Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Wisdom of Youth

Some of my favorite "moments" at festivals are spent with children.  Yeah, sometimes I shudder when a hyper-active child whirls into my space, and, without having really paid any attention to what I'm doing, exclaims, "Lemme try that!"  I do occasionally let kids play the dulcimer, but I try to size them up as to whether they will be respectful of the instrument; in fact, by asking them if they are willing to do exactly what I tell them to do (as to holding the hammers, and tapping gently).  After all, I don't want to spend 30 minutes re-tuning a dulcimer that's been pounded out of tune by an overly enthusiastic drumming.  Nor do I want to lose a $50 pair of hammers to rough treatment!  Although I'm always running a slight risk -- and I typically travel with only one instrument -- it's a beautiful thing to witness the sheer joy in a child who's discovering how music is made.  

Kids don't necessarily always want to play, either, but sometimes they can come up with questions and observations that are real doozies!  The schoolteacher in me tries to send them away with something meaningful.

Last weekend, a wiry, big-eyed little boy skidded up to me and wanted to know about the dulcimer.  "How do you play?" he demanded; "Do you strum it or what?"  It was toward the end of the day, and I'd already packed all of my gear and accessories, though I hadn't yet packed the instrument itself.  I briefly considered telling him that I was done for the day, but instead I gave him a tight-lipped little smile and said, "Here, let me show you."  

I hadn't played many notes when he called out, "Mom, you've got to come over and see this!"  His mother, along with a teen-ager who proved to be his sister, came over to listen.  When I wrapped up playing the merry little ditty, the girl thoughtfully remarked, "You know, Mom, you've been thinking about learning to play a musical instrument.  This would probably be a good one for you to try."  

"That's a great idea!" the boy chimed in.  The mother smiled and shrugged, saying, "Well, it certainly is beautiful."

"Mommm," he said, "all musical instruments are beautiful ... even the banjo!"  Then he did a comical little "air banjo" routine, mimicking its sound with a twanging "deedle-eedle-deedle-deedle" and dancing around.

All musical instruments are beautiful.  From out of the mouths of babes, huh?  He's right, you know.  I'm so glad I didn't turn him away!

Earlier that same day, a family had come by, and one of the boys looked over the CDs and selected A Mighty Fortress.  He handed it to his mother, who said, "So are you sure that's the one you want?"  He nodded, and she told him that the CD would be part of his birthday present, then.  

Turning to me, she asked if I would autograph the CD, and said that he'd asked to come to the show because he wanted some of my music for his birthday.

To Vincent: Blessings on your 13th Birthday.  From very humbled and honored me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes It Beautiful

I was playing my dulcimer the other day, when a couple approached me.

"I have one of these," the woman said; "I have the instrument, the stand, the case, the hammers, the electronic tuner, everything you need. Now I just need someone to teach me how to play."

I made a recommendation as to a potential teacher who lives in the general area, but the woman expressed disappointment that she would have to drive a little distance to get lessons. She informed me that she was an experienced musician, so I suggested that perhaps she could teach herself, as I (and many of my fellow players) had done. "Oh, that won't do," she replied. "I've already tried, but I can't figure it out. I'm sure that if someone would help me get started, I'd have it mastered in no time."

The couple lingered. While continuing to play, I asked what type of instrument she'd purchased.

"It's a Dusty Strings. At least the same size as yours, and probably bigger."

Greg, overhearing this, brightened. Thinking to make a connection with her, he said, "Sam Rizzetta, who built Marcille's dulcimer, is the man who did the basic designs for the Dusty Strings company."

She flinched in disbelief, blurting out, "But my instrument is very beautiful. It's got a rich-looking mahogany-colored top. It's an exquisite piece."

Briefly, I look at my own dulcimer through her eyes. It's 17 years old, now, and no one would describe it as cosmetically beautiful any more.  My hand traces the side rail, finding the small dimple I put in it less than 24 hours after taking possession of it: I'd slipped on ice when carrying it from my hotel room to the car. My mind still hears the rich chorus of tones that reverberated from inside the case, and I recall gingerly walking back to the room, my heart in my throat the entire time, to inspect the instrument to be sure that no major harm had resulted from my carelessness.

