.
The duo didn’t know it at the time, but they would be key to keeping old-time Ozarks music alive.
They first met in 1964, when Silvey was in the neighborhood for a few months between jobs. Dooms heard that Silvey was back in town, and called to ask if he’d want to join him in a bluegrass band.
“I said, ‘Well, probably so,’” recalls Silvey. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll need to hear you play.’ I said, ‘OK, where you want to meet at?’
“He said, ‘I’ve got a guitar in my pickup. You meet me at Wasola.’ So we got under a shade tree out there, and that’s where I met Alive. Played a few tunes, and he said, ‘I believe you’ll do.’”
That relationship resumed upon Silvey’s move back home a few years later. Over the several decades, the duo — along with fiddler Bob Holt — played at many local square dances, benefits and music parties.
For nearly 20 years, Silvey was a staple at Gainesville’s Hootin an Hollarin square dances. He’s played under the arch at the St. Louis Arts and Crafts Festival, and even traveled across the country to play in Washington, D.C.
Today, he and Dooms are two of few left from the way music used to be. He still plays at music parties, such as nearby McClurg, when he gets the chance. In 2008, he was profiled in Ozarks Fiddle Music, a book focusing on local music and the people who have kept it alive.
He’s done his part in that by more than simply playing. Silvey has had a few students over the years, including grandson Kyle Burnett, who has gone on to receive national recognition for his musical skills. One example came in 2011, when Burnett and Midwestern Town, his bluegrass band, took home the top prize from the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America.
While Silvey sees success through his grandson and a few other folks hereabouts keeping his style of music alive, he’s not sure what tomorrow will bring.
“Right now, in this community here, when I was growing up there was probably 15, 20 kids learning to play instruments,” he says. “Right now, I couldn’t name you a one. So it’s a fading thing. I don’t know if it’ll ever come back or not.”
Want to hear him play?
Silvey occasionally plays at the McClurg Jam, a weekly music party in rural Taney County. His tunes are more easily available online as part of Missouri State University’s Gordon McCann Ozarks Folk Music Collection. Much of that music can be found on YouTube.