Musician, Composer, Producer, Writer

Look Where the Music Has Brought Us Now

by Dirk Powell

The fiddle stayed under the bed, tucked away in dust and darkness. When the mood was right, we would pull it from its hiding place and unlatch the rickety case as if opening the door to a secret world. It couldn’t be approached casually. Just learning to get a tone out of it required more dedication and struggle than most people were willing to invest. There was something admirable but dangerous about those who had mastered it – a mix of sweetness, dexterity, and fire that bordered on the otherworldly in a way that made one wonder if secret pacts had been made. There were stories of fiddlers meeting spirits as they walked the road at midnight, fiddles laying on tables, playing themselves; there was a feeling that one who had entered into a relationship with the fiddle had probably traded away something in the bargain that most of us could never do without. The story of our family fiddle, which Papaw won in a poker game at the age of thirteen, held its own among the legends and fables. It was a beautiful mystery.

The banjo stayed in the corner, next to the couch, without a case, leaning against the wall and tuned, ready to go at a moment’s notice. It was still fitted with the original skin head that Papaw tightened by holding the rim over a gas burner on the stove. The names of the notes for standard C tuning had been written optimistically by the bridge, though no one used that tuning much in the mountains. Somebody probably once told him that those were the right notes; the kind of person who would imagine that there was one correct banjo tuning was likely the kind of person who would inspire the writing down of things in a tradition that had been passed down aurally for generations. I’m sure Papaw was proud to write them down when that store-bought Harmony banjo was new, just as I’m sure he never paid much attention to them afterwards.

The fiddle was like an elusive green-eyed cat that shows itself only when it chooses to do so; it was part of the household, but only on its terms. The banjo was like a dog that you only have to glance at once to inspire excited slaps of tail on floor; it was eager to bound ecstatically in any direction you chose.

Papaw played both of these instruments, and the guitar, though he didn’t own one. When I’d bring mine with me on my visits to Kentucky, he’d get it into his hands right away and pad the strings delicately with his thumb and fingers as if he’d played every day for years. He had, of course, but those years were now decades in the past, and in a place that smelled of fresh-cut earth and the sweat of oxen rather than the black grainy fumes of the steel mill.

I was raised in a place, a few hundred miles to the north, that didn’t smell of city or country. It didn’t have its own presence in the world; it seemed to offer you the chance to build one for yourself, but didn’t give you any raw materials with which to do it. I went back and forth between a small college town and a suburb. The main smell I remember is that of snow mixed with exhaust as one or the other of my parents pulled away. The fumes would fade at about the same rate as the taillights and the sound of the engine. When the car was gone I would stand for a few seconds in the vacuum left behind it, then turn and walk into my mother’s house, or my dad’s apartment.

Our trips to Kentucky were like pilgrimages for me. As the flat land rose, so would my spirits. The temperature would climb and the air would grow thicker. South of Columbus we’d leave the interstate for a U.S. highway. Farms and fruit stands would begin to dot the edge of the road, flea markets selling trinkets and suits of fake armor, or apple butter and jars of homemade pickles. You’d start to see a banjo now and then, or an old guitar with the pick guard almost worn through. Who had played it so much? Where were the nightclubs or churches in which it had earned such welcome scars? You’d see statues of Shawnee warriors and bins of peace pipes. Now they would be made in China, but back then local craftsmen probably carved them with pocket knives. The restaurants would serve cornbread. Tobacco prices would drop. It meant we were getting close.

I’d always push for us to cross the river in Portsmouth rather than Ironton so we could get into Kentucky as soon as possible. We’d drive into Ashland, turning at right angles on the numbered streets until we got to the more free-flowing ones that edged the hills behind town. Pulling up to Papaw’s house on Blackburn Avenue always filled me with a mix of comfort and excitement. When I was very young I would eagerly look for him out the car window; seeing him open the storm door before my mother even turned off the engine meant he’d been peeking through the curtains to see if his daughter and grandchildren had arrived. I’d watch him walk slowly and carefully onto the porch; then I’d see the slow smile come across his face, and know that a deep laugh was forming in his chest.

