The following story comes from my second book, The Old House.
An Unbroken Circle of Music
One of life’s greatest joys is gathering with friends and family to share together in something we all enjoy. It may be fishing, playing dominoes, or just eating a meal together. But anything we do with those we love multiplies the joy.
Therefore, on nights when we gather together with our friends to play music, it is always special. When a group of folks sit together to play music, it is a feeling which cannot adequately be described, but must be instead experienced.
My main influence in music has always been my dad. I know of no one who loves to sing more than him. I’ve never seen him fail to sing when asked, whether it is at church, a front porch singing, or a funeral.
When he sings it is very evident that he is singing from deep down in his heart. He sways and his deep bass voice resounds with emotion. It is hard to describe his singing, so authentic and basic; it just seems to come directly from his soul.
I also know from playing the drums behind him for most of my life that each time he sings a song, today’s rendition will be slightly different from the hundreds of times I’ve heard him sing it. I never know when he is going to hold out a note or change the cadence. It’s kind of like riding down the road on a dark night with one dim headlight. You know where you’re going, but you aren’t sure how or when you’re going to get there.
My dad’s repertoire at our Saturday night singings is what I would call “eclectic.” Eclectic is simply a word that means a mixture of things on which you just can’t quite pin a label. I always know that “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” will be followed by some ballad like “The Folsom Prison Blues” or “Springtime in Alaska.”
Then just as quickly we’ll shift back to “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” or “Unclouded Day. “
As a boy, my family would sing as we traveled in our car. Both of my sisters were good singers and they would join in all of those Hank Williams classics or a lively version of “Old Dan Tucker.” I didn’t sing much because I was self-conscious about my singing voice.
Later, during my young teenage years of rebellion, I openly let them know I didn’t care for those twangy country songs. I had my own style of music and preferred Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Allman Brothers over Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard. I would stare out the window during those car singing sessions, feigning disinterest as they sang, but deep inside I was enjoying the songs I’d grown up on. Even now if my dad forgets a line on one of those old classics, I can pretty well lean over the drums and whisper the lines.
During my teen years, my love of rock music brought lot of humorous comments from my dad. Control of the car radio was a major battleground in my family. Once, when it was my turn and the radio was tuned into a rock station, Three Dog Night came on singing, “Eli’s Coming.” My dad put his hand on the radio and commented, “Someone open up that radio and let that man out. He’s screaming like he’s in pain.” Even though I never wanted to, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at comments like that.
As I left home for college and began my own life, I found my own musical tastes changing. The disco age of the seventies turned my country heart completely off. Suddenly, some of Dad’s kind of music appealed to me. Even more astonishing was the fact that he was learning to enjoy the Southern style of music I loved.
During this time of my life we didn’t have as many singings, at least those I could attend. As the years rolled on, and I moved back to Dry Creek, we began to get together to sing more. There were a few constants from my boyhood, such as my dad’s love of those old ballads and hymns. We’d gather together- my dad and Julian Campbell, the best “Chet Atkins” style guitarist in our area, would always take center stage at these singings. My brother-in-law Jody would join in on the piano or guitar, alongside my buddy Ed Shirley. Other musicians would come and go as we simply enjoyed sharing together in the bond of music.
When she wasn’t playing the piano at the Catfish Hut, my Aunt Margie Nell would join us. Her piano style is so unique that I believe I could recognize it anywhere. One of my favorite things is to see my dad singing as his sister plays along. She is the only person I know who can play a song flawlessly, while carrying on a full conversation across the room.
One thing about Aunt Margie is how she’ll pick out one of my favorites such as “Tara’s Theme” from Gone with the Wind. As she launches into that song, she’ll look at me across the top of the piano with such a smile of pure joy. She nods her head and winks at me and it is clear she is playing this song just for me. As we smile at each other, it’s amazing to realize how love can be so clearly expressed through music.
Aunt Margie puts the same expression of joy and emotion into her playing as her brother, my dad, does in his singing. Their two unique styles and personalities combine to produce a style of music I’ve loved all of my life.
This story on Aunt Margie is one of my favorites:
When I was fifteen, my parents temporarily lost their minds and allowed me to ride a greyhound bus to Shreveport to see my favorite group, Creedence Clearwater Revival. I had learned to play the drums by listening to their songs over and over on scratchy albums. Daddy always said that if their drummer got sick, I could set in and play for them. I believe he meant it in jest, but I took it as a great compliment.
During the 1970’s, Aunt Margie and Uncle Mark lived in Belcher, a small community north of Shreveport. When
I arrived in Shreveport for the concert I called her to let her know I was in town. When she inquired as to why I was there, I told her I’d come to see Creedence Clearwater Revival.
