I sat in the middle of about 10 of my fellow pickers in a jam at the Bear on the Square Festival in Dahlonega Ga., swatting out a few tunes and my mind began to wander. I thought back over the 15 or so years I had sat in the same folding chair for countless hours at this festival alone, playing and singing tune after tune.
How many jams have I played? How many stage performances have I played through? How many square dances have come and gone? As Thomas,The Grandchild, would say; "I do not know".
As I looked around at the group letting out the collective sigh of enjoyment that always follows a good tune. I asked myself how many people in this jam weren't even born when I was well into my jamming years. The conclusion? Nearly all of them. How do these people I'm looking at become old time musicians? I guess the same way people become used car sales salesmen...just lucky.
Old time musicians are not usually given to fashion...or whining. They tend to be comfortable in their own skin and whatever they drag out of the closet that day. They are, however, proud of their instruments. These may two or three generations old and look as though they have been rode hard and put away wet, yet these gems are carefully chosen, and come with a verbal pedigree, and scars to prove it. The instruments are loved.
I have instruments that I still play that have been in the family for most of by musical career...a few are no longer with me...a thief in the night decided he needed them worse than I did. I'll guarantee you they are being played by someone, somewhere, and are loved as much as I loved them. That's the bottom line. Good instruments find good players.
Hell has a special place for instrument thieves.
Music has become a fundamental part of my psyche. I never planned it like that. I don't really practice. I have acquired "tune bank" over 70 years that mainlines from brain to fingers pretty much automatically. Takes a few time through to get it right, but they never go away. It's amazing to me that I can forget where my keys are and remember a tune I learned 40 years ago!
Occasionally, a fiddler will recall a tune from a bygone era, or bring up a long dead fiddler's version or a tune. You can always tell the old timers. "Oh Yeah, great tune from the 60's. Learned it in West Virginia, or was it New York"? Gives me a thrill when one of the younger fiddlers has done The Work, and pulls out an old tune from my past I have forgotten about years ago.
I recall a phenomena that happened to me when I went to Australia. I took my mandolin, 'cause it's small and easy enough to carry around. One night, after getting settled, I pulled it out and started to play. I realized that I couldn't remember tunes! Even the simple ones like Soldiers Joy, Liberty, Rag Time Annie. They would NOT come to mind! Scary.
I was looking off into the distance, doodling on the mandolin, wondering what this be about. A tune began to subconsciously run down into my fingers. It was fiddler Henry Reed's "Clog", a tune I had learned from Harry Leidstrand. It was Alan Jabbour who collected it from Henry Reed. The tune had already made it to California from Glen Lynn, Va. and here I was taking it to the Australian Outback! It's a delightful little tune. I was overjoyed!
That broke the dam, and tunes began to come back, and in a week or so I was playing most of my tunes. Why it happened, I have no idea...but it was a scary disconnect.
I could never thank Henry, seeing he's no longer with us, more's the pity. I do offer up that tune up to him on occasion. Losing my tunes was a weird experience, I tell you...and one I hope never happens again! I guess it was the isolation of being half way around the world from my roots...but ole' Henry, Harry and Alan came to my rescue.
Ain't life grand!
Sorry to be absent for so long, but Spring doesn't leave much time for writing. Gotta' go, something out there needs attention.