The banjo stayed in the corner most of the time in those days, and the fiddle was almost forgotten. To the other members of my family, the music was some small thing Papaw did, or used to do – something quaint and, if they were being generous, endearing. They knew he had a gift, but they had no idea what a gift like that meant. I could tell that they didn’t comprehend the limitless capacity of music. They didn’t recognize what it took to dive headfirst into that endless stream and give it everything you had. They patted their hands on their knees or moved their heads gingerly back and forth.

Even then I was watching with a dark kind of fire in my eyes. I was beginning to know what it was, but I hadn’t yet been knocked apart and put back together by music. For me, and I suspect for many, the relationship with the art followed a timeline similar to that of the relationship with romance.

At a young age, maybe eight years old or so, I remember being drawn in an incomprehensible way to certain classmates. Because the force was incomprehensible, though, it faded in and out of my awareness along with all the other incomprehensible things an eight-year-old faces. The beauty and laughter of certain girls affected me deeply, and I can still remember the magical sounds of their names. But the feeling raised questions that had no answers. After a time, the unanswered questions would end up pushed aside by the other ramblings of my growing imagination.

But at a certain age, when adolescence was making its earliest claims, the draw narrowed its focus and become immeasurable in its strength. I remember the first feeling of unrequited love. It became all-consuming; successes became elation and failures became torture.

It was like this with music. Before adolescence, music was something I loved in an unqualified way. I would sit in front of the stereo and play records for hours. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to do it myself; I just needed the sound to fill my ears. It was my oasis. With the arrival of adolescence, music became all. It felt as crucial as air or water to my survival.

During this time, I began to take the Greyhound down to see Papaw by myself. I’d gotten a banjo for Christmas and would carry it on board in its black cardboard case. I’d sit next to strangers and absorb hints of their world through their clothes and postures and the depth of their breathing. I always changed busses in Columbus, where I’d have time to watch the characters who haunted the station. I’m sure they watched me back, a fourteen-year-old wide-eyed kid with a banjo and a suitcase.

Once, while waiting for Papaw to pick me up, I played three-card monte with a street hustler outside the station. He showed me the cards, shifting them around slowly, then asked if I wanted to bet on which was the ace. Anyone paying attention in the most casual way would have known. When I declined to bet, he flipped up the card in question to show me that I would have been right. He did this five or six times and still I refused to bet. The longer I held out the more exasperated he became, tossing his head back in disbelief, until I finally took pity on him and laid down a dollar. He was elated as he flipped up the card showing I’d lost. It wasn’t as much about the money as it was about his belief that no one could visualize himself winning that many times and continue to resist. Along with my dollar bill came the restoration of his faith in the laws of the universe … or at least in his grifter’s code of the world.

After Papaw picked me up, we would go by the market and get whatever vegetables were in season. If it were the right time of year, we’d get big homegrown tomatoes and take them home to make sandwiches. Papaw would slice them slowly and carefully. There was something timeless in his motions that conveyed great respect; what exactly it was respect for couldn’t be specified, but it didn’t need to be. Things were just paid their due. He’d spread mayonnaise to the corners of the bread but not beyond. The care he took in preparing food for us touched me. After eating sandwiches and drinking iced tea, we’d get the banjos out and start to play.

He’d show me the tunes he had first learned so many years ago when the instruments were all fretless and the heads were made from animals they’d skinned themselves. Tunes like “The Old Grey Goose”:

Old grey goose, a’goin’ down the river.

If I’d been a gander, I’d have gone with her.

And “Ida Red”:

Ida Red, Ida Green, prettiest gal I’ve ever seen.

Ida Red, Ida Blue, I got stuck on Ida too.

These songs were lighthearted, something to chuckle at, lightly flirtatious and easy to roll along with. Some songs hinted of darker drives and desires:

I’ll pawn you my watch, I’ll pawn you my chain,

I’ll pawn you my gold wedding ring.

