art wooten (left) with the stanley brothers
I've been gone the last six days while being right here. Fell into an obsessive fit of writing a ten page essay on Pine Swamp fiddler Howard Joines and his music world in the county. At the beginning, I wanted to write about his music, to get a feel for the music he played and how he played, his musician friends and accomplices, the time, the place. I had plenty of biographical information, but I don't like something written about a musician or a painter that is answers to test questions only. I wanted to write something that dove into his music and his world of music, attempting to find the musician within, not just dates and data. I wasn't sure I could do that. It looked like a very tall order. I started writing thinking I was taking the biographical way. Then right away I wanted to put him in the context of the music world he was in. That grew and I found as the writing was reaching for the feel of what he did with a fiddle, I was also telling of the time bluegrass came into mountain music. At the Fiddle and Plow show last Friday night, talking with Karl Cooler of Mountain Roads Recordings before the show, he told me he recommends my blog writings on regional music to people looking for something to help them understand mountain music. He said I have an ability to give the sense and feel of the music in a way readers can get. I was happy to hear that. It's one of those things that has to come from outside myself, because I can't see something that subjective.
The music Friday night lifted me onto a wave that felt like a surfer standing up on the surfboard at Waikiki or some exotic surf place like Durban, South Africa, where you can catch a giant wave and ride it a long time. I'm still on the wave from a week ago. By the end of Saturday I knew I was on a wave and decided to make it productive. It was a new moon. I'd been aiming to write something about fiddler Howard Joines for three years with several pages of notes made from conversation with his son, Richard, plenty of biographical and family information. I set out to start writing a couple times, but it never took. Knowing myself somewhat and how I approach things, I decided to forget about it, keep on reading the information over, absorbing it, getting it into my subconscious where I let it gestate with everything else in my head. I let it swim in the back of my mind with the confidence that when ready it would emerge of its own timing. On the previous Wednesday I was talking with a local man, asking him about Howard as a fiddler. His one-sentence answer inspired me so much that I started the writing with his sentence. His sentence was the door I needed. When I saw that on Saturday, I knew this was it. I was on the wave, didn't know how long it would last, and went for it. Four days of all day writing fast as mind allowed. Then a day of rewriting, writing new paragraphs to fill in blanks I'd left, then another day of rewriting less extensively, looking to clarity. Made a few phone calls to get accuracy of details since the writing was from imperfect memory.
In the writing, I allowed the writing itself to lead the way. A few times I wondered if I really wanted to go there, but did, followed it and found a much greater place than I had in the front of my mind. Without seeing it ahead, I managed to tell the story of how bluegrass transformed "old-time," then known as music, almost overnight in the mountains. I found mountain old-time and mountain bluegrass so close to the same thing that the differences amounted to next to nothing. A different kind of banjo. A mandolin. The musicians take "breaks," or solos in jazz terminology. I think in the end what came through was mountain bluegrass was the direction traditional music took. What we call old-time is the stringband music pre-WW2. Bluegrass came and the younger musicians jumped on it. It was the same music, just more demanding musicianship, as much the draw of bluegrass as loving it. Early on, I wasn't aware that I wanted to put Howard in context until I started the writing. Two paragraphs about Art Wooten and I wondered if I wanted to get off that page that much, but it worked in so well it belonged. Howard was a great fiddler. Art was a great fiddler. They were friends in youth learning the fiddle together. Art moved to Kingsport; Howard wanted to live at home with his family. Family was important to Howard Joines. Art took his family with him. Then Bill Monroe made Art Wooten "the first bluegrass fiddler" til the end of time. Art is also the only musician to have recorded with Monroe, Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, all three the first run of bluegrass bands.
In the course of the writing, I let the reins go, inspired by Karl Cooler affirming that I really am able to give in words a sense of hearing the music, how it feels, where it hits inside. Jr taught me in the years of our conversations that mountain music is all about feelings. You've heard the saying about somebody plays a piano "by heart." We all know that means without reading notes, from memory. It also means by feeling, as the heart is the seat of feeling, or emotion. They play by feel, heart, not by notes, mind. Mountain music is played by feel only. If it aint played from the heart it aint music. I found him to be right, as he always was in everything he said. Because he never said anything without knowing before he said it there was no bullshit in it. I remember a time in his later years a young guy came to him asking Jr to teach him how to play a banjo. Jr said, "If you can't figure it out on your own, you don't want to play the banjo." It wasn't like he passed more test questions than anybody else, but that he didn't bullshit in any way, not even a fart. He was dead set inside himself against saying anything that could be called bullshit. It's not like everything he said was right, but it was correct in his way of seeing or he wouldn't say it. In a way, it can be said I found my heart in mountain music. I have sat through an entire Ralph Stanley concert with tears of joy running down my face. Ralph Stanley does that to me. Carter Stanley wells up the tears of emotion too. The Carter Family fills me with so much joy it bubbles over in tears. They all sing "from the heart." All their music is from the heart. When the music comes from the heart, it goes to the heart of the listener. Music made from the mind goes to the mind.
Howard Joines's fiddle has a dance of joy in it. His bow has an apparent freedom that allows the music to make it move. All the time in the first half of the writing, I listened to Howard making music with his old-time musician friends on one cd made from a reel-to-reel tape in 1953. Oh it was good. He was a magnificent fiddler. Smooth sound---a smooth sound with guts. He has a clarity that makes his sound refreshing, happy to the ear, and his fiddle often sounds joyous. In the second half I listened to Howard playing bluegrass in 1966 with Jr Maxwell playing bluegrass banjo and Wayne Henderson in his 20s. It was the same music, just in another gear. In the bluegrass is where I really hear the joy in Howard's fiddle. There were times, esp playing Dance All Night With A Bottle In Your Hand that it sounded like Howard stepped aside and let the fiddle and bow do everything without his interference. It's the kind of letting go I don't hear a lot of. I believe that's what is meant by let-go-and-let-God. Just step aside and let it happen. That "it" is an aspect of God. I've come to believe that all art forms are doorways to God within. Like Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is within. It's not "just over the clouds," though it's there too. But we don't need to go there to find it, because it's in each one of us, all living beings. It's in our hearts, our innermost selves, where mountain music comes from. I'm not saying they don't play from the heart other places, only that it's the rule of thumb in the mountains.
I came out of the experience surprised at what I have learned about mountain music from Jr first, musicians and the music itself. I've read nothing about it. I'm only interested in the living quality of the music as it is played by today's musicians to today's audiences and dancers. We are very different people today from what we were a hundred years ago, and we're also very much the same. Those people then were no different from us except in the gadgets available to them. In matters of the heart there is no difference between us. We wear bluejeans and tshirts, ride motorcycles and pickups, watch NASCAR and football on tv, listen to Rage Against The Machine, smoke reefer and drink beer, carry guns illegally, take sex where we can get it. In the time when old-time was simply called music, it wasn't like we do it now. It was work like hell all week and get drunk on the weekends. All the men carried guns. About all the men drank white liquor. They fox hunted and made music. Their spiritual life was the same Bible stories we have today without the commercial cartooning of the entire Bible over and over continually. They were the tail end of the Age of Fire. The mountains were overtaken by the Age of Electricity all at once. And bluegrass came with it. The mountain people changed, traditional music changed. And, like the people stayed the same, the music stayed the same. It was the same songs, same tunes, just played faster with more complex musicianship. That's a pretty good description of our minds as they are now compared to how their minds went then. We're cranked way up. So our music would be too.