A pretty nice gift, this Christmas Eve. Our family’s tradition is to give out one, and mine happened to be the first new violin that I have ever owned. In fact, the newest one I’ve had was a school fiddle from the twenties, my other one, my G. Grandma’s, was made 1860-1880. Pretty old.
That’s a nice fiddle, that old one, but that’s the problem. I feel like it will snap in half every time I tune it, so I’ve wanted a new fiddle for a while. Well, my family got me one, a nice acoustic/electric model. It has a nice sound.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I’d like to talk about the guy who taught me how to play in the manner of these hills, a fella by the name of Clarence.
Clarence was an older gentleman with coke bottle glasses, his poor eyesight was a source of life-long frustration to him.
No, it wasn’t because he couldn’t see the music. He never read a sheet, anyway, he played strictly by ear, his foot always tapping.
Clarence was pissed because his eyesight kept him out of World War Two, he took that regret with him to the grave. He told me the story. When the 37th Infantry mustered for overseas deployment, Clarence volunteered and for a while he wore the uniform. Then the Army docs said his eyes were too bad, and they sent him home. He went back to work in the steel mill, and he eventually retired from there.
But in the meanwhile, the 37th slogged through the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, it was a very bad time. They ended their war in Luzon, 1945. Nothing but hard, bitter fighting in the worst of conditions for years on end.
Clarence didn’t miss much, in my opinion. But even fifty years later he was pretty sore about it.
He was one hell of a fiddler.
Let’s make one thing perfectly, crystal clear. I cannot play 1/1000th as well as Clarence. There was hardly a tune he didn’t know, and he could play all of them and their variations masterfully, all by ear, all without a single sheet of music. He was a borderline prodigy, and I feel privileged that I knew him.
With regret, I was never able to say goodbye.
During yet another deployment, he died. I came home and he was gone.
This encyclopedia of Appalachian music was closed for good, his knowledge and his collection of violins gone.
If I would have been a better student. If… I don’t know. If I could turn back the clock.
Well, at least I can still play “Shady Grove” the way he taught me. And I still remember him, the best fiddler I have ever known.
Since Afghanistan I have not been able to play. But over the past six months, despite other challenges, I have felt the old desire return. I guess that’s a good thing. And now I have this brand-new, pretty little red fiddle (the lighting makes it look yellow. It’s not).
Hopefully all of your holiday breaks are good, and you get a gift as nice as this one.