Sliding my hand further along the rail, I find one jagged, rough corner and recall the time that a gust of wind blew the dulcimer onto the pavement during a street fair in Dunedin, Florida.

Examining the sound board, I see evidence of other minor catastrophes and remember other episodes:

The time that the hickory nut fell out of the tree during a rehearsal in Ohio -- I still can't figure out how that nut managed to slip so perfectly between the strings to leave such a relatively large indentation!

The time that I was hustling to get off stage after performing at a festival in North Carolina -- I dropped one of my telescoping legs and left a gouge in the sound board.

The time that our band was giving a free "St. Patrick's Eve" concert to a Punta Gorda, Florida audience still shell-shocked from a punishing hurricane season -- the performance venue had not yet been able to repair the canopy over their stage, and the sudden rainstorm that blew in left a few water marks that I've not been able to rub out.

My dulcimer has endured snow flurrying onto it during a performance at Tennessee's Dollywood. Its tuning pins are ever so slightly corroded from salt air exposure up and down America's eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine. It's been played in 100-degree-plus temperatures in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and sub-freezing temperatures in Orlando, Florida. It's collected dust at fairgrounds in Michigan and New York and in Georgia's Stone Mountain Park. It's traveled hundreds of thousands of miles and played millions of tunes.

It's been fondled by quick, sticky-fingered children with slow-footed parents.

It's been embraced by the hands of hearing-impaired persons who wanted to experience its sound through its vibrations. Its strings have been traced by the fingers of sight-impaired individuals who wanted to "see" it through their sense of touch.

To me, the scars and imperfections are "character marks." Like the wrinkles and dark spots on the face of an elderly person, each one was attained through mostly natural use, and perhaps occasional misuse, but each "flaw" has a story to tell. It is evidence of a full life, fully lived.

And to me, it is beautiful.

I jarred back into the present, at a loss for words. The slight was probably unintentional, but even if it was not, any response from me would have been unjustified. After a few minutes, the couple moved on.

I caught Greg's eye. "Honey, don't even think about it," he consoled.

"Oh, I'm not insulted by what she said, Greg. She's looking at the dulcimer as if it's a fine piece of furniture, rather than a musical instrument.  She'll figure it out eventually ... or not."

He smiled. "Well, I'm glad you didn't say anything to her."

I smiled back. "Well, it wouldn't have been right for me to say anything, really. But I couldn't help thinking that my dulcimer is, in fact, beautiful because

"I know how to play mine." 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Open Letter to the Person Who Tried My Patience Today

postmark: Woodstock-New Paltz (NY) Art & Crafts Fair

Dear Latecomer to today's Art Fair,

I smiled at you when you came through the gate, noting that you were arriving after they'd stopped charging admission.

I hope I managed to be somewhat cheerful as you peppered me with questions, even as you could plainly see that I was trying to pack up from the fair.

Sorry I wan't able to procure that mailing list you requested; it'd already been packed.  Hope the business card that I did manage to put my hands on will suffice; I'm so glad that I was able to find it, as it, too, had already been packed.

I don't look at patrons as dollar signs -- really I don't!  I'm compensated for my service as an entertainer, but I also make my living from selling product, just like all the other vendors at today's fair -- and just like practically everyone else in business.  So please forgive me for the blank stare and wan smile when you told me that you'd deliberately come late, and empty-handed, to the fair in order to avoid spending money.

You see, you'd just figuratively slapped me in the face.



Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Being Celtic

Not long ago, in fact during the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, a woman lingered a little past "closing" to talk with Greg and me about being "Celtic."

For the record, our basic view of "Celtic" includes what are traditionally called the "Seven Nations": Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Isle Of Man and Galicia and their languages, music, culture, etc.  We do also embrace things that have a Celtic influence, such as bluegrass music.  And though historians seem constantly to be revising the story of the people who once dominated Western Europe prior to the heyday of the Roman Empire -- aka The Celts -- we recognize a certain Celtic influence that reaches as far as Turkey (Galatia, which you may know from the New Testament), Ukraine (Halychyna), and Iran (Scythia), among others.

