Without knowing it or looking for it or being aware of it in any fashion, we passed the mystical two-year anniversary in Montpelier. Some friend or aquaintance explained this to me years back. They said that it takes two years in a new location before you really feel part of the community. It takes time to make friends, to get settled in a job, to learn the lay of the land and the local mores.
We must have past it because for the first time I had an honest to God southern old-time jam session in my house. Up until now, my only outlet was to play tunes with my friend, Mark, the assistant attorney-general of the State of Vermont. He would call me up before lunch and invite me to the second floor porch of the downtown Pavilion building for tunes. I would drive down just before noon and show up in my shorts and T-shirt, Tevas and sun hat with a guitar slung over my shoulder in a soft shell case as I signed into the security guard booth.
The porch faces State Street, which is steady with traffic at lunch time, but the second floor is a good thirty feet off the ground and the wide covered porch does an excellent job of shielding the traffic noise from us and vice versa. We have the porch to ourselves because the only way to get to it is through a locked door in the Attourney General’s department. Since the red paint on the floor is constantly peeling, and since there are no chairs or benches out there, it is invariably unoccupied when we arrive. Mark grabs his fiddle and we each take a chair and for an hour we forget about the cares of the world. But it is only an hour, and no more than twice a month if the weather and our schedules cooperate.
Mark is a very fine fiddler in the Kentucky/West Virginia style. He likes to give his tunes breathing space. Like many fiddlers I know, he cannot talk and play at the same time. He cannot even talk while he tries to find the leading notes of a tune. He likes to start a tune with “Oh, here’s a good one. Have you ever heard…” and that as far as he ever gets. He starts carefully pulling notes out of the fiddle as if he were a surgeon extracting shrapnel. They come slowly until he has found the phrase he is looking for. Only then does he launch into it with something like abandon. I won’t get to find out the name of the tune until we are done playing it.
His tunes are often crooked, with odd pieces of phrases duct taped on. It gives his playing, and the genre, a certain primitive charm. Finding the right chords on my guitar and figuring out exactly where they go is often a challenge with the club-footed music, one that I enjoy, and when I finally have one of his tunes down, it is thrilling to keep pace with him. Sometimes he plays a variant of a tune I know, Yellow Rose of Texas or such, and I must sit up and pay attention. Otherwise I will fall into old muscle memory habits, wired into my system from playing the tunes a million times with a different phrasing and chord structure. It helps that, although he does not play sedately, neither does he employ the youthful hormonal rush employed by so many southern old-time fiddlers I know. It’s as if they cannot wait to get to the end of the 64-bar tune merely to begin it again. Not that Mark is often caught playing a straight 64-bar tune.
Despite his skill and genuine friendship, I miss playing with other fiddlers. This was inevitable I suppose. I cut my teeth on Round Peak tunes, which Mark does not really enjoy, so I have gone without it for two years. Not only are southern fiddlers rare in Vermont, as you might guess, but these Yankees have the gall to call their New England style tunes “Old-Time” and refer to the southern tunes, when they mention them at all, as “Old-Timey.” I do not know if there is any slur intended in this expression, and in good faith I assume not, but the confusion this has caused me has wasted a good deal of my time as I have searched for fiddlers.
I was not able to find true southern old-time musicians in Vermont until I attended a fiddle “reunion” in New York. Apparently this was the closest to Vermont one could find such a gathering, and I was pointed to the “Vermont tent”, a blue rain fly under which a half-dozen musicians loitered in the morning chill by a Coleman stove. They drank coffee in canvas chairs, their free hands in the pockets of bright fleece vests. They obviously were quite familiar with each other, a bond forged by their habit in this strange transplanted music. This was their opportunity to rub elbows with their kind in somewhat larger numbers, but they still clung to each other like jittery deer. Even though I was an as-yet-untested guitar player, when they learned I lived in Vermont, they welcomed me with the sincere affinity reserved for a fellow sufferer in the wilderness. It wouldn’t have mattered if I played poorly. The very fact that I knew what this music was and what it wasn’t and that I lived in Vermont was enough for them to allow me to swell their ranks.
