As you may recall from an earlier letter, I bought dad a drum about the size and shape of a banjo head. After all, the banjo has deep African roots like the drum. We often used to play Jake Owen's tape of banjo music, dad's Charlie Poole CD, Mac Benford's tape, and a couple of Tony Ellis's CDs. At that time, I had a portable CD player with earphones for dad because I did not think it was safe to leave a CD player at Britthaven. I would bring the CD player with me and hook dad up to listen while I visited. This was problematic. Dad would listen to the CD, look at me, and think that I was playing the music. Dad would get excited and plead with me to find a fiddler to join our "group." I could not explain to dad why I couldn't find a fiddler. He became very adamant, trying to convince me as though I were disagreeing that we needed a fiddler. He did not want to be a listener, he wanted to be a performer, and we needed a melody instrument.
One day I had what I thought was a brainstorm--a drum. Clawhammer style banjo has a drumming quality to it as Ed Butler demonstrated to me when I asked him about the drum idea. Some of the music from dad's show John Proffitt seemed to me to be compatible with drumming, as is some of the music on the CD Masters of the Banjo and the above mentioned recordings. I thought perhaps I could get dad to play along with one of the recordings. He would feel he was part of the performance, and my inability to play fiddle or banjo wouldn't be such a major drawback.
Alzheimer’s is such a mysterious and frustrating disease. Ed Butler showed me how to hold the drum so it makes a deep hollow resonant sound. I do not know why I thought that would be so easy for dad. It was not. At first dad turned the drum head towards his stomach and tapped the head from the back. The drum made very little sound at all this way. I could not show him the right way to hold it because he would perceive that he was doing it wrong. So he repeated the mistake and was disappointed with the sound. I would just frustrate and upset him if I tried to change what he was doing.
Remembering the trouble he had getting his coat off when Allison Lee took him to Bah Humbug and how Allison suggested that backing off and letting him solve the problem himself might be best, I decided to try the same approach with this problem. I asked Sandy Tapp, the floor nurse who is an angel sent by God, if she could give dad the drum to practice on at odd times during the day for several days. She enthusiastically agreed to this, even showing me where she would keep the drum, and telling me what intervals would be good times for his "sessions."
I went to visit dad a couple of days later. We were sitting on the patio, I with my guitar, and he with his drum. We were just talking about something, and as we talked, dad began tapping on the drum head up.
I nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. He had solved the problem. The tone wasn't as good as holding the drum the way Ed showed me, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that dad can play his drum. He said at first he was disappointed that it was just a drum, but then he realized that a drum is a lot like the banjo, and that you can do a lot on a drum, too.
I wish I could say that this was a continuing and improving thing. But the problem with a cognitively degenerative disease is that things rarely improve, or not for long anyhow. Dad is not consistently able to hold and tap the drum. It is still a good thing. He holds it in his lap when we get together to "practice." He does not seem to know or to mind that he is not playing it. Here's the thing that gets to me the most: As we sit and "practice," he says, "I wanted this to keep going, and you're doing it...."
To be continued....
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Tommy's section of the site, the following pages
are also related to Jesse and Tommy:
Blurred Time "The Sleeper": the aftermath of Jesse and Bobbie's car accident
Mike Craver's "Visiting Tommy"
Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers:
Fuzzy Mountain String Band: Jesse's mom, Bobbie, recorded with Rambler Bill Hicks and others
Hollow Rock String Band: Tommy and Bobbie Thompson named this band for their community
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June 22, 2000