At one point during the conversation, the woman noticed the cross I was wearing and asked if Greg and I were Christian.  When I replied that we were, she nodded to our two hymn titles (Be Thou My Vision and A Mighty Fortress) and said, "I thought so," then "How do you justify that with being Celtic?"

It's not the first time I've been confronted with the notion that one cannot be both Celtic and Christian.  And though the short answer is that there is absolutely no conflict between the two, the question does deserve some sort of explanation.  I've never seen the question as a challenge, but rather I've seen the questioner as a seeker -- and yet I've never worked out an honest, concise, and accurate response.

I've been thinking about it, though.  I won't be disingenuous and pretend that I don't understand why someone would ask such a question.  I know that in the minds of many, Celtic = Pagan.  Yes, it's true that the ancient Celts were Pagan -- as was most of the rest of the world.  And it doesn't much matter what definition of "Pagan" you consider "correct" -- if you consider Pagan as a catch-all term for polytheistic religions, keep in mind that in the centuries and millenia before the Christian era, the only monotheistic religion was Judaism.  And if you consider Pagan as a catch-all term for non-Christian religions, keep in mind that the heyday of the Celts was in the pre-Christian era.

Though I claim a Celtic ancestry, I feel no more bound to their ancient religion than I am to any other aspect of their way of life -- like cooking over an open fire, walking or riding a horse as my primary mode of transportation ... or living without air conditioning!  In fact, when Christianity was introduced to the Celts, many of them quickly and enthusiastically embraced the new religion, in part because many of its tenets were similar to their own beliefs: the belief in an afterlife, for example.

I'm still working on a nice way to express my thoughts and beliefs without offending by appearing too glib or too self-righteous.  I would never want to turn someone away because they felt that I was putting their beliefs down.  If anyone has suggestions/insight/input, please share!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Our Nefarious Neighbor

We are being tormented by one of our neighbors.  This neighbor, a year-round denizen of the Asheville East KOA, is cunning and daring, and a master of disguise, fearless when making raids near our campsite and equally fearless when we accidentally invade his territory -- which is seemingly everywhere and anywhere he chooses to be.

We know him as Ambush Bunny.

Make no mistake.  The Ambush Bunny is not your usual silly, timid rabbit.  He is bold, hopping down the middle of the road that runs past our campsite.  His coat blends in perfectly with the colors of the asphalt and the fallen leaves on the side of the road, so he often hops along undetected until Maggie catches his scent.  He seems to understand just exactly how long Maggie's leash is, so that if we encounter him while on a walkie, he does not move away until we are within about three feet of where he is standing.  And he does not make quick little moves, like most rabbits!  If a rabbit can saunter, Ambush Bunny saunters.

He does a "hop-by" our campsite almost nightly, which poor Maggie finds so maddening!  She strains at her tie-out, occasionally letting out a frustrated bark, and I'd almost swear that I hear Ambush Bunny chuckling in undisguised glee.

I've wanted to write about Ambush Bunny for a couple of years, but couldn't figure out exactly how to describe him so that you could understand his devilish character.  Last night it occurred to me: think Bugs Bunny torturing Elmer Fudd, and you'll get the picture!  

Monday, May 31, 2010

Kirkin' O' The Tartans

Yesterday I attended a Kirkin' O' the Tartans (church service) in Montreat, NC (near Swannanoa, where we're staying). What an elegant and rousing tribute to family and Scots heritage!

Being the day before Memorial Day, there was a salute to our service men and women that began with the congregation leader asking all active military personnel to stand. He then asked all veterans to stand and join them ... then asked all spouses, parents, or children of deceased veterans to stand. At this point, standing, I sort of lost it. I often miss my father most keenly when I'm in his "home territory" of Western North Carolina and this, combined with the pomp and ceremony of the whole service, put me a little over the top, emotionally.

I'm really happy to be part of a heritage that honors family and commitment.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Camp Ground Baptist Church, Ozark, Alabama

On Sunday, May 9 (Mother's Day), we set out for Ozark, Alabama, to Camp Ground Baptist Church, which is pastored by my long-time friend Al Sonanstine.  Al was Minister Of Music at First Baptist Church, Arcadia, Florida, during the time I served there as organist.  It was so wonderful to see Al, his wife Peggy, and their children Jason and Adrienne -- and Jason and Adrienne's respective fiances.  (It's been a while since I saw them!)  

