By Mack Samples|
Conventional wisdom has it that musicians don’t amount to much when you tally up the leaps and strides made by Homo sapiens since the beginnings of recorded history. It appears that they have always been relegated to the lower end of the social strata no matter what the culture. In America they have generally been lumped in with actors and tin horn gamblers. Why is that, exactly?
It has always been my contention that in order to become a really good musician, a person has to devote an inordinate amount of time acquiring the necessary skills. Most good musicians have, at some point in their lives, spent hours and hours practicing. As a result of that, they have neglected to prepare themselves for some more productive enterprise.
Here in the Appalachians musicians have gotten an even worse shake. Many thought of them as shiftless no accounts. My own father, a mountain banjo player, was fond of saying that a person who becomes a good musician is usually someone who is no good for anything else. One of his famous quotes: “If you see a place where the house is falling down, brush ‘growed’ up to the door, and no garden spot, it’s probably where a musician lives.” And you have probably heard the old joke that musicians never have mice because there is no food in the house for a poor mouse to eat. Fiddlers were the worst of the lot because in addition to being non-productive, many of them had a drinking problem. And I must confess that many fiddlers that I knew in my youth were bad to take long pulls from a bottle of whiskey.
As I think back over the mountain musicians that I used to introduce when I was president of the West Virginia Folk Festival, none of them were people who were successful in some other walk of life. Most of them had no “career.” Many of them were really excellent musicians but they had struggled to make a living. None of them had ever made a dime playing music. But, you know what? That has changed in recent years.
If you travel the festival circuit as I do, you will observe that many of West Virginia’s top heritage musicians are college educated and very successful at some other career. Hardly any of the major league fiddlers are habitual drunks. Why is that, exactly?
It is probably because life has gotten easier for everyone and those of us who have worked for a living have had much more leisure time. We have had time to have a career and still find time to practice. But I don’t really have an explanation for why the new generations of fiddlers are not habitual drunks. That’s not to say that they are saints. But most of them are prosperous and good family men (and women).
I doubt that West Virginia mountain musicians will ever move up the social strata to where they will be considered equals of brain surgeons, software engineers, and (heaven forbid) corporation CEOs. “Still yet”, as they are fond of saying in Clay County, progress is being made.