I thought I’d spend the midday concert with my knitting. I’ve always thought that being able to knit and do something at the same time was the coolest thing in the world. My great aunt, a knitter par excellence, took her work with her into the darkened movie theater. I’ve always had a burning envy of that.
But today it was not to be, and that was probably a good thing. The ribbon I’m employing to knit is too slippery and the library’s basement theater was too shadowy to allow me to handle it properly.
So I listened. I paid attention. I dreamed.
The first thing I noticed was the fiddle, color blocked, as the fashionistas would have it, in glossy black and honey-colored wood. I’ve never seen such a beaut of a violin. It belonged to Harry Bolick, “fiddle player and tunesmith,” as he styles himself.
Then came the tunes, old-timey, straightforward and pretty… sweet, said Bolick, introducing each number. He played with a guitar accompanist. The full room hushed to hear this message from another place and time.
We were transported to Carroll County, Mississippi, listening to the compositions of rural musicians–both black and white–from the beginning of the 20th century, collected as part of WPA efforts in the mid-‘30s then basically forgotten about. Bolick has been researching the “lost fiddle tunes” of the Magnolia State for a book. As he played, we could hear the simple thunking steps of the square dance, the slightly lighter gait of the waltz. We listened to one song that was the best seller of 1929, selling 100,000 copies. Bolick is a fiddle player, yes, a tunesmith, yes, but also a musicologist. (Some songs can be heard on his website.)
In those days, men out in the countryside courted women that had pianos because they wanted to marry music. There was a virtuoso named Alvin Alsop, now known to almost no one but surely one of the brightest talents of his neighborhood. His song Sweet Milk and Peaches lifted me up, spun me around and set me down in another time.
I saw a road leading through black-dirt fields to a community center. I saw patched gingham skirts and dungarees and a fifth of whiskey poking out of a chest pocket, the windows propped open and a fiddler and banjo player in the corner, everyone flushed and ready to go all night… When I got home I found this picture, snapped in 1939. It matched my fantasy exactly. Let’s waltz.