In Honor of a Reunion of Middle-Aged Old-Time Musicians at Camp New Hope,
Orange County, NC, April, 1989.
I rode up on my motorcycle (BSA 441)
with my fiddle tied on the back with bungie cords. The yard was full
of cars, and the house in the autumn night was ablaze with light, the front
door wide open, people sitting on the steps talking and drinking beer,
and the strains of something: "Take me in your lifeboat, take me in your
lifeboat" maybe, circled up like chimney smoke.
The house was big, white, old, complex
in shape, rooms added on to rooms, so that in the hall or bathroom, one
wall if you looked close was really lapped siding under twenty coats of
paint, an outside now inside. Deep in the middle of the house the
floors were big, worn planks. Up in the attic there were logs and
hewn beams, and there were five chimneys and four fireplaces.
I put my beer in a corner of the
porch or pushed a pint into my back pocket. In the living room, around
the fireplace, was a band: Tommy and Bobbie Thompson, Tom Turner (singing
"Lifeboat"), Bert Levy, no doubt others. Tom Turner liked to sing
in G and C mostly. I didn't play fiddle then; I was relearning by
ear the violin skills of childhood that I had laid aside ten years before.
I tuned a whole-step low and played along quietly (I hope now) in A-fingering,
which had lots of free open strings. When they went to C I could
shift to the D-scale and find even more easy notes.
People kept driving up to the big
house in Hollow Rock community on Randolph Rd. as the night wore on.
When Al McCanless or Alan Jabbour arrived I'd put my fiddle away and watch
their fingers and listen. Sometimes there'd be a second band in the
kitchen, playing fiddle tunes. Sometimes, before the party began
to dwindle, there'd be a square dance in the living room. Sometimes,
with the dancing, and the rhythm, the walls of the house would bow in an
out like an early Disney cartoon. (After one Friday night, Tommy
got worried enough to crawl under the house with some big log rounds to
set up under the dubious joists.)
At twelve or one or two I would strap
the fiddle back on the bike, wrap up (although I wasn't feeling much cold),
and ride home with tunes whirling in my helmet. I didn't have a tape
recorder (there were no cassettes in those days), or a fiddle record.
Fiddle tunes were just blurs, really, and mysterious melodic phrases that
popped into my head days later, walking across campus in my other, grad-student
life. They spoke to my heart, somehow, in a language I couldn't yet
understand. It was 1967.
It was 1967. We were as close
to World War II then as we are to then, now. Everybody was going
to San Francisco. Martin Luther King and Janice Joplin were alive.
So were Carter Stanley and Jack Kerouac. So was Henry Reed.
Tommy Jarrell had only recently retired from his life as a motor-grader
operator. The war was on, and it was so mean and ugly and absurd
that it lit every act and plan and choice anyone could make or not make
with it's lurid, sickening glow.
In a time when Vietnam made everything
ironic, the music was, for me and perhaps for all of us, another country.
The tunes, in their beauty and sheer independence, justified themselves.
And if just playing music--any kind of music--can be a solace, the traditional
music revival around Durham and Chapel Hill achieved a brighter intensity
by being infused with the spirit of carrying on, keeping alive for another
generation, a real, living tradition.
Though other people around the country
had similar perspectives, it was Alan Jabbour who set the standards for
the fiddle tune revival in these parts. Primarily because of Alan,
what had started as a loose Friday-night jam session evolved, cooked down,
into groups of dedicated musicians searching out new tunes up and down
the country, putting in hour after hour, working to play them "right."
I never met Henry Reed, though I
play a lot of his tunes, but I suspect he would get on Alan to "play it
the right way." Alan certainly passed this discipline on down to
his cohorts in the Hollow Rock String Band: Bobbie and Tommy Thompson,
and Bertram Levy. Bobbie passed it down to me, as she later became
the link from the Hollow Rock band to the Fuzzy Mountain Band. But
it's there in every relationship between teacher and student. There's
a great example of it in the recent film Hail, Hail Rock and Roll, between
Chuck Berry and Keith Richards. There's French Carpenter's message
in a bottle: the "two little notes that won my grandfather's freedom."
Tommy Jarrell used to drive me to distraction over a pair of 8th notes
in "Little Bunch of Keys" that I've never yet got right.
In one sense, of course, as we all
began to realize after a while, this "getting it right" doesn't entirely
parse out. But the product of this attention to detail was a lot
of players around Durham and Chapel Hill with a solid repertoire of real
tunes that came from someone, somewhere. "Oh that one, that's Taylor
Kimball's 'Poor Johnny Love.' It does sound sorta like 'Walkin' in
the Parlor,' but it's a little different." And if imitation is the
sincerest form of flattery, why it was sure a heartwarming feeling for
me, one day in 1972, standing in a field outside of Philadelphia, to hear
a bunch of guys I didn't know striking up the old school song, "Over the
Waterfall," and sounding just like Alan. Well, maybe except for a
little note here or there.
And what did all this have to do
with Vietnam? I think what we found in the music, more or less, was
something real and true to care about, something bigger than the time,
something rich enough to carry us through. And the music opened us
up to the people, to Tommy and Fred, to the Hammons of Marlinton, to Taylor
and Stella, Oscar and Eugene--people who had lived a long time and seen
a lot of things.
We gave them something too, of course,
and in our ardor for them and their music didn't even know it. How
wonderful, when you're 75-years-old, and your kids are working in the mill
or in Chicago, and listening to rock and roll, how wonderful to have, from
out of the blue, visitors almost from another planet; people who treat
you with utter respect, who care about your life and who you are, and your
music. I hope it happens to me in 20 or 30 years, some kids on my
doorstep wanting to learn a tune. For one thing, it'll mean the tunes
are still alive!
But oh, what those old fiddlers and
banjo-players and story-tellers gave us, back there in the long ago flaming
'60s: a lifeboat, nothing less, to pass the raging storm.
---Bill Hicks, Silk Hope, NC, February
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