Where'd He Come From, Where'd He Go?
This fine warm Sunday morning I am sitting here having my cereal and listening to a Library of Congress recording of Alan Lomax interviewing and collecting tunes from a fiddler named Marcus Martin, from Swannanoa, North Carolina. The recording itself is probably 50 years old, and both men are long gone. That's Martin on the left in the photo above which was found on a website dedicated to his son, Edsel, who was a woodworker.
When I put this recording on yesterday while doing a few chores, I was completely stopped in my tracks. This is not a throw-it-in-while-you-do-a-little-laundry kind of recording. To hear Lomax making his contribution requires and deserves my full attention. Certainly at some point it would be come vital to collect his collectings and begin ingesting them one by one (here's hoping I live that long!). Listening to him draw Martin out is like auditing a class that no university offers for traditional music preservation. I am the fortunate student.
I'm surprised at how many of the tunes are beginning to sound familiar. A great number of them as he plays them appear on other recordings I have. A great many more I may not recognize for what they are because of the subtle variations to which my ear is unaccustomed. And frankly, as boring as this may sound to many of you, I could see devoting every day to pulling each one apart, and finding its counterpart, and setting it free from its mountain confines and into the hands of the everyday American who might otherwise pass it on by.
You know, it's fascinating. Tens of thousands of Americans pass right through Virginia and North Carolina on their way to sunny vacation spots. I remember driving over the low flat watersheds of lower Virginia and northern North Carolina, pining to wonder what goes on in the evenings on the sagging porches we pass sitting in their fields of peanuts and tobacco. Maybe there was a time when these tunes migrated east and were played on those porches as the sun set on Pamlico sound.
Or maybe, in 1587, when Raleigh's first shipment landed on these shores, these tunes were among the lost treasures that disappeared with America's very first colony on Roanoke Island. Who knows if those sailors had fiddle tunes with them, and wandered with the Croatan into the hills or on the shores of the sound where they are still played?
That's a whole new reason to visit the Outer Banks. For me, anyway. On his blog, my good friend Shannon posted some pictures of our last vacation there a few years back. Maybe it's time I figured out how to get back there, with a new purpose and a new way of looking at that part of our country. Maybe there is collecting to do there among those families, the Midgett's and the Tillet's, a different kind of fishing than my father used to do. In the meantime maybe Mr. Lomax can teach me a thing or two about what I need to ask, how to ask it, if I can conjure him sweetly.
This post is dedicated to my dear friend Jawbone, fiddler, tune collector, and good all around human bean who is always willing to play a tune and tell the stories behind it.