You could hear the pleasure in her voice as she replied, “That’s just wonderful how you’ve come this far to go to a revival.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her. Later, she told my mom how proud she was of my one hundred-sixty mile trip to attend a revival.
Aunt Margie’s talent and joy in playing always seems to lift the other musicians to another level. It’s amazing how a gifted musician can pull other ordinary musicians along in the wake of their talent.
At these Saturday night community singings, musicians with varying styles and tastes will join us. My friend, Vance Gill, who prefers more of a country style, joined us a few years ago, and added his unique singing style and guitar picking.
Then about two years ago, a strange thing began to happen at these get-togethers. Several teenage guitar players in our community began attending. Pretty soon there would be seven or eight guitar players there with a wide spectrum of styles that covered nearly every genre you could name.
One particular night specifically stands out in my mind. I’d called many of the younger players to come join us. After a mixture of older men and teenage boys had gotten tuned up, we begin playing. Usually during a singing, it takes thirty minutes or so for everyone to get comfortable. About this time, the door opened and in came an unknown teenager. In one hand he carried a beat up guitar case and in the other he lugged this huge amp.
What caught the older men’s attention, and nearly stopped them in mid-song, was this boy’s hair. His hair was dyed green. The closest description I could give would be that it was the same shade as Jim Carrey’s hair in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
I could see the look of wonderment on the faces of the older players who did not know “green hair.” I saw a faint smile on the face of Rev. Frank Ott, who was playing bass guitar.
Of course I knew who the boy was, and so did Bro. Ott. It was his grandson, Chris. Chris lives in Sulphur and was not known by many of our players. As he set up his gear, we were already into the next set of songs. Several of the older players suspiciously eyed Chris with his green hair and baggy clothes. I thought to myself, “Guys, you’re going to be surprised when “green hair” starts playing!
Chris sat on the piano bench and started strumming along. Then he started picking leads on every song. Many of the songs he had obviously never heard, especially the older songs. On the first verse he’d listen quizzically with the wonderful God-given musical ear he’d been given. Then by the second verse, he always had it and led the charge among the guitar players.
I wondered what it was like inside the mind of this gifted musician as he heard with his ear what seconds later he could play on the guitar. The older guys’ suspicious looks turned to astonishment. Finally, after Chris had played about five songs, Bro. Ott said, “Men, this is my grandson, Chris Harper.”
During our next break, the guitar players all gathered around swapping ideas and licks. It was so moving to see veteran players like Julian and Vance, sharing tips with the eager young players. These older men would laugh at the young guys with their distortion pedals, big amps, and more radical playing styles. Nevertheless, there was a readily apparent bond, regardless of the ages, styles, and yes, even the hairstyle. I could see and feel the bond of respect developing between these three generations of players who really only had one thing in common- a love of playing music. I was once again reminded of the unbroken circle of music. The styles change, and the instruments sometimes get louder. Each generation develops its own way of expressing itself musically. But the unbroken circle of deep love for music lives on, generation after generation.
Over time our repertoire began to grow. Most of what we’d sang in the past were songs twenty years old or older. Now, after singing several traditional old hymns, one of the young guys would break into a praise chorus, the type of song so popular with our younger generation. All of these songs, although different in style, were common in that they gave praise to the Lord.
Then another special thing happened. Toward the end of last year, my youngest son Terry began playing guitar. He practiced day after day for hours. It was pretty ragged at first, but soon recognizable chords began to emerge. At one of our next singings, Terry sat by Bro. Frank Ott strumming along, as the “Preacher” (That is what most people call Frank Ott patiently called out the chords and changes to him for over two hours.
Beside Terry sat Aubrey Cole, one of our area’s best-known bluegrass fiddlers. Some of my earliest musical memories are watching Mr. Aubrey play at singings like this one. After all of these years, there is still a special smile and glow on Mr. Aubrey’s face as he draws his bow across the fiddle strings.
As Mr. Aubrey plays, he smiles as he watches Terry. Across the room, Mr. Aubrey’s grandson, Cody, plays along on the piano. What a special moment it is as this man, nearly eighty-years old, patiently plays with these young guys.
This long musical legacy is brought home to me by a statement from Mr. Aubrey during one of our breaks. He leans over to twelve-year old Terry, and kindly tells him,
“Son, when I was a young fiddle player your great-great grandma used to beat me every year at the Parish Fair fiddling contest.”