I suppose I ought to explain a little something of this music. I believe most people have no notion of authentic American fiddle music. The variety of forms it takes might have even interested Darwin. But to most people it is all bluegrass, if not country, by which they mean the twangy-accented recycled pop music on the radio. They have no notion of multitudinous sects, the Irish, the Scottish, the English, the French Canadians, the Cajun, North Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texarcana, to name just a few. The minorities of faithful adherents, each striving to maintain the purity and uniqueness of their own genre. To call this music “southern” as opposed to “northern” is really a gross injustice, no more complete than to say all trees are either leafy or needled. But most fiddlers would know instantly what this means.
Northern fiddle music is in essence classical, and if you were classically trained and could read music, you could play this music in no time. But southern music resists notation and cannot be learned unless you sit and listen to it over and over with a fiddle in your hand. Northern music drinks up harmony like a sponge, whereas Southern music rest on a bed of solid rhythm over which and against which a fiddler can utter phrases sublime or churlish. Northern music knows all meters and embraces hornpipes, airs, waltzes, and schottisches, whereas southern is either straight or crooked. Northern music can be played on just about anything. I have found northern bands with reeds, brass, and all manner of squeeze boxes. Southern music is played entirely on stringed instruments – fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, with occasional exception made for mouth harp. I love Northern music, have danced to it for years, and find it as beautiful and heady a mixture as anything I could want. But I do not play it often, and when I do, I do so badly. I play southern music mostly.
In southern music, the guitar is not star of the show. That would be the fiddle, with a best-supporting award given to the banjo. To play the guitar in Southern music requires a desire to do something repetitively and simply for a long time. It requires attention and patience and an interest in diminshing your ego so that others can be supported and heard. But like the crust of a pie, it is necessary and important to the end product. If played well, it is almost unnoticed, If played poorly, the pie is ruined.
By now, I have a solid rhythmic guitar style with enough of a floating bass line to maintain some variety and interest, so I am in demand. The fiddle is a ridiculously difficult instrument to play at all, much less tolerably well, and most people haven’t a clue how to get started with a banjo, must less find one. There are scads of babes-in-the-wood who come to this music with their dreadnaught folk guitars, and with no notion of how to play the music, or worse, too much notion.
I am not a professional musician. This has never been more than an avocation for me, but I studied and was patient and asked questions and invited criticism until I understood what was expected of me and then learned to hear the difference. Now I get to play with the big dogs, because a competent guitar player is like a four-leaf clover. It isn’t much to look at compared to a rose or even a dandelion. But it is difficult to come by and you are quite lucky to find one, so you don’t let one get away.
Last week I received a call from a banjo player, a friend of Mark’s I had not met, but who I knew to be a wonderful player. He invited me to join him and a fiddler to play for a square dance, a Waldorf preschool benefit which was likely to pay us in maple syrup if anything at all. But I leaped at the chance to play southern tunes with some fine musicians. I missed my Alaska jam session, and these folks promised to play the Round Peak style I had left behind. They met at my house to practice because I lived halfway between them, and because the banjo’s girlfriend lived in town too. My children were shy as usual, but the fiddler, whom I had been led to believe was taciturn and understated, turned out to be a family man whose children were grown. He enjoyed my family as a grandparent might and was interesting and lively. We all had wonderful time, and I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face, especially when they complemented both my playing and my guitar. The banjo player spent a fair bit of time talking to Dawn, as he is studying to be a physical therapist. The sudden attention and expectation to speak gave her a rash, but she did not hide in her shell. And then we discovered his girlfriend is a Montessori teacher in Rose’s school, though not her teacher.
We all expressed a genuine interest in getting together again, and I seem to have recaptured something I had expected to sacrifice by moving to New England. I feel like I have found a well in the desert. And it only took two years to find it.