To pay my little Lulu’s fine,

I’d pawn you my wagon and my team.

Others delved into stories that had fully crossed the line into that more dangerous world:

Polly, Pretty Polly, come and go along with me

Before we get married some pleasure to see.

He led her ’cross mountains and valleys so deep

Poor Pretty Polly could do nothing but weep.

He stabbed her in the heart and her heart’s blood did flow

And into that grave Pretty Polly did go.

He threw some dirt over her and started for home

Leaving none but the wild birds and turtledoves to moan.

Papaw told me he knew exactly where this murder had happened: in Greenup, Kentucky, along the Ohio River. No matter that folklorists trace this ballad’s roots to seventeenth-century England. It happened, and it happened right there.

Within a year or so of the time when I began making these pilgrimages on my own, Papaw started pulling out the fiddle and letting me in on the secrets it held. He’d tune it up slowly and play a tune or two with the old bow that had almost no horsehair left on the shaft. My senses would unite in absorbing what he played. It was more than watching or listening: all of my being focused itself on carving one channel through which the music could flow into me in a permanent way. The sounds now were small, but I could see and hear what they had been. He was like an old athlete who still moves with a grace that reveals what his body had once been capable of – no amount of age or frailty could weaken that grace.

Simply put, Papaw was my hero. It was a new role for him. A middle child who had mostly blended in but occasionally raged against the constrictions of anonymity, Papaw did not bear the gradual dissolution of his dreams very well. The music had always brought his best into the world while simultaneously allowing him a way to deal with the worst; but it had grown more and more scarce over the years. With the purest source of joy in his life held at bay by the burdens of daily life, things that were neither pure nor joyful tended to rise to the surface instead. This changed now that I was in the picture. Together, we knew what the music meant; and as I started to learn more and more, we knew that I would take it forward and that he would live on through me.

One who understood this was Papaw’s brother, my great-uncle Clyde. He had been the youngest, the darling of the family. While Papaw was still playing “Hook and Line,” in the old overhand banjo style, Clyde was learning “Pennies from Heaven” on the guitar. He was of a generation only slightly later but of an outlook very different. He traveled quite a bit and saw the far corners of the world. Later in life, he returned to Kentucky and chose a gentle reflectiveness over the hot-headedness of his youth. He understood what I was bringing to Papaw and knew that it was one of the very few unconditional gifts his brother had ever received.

Occasionally, I would record the music we made. On one of these cassettes, you hear the phone ringing and my step-grandmother, whom Papaw married later in life, answering it. After she says “Hello,” you hear him call out, “Who is that? Is that Clyde?” And when he’s sure it is, he leans in close to me and whispers, “Play ‘Sally Goodin.’” That was the one that would be sure to convey to his brother Clyde, from across the room, through the phone line and into Clyde’s living room half a mile down the road, that we were having a hell of a time there without him.

Uncle Clyde knew what a gifted musician Papaw was. Later, when I was playing the fiddle myself, he slid me one of those back-handed compliments that older generations always seem to deliver to younger ones right on cue. Speaking about the way Papaw fiddled, he told me, “Well, you might match him on the notin’, but you’ll never beat him on the bowin’.”

I knew then, and know now, that he was right. It’s not that I don’t like what I can do with the bow. I can make it snarl when I want to – which is more often than most fiddlers probably would; I can drive tunes in a certain edgy way. I established my terms with the fiddle long ago: I want the music to have blues and I want it to have balls. I want it full of sweat and grease. Occasionally, I want to be granted the power to break a heart. However, I’m not going for the level above those things, the one that transcends them and then unites them with others on a spiritual plane. My terms involve late nights and running around, too much rosin and just enough bourbon. My fiddle seems happy with the deal. It’s not a Stradivarius and I’m not Paganini – we’re a good match.