The idea that Mr. Aubrey had played with “Doten,” probably over sixty years ago, and was now playing with her great-great grandson said so much about the rich legacy, and that unbroken circle of music. This country fiddler was now playing music with the fifth generation of my family. . . The rich legacy of music continues.
However, there is one night I believe I will remember when all of the other singings have been forgotten. This took place on a Monday night in March 2001. A group of Northern volunteers were helping on a work project at the camp. As a way of saying thanks, and to introduce them to the culture of southern music, we hosted a singing at the camp.
The week before, my dad had discovered some lumps in his groin and armpit. His doctor was concerned and began testing immediately to check these out. We all knew this could be cancer and had no idea if it was, where else it might be located. He had a cat scan done and waited for word on the outcome.
The following week, he still had received no results from these tests. Earlier we had scheduled this Monday night singing. I told Daddy not to come to the singing unless he felt like it. All throughout that long day I waited for the news from his tests.
After supper that evening, he showed up ready to sing. When I asked him if he’d heard from the doctor’s office, he replied that he had not, but expected them to call later that evening. He’d left the camp number with the Doctor’s office so they could reach him.
Our time singing was special – all of our best singers and players were there. The guitars, keyboard, fiddle, and drums just blended together in a special way. There is no other feeling quite like when the music just comes together and takes you all along for a ride. It was that kind of magical night.
We’d been singing about thirty minutes when they called my mom out of the room. She motioned to my dad and he left the microphone to join her. I knew in my heart of hearts that a phone call informing my dad of either good news or bad news awaited him next door. I continued playing my drums, but my playing was listless and mechanical. My mind was on my dad and mom next door. We continued playing for several more songs. The wait seemed forever to me.
Then my dad and mom came in the back door. Dad’s expression looked just the same as when he’d left. He stepped right back to the microphone and resumed singing. But when I looked at my mom’s face, with tears streaming down her cheeks, I knew without words, the prognosis had been cancer.
However, you’d never known it watching my dad. In fact, he had a special spring to his step and an added passion in his voice. As we sang some of those old songs about Heaven, he just seemed to reach out to another level as he sang about the joys of being in God’s presence.
I’ll never forget that night. My dad’s singing, determination, and faith were not tied to his circumstances or health, but his faith in Jesus, the Solid Rock. His body might have lymphoma, but his spirit was alive and healthy. I thought to myself, this will be a long journey we all are going to be on, but I know we’ll get through it with my God’s strength, my dad’s determination, and the support of our family.
In the midst of that emotional night, I vowed to myself as to how we’d have as many singings as possible in the coming months… I was reminded that none of us know when we may have the last opportunity to sing together and enjoy the common bond of music. Beginning that night, we began having more frequent singings. Many weekends, when Daddy was not too sick from chemotherapy, we’d get together and sing.
Tonight is one of those nights. We’ve played for over three hours. For the last thirty minutes we’ve said, “Now, this is our last song,” but someone always calls out “just one more.” I can see my dad is tired, but I believe this singing is just as important as his chemo. Finally after a wonderful evening of playing, we begin loading up our equipment. Julian lets each of the young guys strum on his collector’s item Gibson Chet Atkins Model guitar. As the cords and wires are packed up, guitars are cased, and amps are carried to vehicles, I begin breaking down my drum set. Everyone has that happy and satisfied look of guys who’ve reached deep down into their souls and did what they love to do- play songs together in the bond of music. There is a growing feeling of respect from our entire group for the other styles of music that all praise our Lord.
Before the guys start heading out the door, I look around…there are men and young men from four different generations. As always, there are different Christian denominations. A quick look around the room reveals vastly different hairstyles: from the shaggy, highlighted, and spiked hair of our teenagers to my dad’s shaved head and Mr. Aubrey’s white hair. The boys in their baggy clothing, which is their generation’s fashion statement, and we older guys in our normal uniforms- blue jeans. Our backgrounds, jobs, and education are varied. The group’s preferred styles of music is without a doubt as varied as the four winds.
But all of these differences don’t really matter when we join together in the
wonderful common bond of music, that unbroken circle of each successive generation
and their music. There is a commonality that we take with us from this night. From now
on those of us, who tonight were part of something bigger than ourselves, will always
remember the wonderful and unbreakable bond of music.
My dad lived long enough with his lymphoma to enjoy more singings like the ones described. In fact, he lived long enough to see this book, The Old House, published. Just a month or so before he died in April 2003, he and Mom went with DeDe and I to a banquet.
I told a version of the story above as well as “The Sign Phantom”, his favorite. I’ll always recall how hard he laughed. It’s a memory I treasure.