Matt Miller (fiddler) and I were to play a concert during the evening worship service.  The service was kicked off by Camp Ground's praise band, led by Jason, and I was mightily impressed with the power and musicality of this mostly self-taught group of musicians!  They were a tough "act" to follow!  

Our concert had been billed as "A lively evening of instrumental Celtic and Bluegrass, Storytelling, and favorite old-time Hymns."  The audience was part Camp Ground Baptist congregation and part guests from other community churches -- and all some of the most supportive and welcoming people you could ever hope to meet.  

I can't really say exactly what was my favorite part of the evening.  I loved playing the Celtic tunes with Matt, since the last time we played that material together was back in December, in our "Christmas With The Celts" concerts.  It's been even longer since I accompanied Matt (on guitar) on his "Teetotaler" medley or the "Orange Blossom Special," so this part was a lot of fun for me.  But we very, very rarely, play the old hymns together -- stuff like "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?" or "I'd Rather Have Jesus" -- and it's even more rare that we play to an audience who knows every single word and sings with such enthusiasm.  So perhaps I've just figured out my favorite part of the evening!

It was a treat and a blessing to be part of the Camp Ground Baptist family, if only for a few hours!  "Thanks" somehow seems inadequate to express my gratitude for the opportunity, but ...


Monday, April 19, 2010

Slow Down

There's no supermarket in White Springs.  Actually, these days, there's not a whole lot of anything.  There's a post office, of course ... a couple of fuel stations which offer some convenience items ... a Dollar General store, a bank, maybe a couple of antique stores and the Suwannee Yoga Center.  And a few churches.  The State Folk Culture Center is here, and when it hosts the Florida Folk Festival in May, the town's population will temporarily swell to about ten times its usual 800-900.  It's a sleepy, tranquil place; as Greg observed today, "Life's a lot slower here, and it forces you to slow down too ... and that's nice."

In its heyday, White Springs was a busy place.  It was Florida's first real tourist attraction, drawing visitors to the healing waters of the White Sulfur Springs as early as the 1830's.  The excellent surrounding land supported a thriving cotton industry, and the pine forests provided timber and other products such as turpentine.  White Springs became a refuge for Southerners displaced by the Civil War.  Centuries prior to all that, the healing mineral springs were considered by the Native Americans to be a special, peaceful place where warring tribes could come to put aside their differences as they drank and bathed in the waters.

But all that was long ago, and though many of the old structures remain, White Springs itself no longer bustles with commerce.  It probably began its decline before the advent of the supermarket.  And since White Springs does not boast any of the components that make up the modern supermarket -- bakery, butcher, green grocer, dairy market, etc. -- I headed over to Live Oak, one of the neighboring towns 14 miles away, to do our weekly shopping.  Such an arrangement requires considerably more planning than I've become accustomed to.  But this is the way I grew up, so I know it's entirely possible! 

Live Oak is much larger than White Springs, but it's still a fairly small town.  My shopping experience was at first a bit frustrating, as it seems that the Publix grocery store is the place to meet and visit friends.  When I shop, I'm used to being able to easily navigate nice, wide aisles; I didn't care much for dodging shopping carts while their drivers chit-chatted about yesterday's church social, or the upcoming school function.  But I remembered what Greg had said earlier, and I eased up and slowed down.  I also remembered how, growing up in a small town very similar to Live Oak, I hated for people to come in and try to impose their standards on our way of life.

Leaving the store with my purchases, I was assisted by one of the "baggers," an older gentleman who commented on the day's beautiful weather.  "Now if it was just like this every day of the year, it'd be all right," he said.  

I smiled and said, "If it was like this every day of the year, everyone would want to live in Live Oak, then pretty soon you probably wouldn't want to live here any more."

"I reckon you're right," said he.  "I lived in Miami for a while and it got to be too much of a mess for me.  That's why I moved here; it's quiet and it suits me just fine."

Yes, life's a lot slower here.  It forces you to slow down too ... and that's nice.