But while I would never claim to be a virtuoso, Papaw had a rare combination of smoothness, facility, and rhythmic power that would have earned him that title. It’s partly because he was of the first generation of mountain fiddlers to lay out the melodies in a more linear way – the first ones who didn’t have to cook up all the dance rhythms without any accompaniment, or with only a banjo. And even when there was a banjo, you wouldn’t have called it “backup”; the two instruments met in the middle, each bringing its own lift to the music. But when the guitar came onto the scene, it assumed the function of laying down the rhythm and chordal structure in an entirely supportive way. Because Papaw’s generation started playing fiddle with this kind of backup in addition to the banjo, with the bass or mandolin sometimes fulfilling similarly supportive roles, they were able to create a smooth but powerful wave with the fiddle that controlled the pulse even while riding on top of it. The old dance rhythms that formed the foundation were distilled into a new kind of essence, the way a horse’s gait gets smoother rather than more angular with speed.

Most of the fiddlers who came after Papaw’s generation went for smoothness, but didn’t have that same forging power in their bow; most of those who had come before rocked the bow in a way that allowed the instrument to support itself through drones and highly rhythmic patterns, but the cost was a certain improvisatory freedom. With that choice, I went for the earlier sound … but I knew that in the eyes of people like Uncle Clyde, it was only one part of the story.

Later in my teenage years I looked, as everyone does, for a way to rebel. While listening to all the musical styles I could find, I was drawn, for a while, to the hardcore punk that was flourishing in the mid-1980s. There was a high level of creativity in that world, with deeply musical people blasting out messages of unflinching conviction. Like any other art form, however, the innovators were immersed in nothing but their art while others were caught up in imitation. In the high school hardcore scene that I brushed up against, image was king. It was hard for me to accept this level of self-consciousness from people who had very clear definitions about what clothes and hairstyles were required to be part of their non-conformist movement. They were so engaged with what they hated that every move they made was controlled by it, even if the idea was to create an angry mirror image.

Some friends and I went to see the group Black Flag around this time, at a tiny, sweaty show in Kent. Most of the friends I went with lamented how the group had sold out because their hair was long. They were starting to look like hippies, the very thing we were railing against! But it was clear to me that their hair was long only because they’d been too busy touring the country, sleeping in vans and crashing on couches, too consumed by music, and nothing but music, to give a shit about their hair. They were living it. For them, image wasn’t king; the rush of creative energy was.

I realized pretty quickly that the real music scene didn’t have a genre. It existed somewhere beyond all genres and identities. It existed in a flow that resisted labeling and packaging. You could recognize people operating on this plane. Nothing was a threat to them and most things were a delight.

The more attention I paid to Papaw’s music, the more I realized it rebelled on a deeper level entirely than the high school posturing I saw all around me. It wasn’t engaged in opposition to anything, but offered, instead, something utterly void of image and self-consciousness. Like all things traditional, it was completely sustainable, in that you couldn’t draw from it without giving back. It was like a deep, expansive pool that made the things floating on the surface look trivial in comparison. For me, the deepest rebellion possible was to step into that pool, and to disengage from a world in which music was used to define self-imposed limitations rather than transcend them.

As I became more devoted to the traditional music of the mountains, I began to visit other older musicians. Sometimes I went with friends whom I met as I started getting involved in the larger old-time music community. Most of the time, I went alone. At first I brought my tape recorder and tried to document the musicians I encountered. But after those visits, when I went to learn things in more detail from the tapes, I realized I had missed it on both ends. I hadn’t learned with my ears and fingers and heart in the moment, as all the musicians I was hearing had learned from previous generations. Yet when I tried to learn it from the tape alone, I found myself attempting to reconstruct the tunes as if I hadn’t even been there. While I value the work of those who have documented traditional music around the country, it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t fit on that side of the line.

