About Kilby Snow

John Kilby Snow was born in Grayson County, Virginia on May 28, 1905.  He was the son of Huston and Sarah (Isom) Snow and had an older sister, Kate.  Huston, a preacher, carpenter, and blacksmith could play fiddle, banjo, and guitar and Kilby would delight in listening to his father play.  Kilby was a uniquely-gifted child of music; he loved to hear different sounds and could interpret them with ease.

His sister courted a gentleman who ws, according to legend, the “Autoharp Champion of North Carolina.”  Kilby was immediately taken by the sounds produced by the autoharp, and from the age of four begged his father to buy him one.  Soon, a cousin came to visit the Snow household with a five-bar Zimmerman harp and Kilby’s father exchanged an ice cream freezer for that harp.  It was a major moment in this boy’s life.

Two years later, Kilby entered a contest against the “Autoharp Champion of North Carolina” and won.  He received a “pretty” ribbon, a 20-dollar gold piece, and the championship title.  Not long afterwards, Kilby’s beloved mother died causing him great grievance.  His father remarried but Kilby did not get along too well with her causing him to run away from home for awhile.  As a teenager, Kilby worked in coal mines, mills, carpentry, and odd jobs.  An industrial accident permanently blinded his left eye.

In 1923 or 1924 Kilby married Lillie “Blanche” Rottenberry.  Marriage did not agree with Kilby (who was no older than 20 at the time) so he packed up his harp and took off “rambling,” mostly throughout the South.  He teamed up with another rambler, Bill Wayne, and for the next four years played at schools, churches, dances, of any other place to earn money.  Kilby was very generous with the money he earned, often playing a grocery bill or giving money to folks who were in need.

Around 1929, Kilby came home and tried marriage again with Blanche.  They had a total of eight children; four of which survived to adulthood: Thomas, Glenn, Verna May, and their youngest son, James.

Between 1930 and 1957, Blanche often found work in cotton mills.  Kilby, like his son Jim would do as adult, worked many different jobs; construction, maintenance, carpentry, millwright at a lumber mill and on the Pennsylvania Highway Department.  It was while working with the Highway Department that he injured discs in his back.  After receiving a settlement, he was to work consistently only with his music for his remaining days.

He had a knack for precision machinery and woodworking, and these skills transferred to the innovations he made on the autoharp.  His partnership with musical instrument builder Mike Hudak also provided Kilby with a means to continue to plan and construct his autoharps.

Kilby has said that he never put down his music during these years raising a family, but few outside of Galax knew about him or his music.  All this was to change with a chance encounter with another gifted musician Mike Seeger in 1957.

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