Monday, January 16, 2017
I'd been riding over to the house where this photo was taken on my BSA, fiddle strapped across my back. Every Friday night Tommy Thompson, the banjo player, and Bobbie, his wife and the guitar player, threw a big music party. Tommy and I were in grad school at the UNC philosophy department at the time. Probably the first time I went to one of those parties was 1966. It was before Tommy met Alan. The parties at that time were sort of bluegrassy and centered around a singer from down the road named Tom Turner, who played everything in G or C. I was just starting to relearn the fiddle and I remembered just enough to be able to play in the open keys of A and D, so I would tune my fiddle down a notch and mess around in the chords Turner was circling. He played stuff from the '40s and '50s. I particularly remember "Take Me In Your Life Boat," and "No Vacancy." I'm sure I remember these because the music was my lifeboat, and because there was most definitely room for me at Tommy's inn.
Probably after a year or so Tommy and Bobbie met Alan, through the auspices of Bertram Levy, who knew Alan from Duke University. That's Bertram on the mandolin. After Alan came into the circle, the music changed pretty quickly to focus much more on fiddle tunes, and the four Hollow Rockers started having closed practices, getting tighter, and Tommy switched to a claw-hammer style and not long after, an amazing Fairbanks banjo with an open back, ivory friction pegs, and ornate inlay on the finger board. Then their LP came out, and I got a copy and started trying to learn the wonderful tunes Alan had collected, mostly from an old man named Henry Reed who lived up in Glen Lyn, Virginia, and was said to be 85 or so. The tunes were not easy, but not impossible. Alan played with a remarkable clarity not typical of most fiddlers. He was in fact a master teacher of the art of fiddling. He wanted people to hear the tunes clearly. As he often said, he was rescuing the old tunes from oblivion, he was the last grain in the hour glass. Sometimes a tune would pop into my head whole after I'd been working on it over and over, suddenly some missing phrase or notes was there, and it made sense. Along about then Tommy and Bobbie split up. I rode up one Friday night on the bike and Bobbie said they'd broken up and she wasn't doing the parties any more. By about then I'd learned enough to make up a little band called The Smoky Grass String Band, with Nowell Creadick on banjo and Rosie Reddick on guitar, both of them Friday session regulars. We went to fiddler's conventions in the summer, which was 1969, and at Galax I saw from a distance a band called the New Tranquility String Band, which included Mac Benford on banjo and the beautiful Sue Draheim on fiddle.
In November '69 I passed my oral for an MA in philosophy, got a very high draft lottery number which guaranteed that I would not get drafted to Vietnam, and climbed into a '59 Chevy pickup with a couple of friends and rode out to San Francisco. My sister was living in Oakland, and only a couple of blocks from Mac Benford and the Tranquility folks as it turned out. You could hitch back and forth between San Francisco and Oakland by just standing on a particular corner and waiting for someone to stop. Usually when you got in the driver handed you a joint. It was the same deal when you went to a movie out there. A joint would come down the aisle, you'd take a hit and pass it on. One night I went to a free flick at U. Cal in Berkley and got to hear Fritz Lang lecture on Goddard's film Contempt, starring Bridget Bardot and Jack Palance. I didn't spend much time thinking about philosophy out there. I listened a lot to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, practiced fiddle, wandered the winter streets and watched the daffodils emerge in early February. I ran out of money, got a job as a guard at the annual San Francisco Boat and Gun Show at the Cow Palace, worked 14 hours a day for ten days, plus rode an hour each way from the Mission to the show on a city bus, surviving on hot dogs and hot Doctor Pepper. My pay check bounced at the end, since I was working for crooks, but they replaced it and I got on a bus back to NC in early March. When Union Grove came around I went, and the folks who were the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, including Bobbie Thompson, invited me to join. We practiced Wednesdays and Sundays, Wednesdays at Bobbie's house, Sunday's at Malcolm and Vickie Owens' place over in Calvander, NC near Chapel Hill. I applied for a job in social work in Durham County, but was told I was "over qualified" and should not wear "curious shoes" to job interviews. I got a job selling motorcycles, then a somewhat better job at Duke University Press through the auspices of Bobbie, who worked there.
Alan had moved to a teaching gig at UCLA by then, and the Hollow Rock band had pretty much broken up. (Tommy, Alan, and Jim Watson revived the band for a nice Rounder record in '74.) Much of the Hollow Rock tune repertoire, recorded and unrecorded, was already known by Malcolm, Eric Olson, and Bobbie. I got various tapes from them to study, including a tape of a second Hollow Rock record they'd been working on when Tommy and Bobbie broke up. The Fuzzy Mountain band, or portions of it, went to a lot of fiddle contests and festivals in 1970 and 1971. Along the way we were approached by Rounder Records, and made the first Fuzzy Mountain String Band LP in the fall of '71 on some very amateur equipment in the parlor at Bobbie's house. Before it could be cut and released in the spring of '72, Bobbie had been killed in a car wreck driving to a new book designing job at Princeton University Press.
That was as big a bomb as ever went off in my life. There was a musical wake at my house. Alan was there. Some very intense tune playing went on. Alan and I kept in touch, talked about fiddling and more generally music as I was helping to form the Red Clay Ramblers with Jim Watson, Tommy Thompson and Mike Craver in the fall of '72 and on into the spring of '73. Now and then through the decades Alan I would find ourselves in the same place and get down to some fiddling together. Many of the tunes he'd learned from Reed and others were also part of my core repertoire of tunes. Still are! This coming weekend Libby and I will play a contra dance down in Morehead City, and I'll probably play Quince Dillion's High D tune, and Green Willis, and maybe some others. A number of Alan's tunes were "crooked," in the manner of the Appalachian way. The contra folks don't take to that.
The old circle is dwindling away. A lot has happened since 1966. But I can say, for sure, that had I not encountered Alan Jabbour, I would never have gone far down the fiddler's path. As he was such a peaceful man, I'm sure he'll rest in peace forever. Or if he's of a mind, kick up a tune, with Bobbie on the guitar and Tommy on the old five string. Maybe that'll happen around when the daffodils pop up here, which is a sure sign that Union Grove is coming up again on the calendar. Maybe Kenny Baker and Tommy Jarrell will sit in on that session. I might go sit up on the hill behind the cabin here, and take a chair and a bottle of Dewar's, and watch the sun set and listen carefully deep into the night. I'd hate to miss one of those tunes.