Only once did I cross these worlds together and bring a friend who was a collector of the music to visit Papaw. After that experience, I understood the divide that often occurs between folklorists and the families of their subjects. There are many stories about the children of older musicians being suspicious when those looking to document the tradition show up with their notebooks and tape recorders. From the perspective of the folklorists, this suspicion is often seen as naiveté or jealousy or superstition, as if the families belong to some lost tribe who believe that the tape recorder might capture the souls of their elders. After going through it myself, though, I understood the feeling that something is being taken, and very little, if anything, given back

When my friend and I arrived at his house, Papaw did something that was highly meaningful to him, especially considering his limited income after retiring from the mill. Because he was fearful that the accommodation in his home wouldn’t be good enough, he offered to pay for a motel room for the two of us at the Colonial Inn. This gesture was truly significant. It’s hard to overstate what he felt in making it; the shame about a home that he might have felt was inadequate was more than overcome by the pride of making an offer that showed his new visitor such respect. In the framework of Papaw’s world, it was the highest compliment that could be paid.

This was also the cultural framework in which my friend was meant to be an expert, yet he utterly missed the meaning of this gesture, shrugging it off without a hint of recognition or gratitude: So we’d stay at the motel. Okay. Moving on.

It hurt me to watch this unfolding. Papaw regrouped immediately and continued with other offers of hospitality – a comfortable chair, food, and drinks. He gave what he had. He didn’t let it linger. But the stark contrast between his offer and my friend’s response to it taught me some quick lessons about how I hoped to be in this world.

When we started playing music, Papaw did what anyone coming from the thick of the tradition would do. He played the most common tune he could think of – “Arkansas Traveler” – so that we could all jump on board as quickly as possible. Music was the language that would erase whatever differences there were between us. That was the reason for playing it in the first place. By the end of a tune that we all knew already, walls would have been broken down and there would be no strangers.

But to a collector of music, to one who’s looking for the most obscure tunes and, ideally, ones that no one else has documented, the most common tune is worthless. The first thing Papaw offered, the one meant to build a bridge, was the least valuable to my friend, and was quickly rejected. When we had finished playing it, he didn’t wait a second before piping up with, “What’s the oldest tune you know?” This was his well-worn path towards getting the rare pieces of music he wanted. And, in truth, if the old and rare tunes were never played, an astounding amount of beauty would be lost. If the lowest common denominator were the only thing left, maybe we’d all just be playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” There’s a reason to dig into the past and pull forth the oldest pieces before they fade away completely, but there has to be some middle ground where the social context of the music isn’t thrown away in the process.

Papaw obliged right away, and we journeyed back into the oldest of his musical memories. I loved being there, it’s true. I had heard some of the stories and tunes, but had never pushed him to delve back that far to the exclusion of everything else. In some ways, I’m glad it happened, because the things he brought into the light might have stayed hidden. At the same time, I got the feeling that, for my friend, it wasn’t about Papaw but about the things he could take from him and bring back to his own world. It’s not that he didn’t have a social context for the music; it’s just that it was a mistake to assume it was the same one as Papaw’s. He gauged his finds in comparison to other collectors’, and aspired to acquire material that was rare enough to give him a certain status in their eyes. His social relationship to the music would come later, when he exhibited to his peers that he had something they didn’t. It was hard to have Papaw’s timeless music used in this way. It didn’t threaten it or weaken it, because it was above such things. But it did make me think about what I wanted the music to be in my life.

By my early twenties, I was playing all the time and living out of a Honda Prelude that I had traded a banjo for. I was lucky to have friends who put me up and supported me. I spent a lot of time in North Carolina but eventually found myself working more in the Northeast. Luckily, a friend gave me a room in his home in Baltimore, charging me $30 a month, but only when I was there. That preposterously low amount was not for him but for me. It allowed me some token claim on the place, so that I could say I really lived there, with an address to prove it, and wasn’t just crashing. Without these kindnesses, I wouldn’t have been able to follow my dreams freely.

I continued to visit Papaw frequently. One day, while in the mountains around Asheville, I got the news that he had been hit by a tractor-trailer while driving to the store. The truck had run a red light and pushed his car forty feet across the road. Witnesses said several seconds had passed after Papaw’s light turned green. I knew how carefully and methodically he drove, and I can picture him looking in both directions and stepping on the gas slowly before pulling out into the intersection. The truck had been barreling through town as if it were on a rural highway – those extra seconds made no difference. All Papaw’s caution over the years came to nothing.

