Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Daddy Loved Bluegrass, But I Can't Play The Fiddle

My Daddy could play most any musical instrument he set his mind to. He had an ear for natural pitch and after a couple of listens, could sit down and pick out anything on his guitar in less time than it takes water to boil. While other parents were tossing their teens' Beatles' albums into a flaming church bonfire, my dad was avidly listening to their music and expressing his awe of John Lennon's talent. His favorite tunes were Till There Was You (which, of course, is not technically a Beatles song) and Nowhere Man, both of which he learned full through.

But more than any other music, he enjoyed bluegrass. My earliest memories of television are those of watching the "Grand Ole Opry", "Porter Wagoner", and "The Wilburn Brothers" - all courtesy of Black Draught laxatives, and Bull Of The Woods chewing tobacco.

Mostly, Dad loved a good fiddle tune. He was a better than fair-to-middlin' player himself, and would often yell, "grab my fiddle" so I could run and bring his favorite violin just in time for him to join in for a few notes with whatever picker was setting fire to the stage on Opryland television. Didn't take much cajoling on my part to get him to play for me and I loved his version of Orange Blossom Special, a hard song for even very talented players.

It was his heartfelt dream to have one of his children really master this fine instrument. So, one day in 1961 Dad brought home a surprise present - a student-sized violin for baby brother and I to share while taking lessons from the local high school band teacher (with a bad case of halitosis, I might add - the teacher not the violin). Only problem was, I was left-handed while the sibling was right-handed. Guess who had to learn to play as a righty?

I have exceedingly large amounts of respect for those gifted individuals who can read bug-looking marks on a sheet of paper and translate them into beautiful sounds on any given instrument, but especially, I am humbled by violin players. After many longs hours of "fingernails on blackboards" screeching practices, and no small torrent of tears, Dad gave up any hope of seeing his progeny up on the great Opry stage. Later, I would take piano lessons in a blind belief my barely-defined sheet music reading skills could still be useful. Three years of keyboard instruction and I can only remember the opening rift to two recital tunes, "A Little Girl's Waltz", and "Waltz of the Parakeets".

Years passed, the Beatles disbanded, and the little student violin grew dusty; the fine horsehaired bow became disheveled and unstrung and the rosin under the green felt case lid turned to stone. A new generation came on the scene and Dad decided he would single-out his granddaughter, Lara, to be the next great violinist of the family. My little student violin was too small for her, so Dad bought Lara another used one.

A very close friend was a music teacher and a devoted fan of bluegrass music and he agreed to give Lara lessons and keep my Dad's dream alive, if only briefly. Lara did give it her full attention for, oh, about three months - which was a MON-YEW-MENTAL effort for her. Then, she discovered fast-pitch softball and the spotlights of a little league field at night. No contest.

Last Sunday evening, while watching O Brother, Where Art Thou for the fourth or fifth time, I caught myself closing my eyes, trying to "see" the musical notes in my mind for the mournful tune, "A Man of Constant Sorrows". Try as I might, I can no longer read sheet music, but my appreciation for a fine toe-tapping fiddle tune has stayed with me.

Dad would be glad to hear that.


Xtreme English said...

LOVE this post! My grandmother was an accomplished pianist, so as my father's only daughter, I had to go through the whole piano lesson gig. In vain!

I do love fiddle and banjo music, though. Are you familiar with Lori Skoog's blog, Skoog Farm Journal?
http://skoogfarm.blogspot.com/ It has a radio station on it with some bluegrass, I think.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Xtreme E,

Thank you! And thanks for the fine linky suggestion!

Celia said...

On my Mom's side were three generations of piano players and guitarists. But when it came to me and my sisters the string ran out. But I love the stuff, your post reminded me of sitting in my grandmother's lap and listening to the Grand Old Opry with her on her big old radio.

Anonymous said...

My mother played the piano, and I learned to play clarinet, and went on to become a grade school band director. I can still read those little squiggly bugs on the paper, but alas, I need them to play. I am not a good enough musician to be able to play by ear, and I really regret, now that my teaching days are long over, that I am unable to just pick up an instrument and play a tune. How wonderful that must have been for your Dad!


joared said...

Oh, I know that violin thing. I had violin foisted off on me after quite a few successful years at the piano -- but that's another story. I really resented the violin, but wish now I had kept it up -- better than nothing -- plus I came to appreciate the violin lots as I got older.

Always enjoyed my Pop playin' the fiddle -- he could whip up a mean Turkey In the Straw, Wasbash Cannonball and took me to my first square dance where we ducked for the olives and do si doed, I made up my own "calls" -- Swing your pardner 'round and 'round -- pick her up and throw her down. At home Mom used to accompany him on an old pump organ 'cause we didn't have the piano anymore.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Pick her up and throw her down.

Oh, I am dying here....LOLOLOL!

Cowtown Pattie said...


Your link got mixed up I think. But I love seeing your name pop up! Hope all is well at your abode.