CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Growing up Cordless in a Musical Family

(03/19/2002)

By Jack Cawthon,
Jack would like to dedicate this column to Mr George. Whipkey and the memory of those oldtimers who put so much heart and spirit into it.

I grew up around music. My dad taught a few of the old-time singing schools where shaped notes were used to learn the musical scale. Each note has a distinctive shape which supposedly makes singing it rather simple. So it was said. However, I never learned do from mi or fa from la or to carry a tune in a paper poke for any great distance.

My granddad, who died long before I was born, played the fiddle that I have now, much the worse for its neglect over the years. My dad would take it out, I can remember, and saw out a few tunes, but his favorite musical instrument was the accordion. He would play it at church functions and at the county sings held each year at the fairgrounds. Along with my cousin Willa Jean they had a duet which received considerable praise.

He also composed music. I had almost forgotten those long ago music sheets that I am still looking for in my mess of stuff after Willa Jean told me recently that she still sings one of the compositions quite often.

It’s funny how music runs in a family. My son, Jeff, took to it with ease, performing superbly in both band and chorus in school. In later years he became an outstanding harmonica player and performed in several blues bands around Morgantown and vicinity.

As for me, I’m the lost cord, the loose knot in the family binding. The only thing I learned to play was the radio. I took mine out in writing with the unharmonious, off-key rhythm you see before you.

I have always been attracted to music, although I know little about it except what I like, which is country, mostly. Not the big-hat meaningless yuppie stuff that passes for it today, but the “classic” kind as my favorite radio station WPDX in Clarksburg calls and plays it. George Jones whinin’, cryin’, cheatin’, drinkin’, never-get-over-that-woman (pronounced woe-mon) sort of country sung by people who have lived it to people who love it.

One of the great joys of my early life was working with the late Pat Gainer and his folk festival in Glenville. I had heard my grandmother sing many of the songs and ballads as she rocked in her old rocking chair. She had traveled across the mountains from Highland County, Virginia, to Lewis County, West Virginia, when she was just a little girl sometime around the Civil War and she told about the long journey and camping out in the wilderness, stories I wish I could remember now.

As she grew older, and I’m sure felt unneeded as she had been replaced in her own home by another generation, she would sit and sing of Barbry Ellen and sing hymns of soon traveling to a home where the circle would be unbroken and the streets paved with gold.

Singing and playing instruments was about as common in the hills of years ago as the hard work and poor pay that most people experienced. I suppose it was a way of putting the misery and toil out of mind for a time. Churches and one-room schoolhouses served as gathering places for the musicians. It wasn’t uncommon either for folks to come from miles around and gather at someone’s house for a night of music.

I’ve often wondered what my dad might have accomplished had he had an opportunity to devote the time and had had the money for serious study. One of his highlights always was the visit of Bill Bush, a singing master, who from time to time stopped by our place on his travels.

Back then in the country hollers it wasn’t uncommon for people to drop in unannounced as they traveled on foot from place to place. Sometimes they would stays for days and were welcomed. We would see a relative of my grandmother’s about once a year as he came hiking by, and there was a preacher with a long beard who scared the daylights out of me but who always carried a pouch of wintergreen candy that he would dole out one piece at a time.

Bill Bush was a celebrity of sorts. He had published gospel songs through a well-recognized publishing house such as Stamps-Baxter or the like and my dad would sit with him around the table and discuss music and maybe they would sing some of the songs. He taught me the “wise old owl who sat on an oak” rhyme. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American war and, as I recall, lived around Troy somewhere.

I still enjoy music gatherings. The Worley Gardner festival was held here in Morgantown a few weeks ago, and it certainly featured some highly talented musicians. It’s amazing the talent that is possessed by seemingly ordinary people who could well be professionals with the right opportunities. Sort of like writers.

Last year we were impressed with a harmonica player who played country music with one of the bands. He was then their featured performer. We talked to him after the performance and expressed our appreciation for his music which I felt sounded like Charlie McCoy, a West Virginian who had made the big-time Nashville scene years ago. Jim, as I’ll call him, said he had patterned his style after McCoy. Jim said he had performed with bands but didn’t do bars anymore because of a “problem.”

This year he was back looking like the “problem” had caught hold of him. When I slapped him on the back and told him we were looking forward to his harmonica, he looked away and said he played mostly guitar now as the lead singer had told him he “played the harp too much.”

When his band took the stage he was there playing guitar, but seemingly uninspired. But soon he pulled out the harmonica and looking over in our direction cut loose with some wails that tore through the soul like the icy wind in the Preston County cold.

I had no doubts he was living his music. It can make some beautiful sounds but quite often less than a happy life. Maybe that’s why I took up writing where being off-key doesn’t matter all that much.


Hur Herald ®from Sunny Cal
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