While he was in the hospital, I went to see him many times. As he lost weight, the features of his face began to emerge, showing strong lines that hadn’t been evident since his youth. In many ways, it was like watching his real self come back into being. I saw the cheekbones, jawline, and nose that spoke of the Native American side of our ancestry. I almost expected his hair to turn dark again. I saw the young man who had played the fiddle so deftly and who had carved his name into the wall of a barn (where I discovered it decades later), staking his claim in a world that had yet to put limits on his dreams. I could see him roaming those hills, the music flowing in his youthful mind.

He once told me about a dance his family had held when he was twelve: They carried all the furniture out onto the grass and didn’t bring it back inside until the end of the weekend. He lied to the girls, saying he was sixteen, so that they would dance with him. The figures they did then were loose, spontaneously-called squares – social moves that highlighted everyone in the group for a moment or two; however, you were never just waiting or keeping still. You flatfooted the whole time, feeling the rhythms of the fiddle and banjo and making small movements that spoke volumes while watching the others take their turns. I could see this young man, now, dancing and laughing. He looked more and more like me. Now, 25 years later, I find myself looking more and more like him.

When Papaw passed away they asked me to play “Amazing Grace” at the funeral. I got through it with trembling fingers, and then bawled uncontrollably. The tears wouldn’t stop. As they removed his body, I used all my senses to try to pull him back into the room. A pedestal I didn’t know I’d been standing on had been knocked out from under me. I wept from the depths of my heart, and let out a moan that came from somewhere under the floor.

My uncle Harry, Papaw’s son-in-law, stared at me with his mouth open, gazing in shock at a level of grief that he had never seen expressed openly. He said, softly, “I didn’t know.” It wasn’t said for me or to me, or even to the other mourners quickly leaving the room. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. It was his unconscious reaction to witnessing pain on that scale. “I didn’t know.”

After the funeral, I stayed away from Kentucky for a while. It was too hard. A few years later, though, I began to visit Uncle Clyde again. He’d never let me know, while Papaw was still alive, that he played the banjo, not wanting to overshadow a brother who he knew had felt threatened by the beloved youngest son for most of his life. Now he played me some of the old tunes that I thought he’d never wanted to learn. We made music together while a different group of cousins patted their hands squarely to the beat. Sometimes we’d play soft renderings of swing tunes from his youth that spoke of the wide world he’d gone off to see, and sometimes we’d play good old banjo tunes that rooted us firmly in the soil on White’s Creek, where the family had settled in 1820.

Once, as I was leaving his house to perform at a festival, he said to me, “You can go a whole lot of places you can have more fun than here, but you’ll never go anywhere you’ll be more loved.” I went to the festival but didn’t stay long. Something about what the music was to me had changed. It had taken on a new meaning. It became harder to do it in settings that didn’t seem to have the profound balance of good and bad – of joy and loss – that I felt in every note. I began to realize the degree to which music was an expression of the context in which it was played. The contexts I desired to be in were limitless, but if they didn’t have that balance at their core, and if they weren’t founded in openness and trust, they left me feeling empty. The one thing I couldn’t bear was removing the music from the love that is its only true source.

When I play now, I bring Papaw back. Or, rather, I call the spirit that has never really left to come and join me. I might stand in front of thousands in a concert hall, or slouch on some carpeted stage in a low-ceilinged honky tonk, or sit in the dark corner of a pub along a foreign coast. Wherever I am, I know that Papaw, gifted musician that he was, never got the chance to do any of it. To live any one of the nights I experience regularly would have been an indescribable treasure to him. I know he’s not there in body, but I feel him in spirit. I hear his slow, deep laugh. I know him, flaws and all, the way you know family. I don’t call his spirit forth as a representative of some perfect world beyond. I call him as he was. As he is. I gaze out at the crowd, or the smiling faces of other musicians sitting close, or the sweating dancers out on the floor, and say, “Look, Papaw! Look where the music has brought us now.”

© Dirk Powell, 2012