One evening on the first of October, better than twenty years ago, Gary Harrison and I drove down to Effingham to call on Pappy Taylor for his ninety-third birthday.
“Yea!” he hollered at our knock. “Come on in! “Grab ‘ee a ch’ir!” He was sitting on his davenport, his ankles swollen with dropsy, coffee can cuspidor at his feet, when we stepped through the door. “Hand me that there fiddle, would ye, Gary?” He fingered its strings and tightened a peg as we hauled out our instruments and the evening began. “What do you ones want to play?” He leant forward and took a spit.
“What ever you feel like, Pappy,” said Gary.
Pappy sawed haltingly for a bit, rummaging about through fragments of tunes. “I know all kinds,” he said, “if I can just think of them. Here’s one. Lonesome Indian.” He commenced playing with a flourish as Gary and I followed along on guitar and banjo. With a scarcely a pause, he started another tune with the verve and abandon of a long lifetime of playing.
“Man!” I thought. “He must have been something in his prime.”
“You know that one, don’t ye Gary?” he said as he finished.
“King’s Head, ain’t it?”
“Yeap. Now this here’s one,” he said, striking up another piece.
“Six Pound ‘o Feathers in a Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I don’t recall ever hearing that one.”
“Theah was an old woman, wanted a new feather bed,
And an old man, white hairs upon his head,
Old man he come from the west,
Old woman, wouldn’t have any but the best…
“Oh hell, I’ve clean forgot, but anyway he found six pound o’ feathers in a cuckoo’s nest,” he said, raising his fiddle again. “This here ‘n’s pret’ near my favorite.” For a long spell he played an elaborate version of Turkey in the Straw.
“Now what was that?” said Gary.
“That there was the piece that Turkey in the Straw was wrote off of. It’s called Natchez Under the Hill. Theah’s fellows ask what that is, and I say: ‘Ain’t ye ever heard of Nachez Indians?’ It was written ‘way back in George Washington’s time. See, the White man got to cheating them, and one thing and another, so they danced all night, a-getting ready for a big Indian war the next day. That’s what that there tune is.”
“Say Gary,” he said, nodding at me, “what’s his name?”
“Why, that’s Tom Phipps.”
“Well I know that, you fellows know what I mean, but I couldn’t think of his name to save my neck,” he said, leaning to one side of his fiddle for a spit. “Now here’s one…” He put his fiddle to his collarbone and played Paddyin’ on the Turnpike, a tune about the Irish who laid the first railroad tracks across Illinois. Then he played Flop Eared Mule, Picking Cotton Down South, Bear Pen Hollow and Devil in the Haystack. He played Sugar Foot Rag and West Coast Rag and somehow ended up talking about Buffalo Bill. “He was an Indian fighter,” he said as he picked at some small something on the side of his bow. “Now that’s the part that wasn’t right. The White man wanted their land, and the damned government come in and killed women and children, by God, and old men. And they hadn’t done nothing, nothing at all except to try to live peaceful. They killed women and children! That son of a bitch Custer got what was a-coming to him, by God!
“You know, the United States Government stole this universe from the Indian. No use a-saying they didn’t ’cause they did, and now they’re a-starting to acknowledge it. They stole it! A fellow asked if I wanted to see the monument out there, ye know, at Wounded Knee, and I said no, I ain’t going to. That ornery cu’se Custer had it a-coming.
“You fellows got any Indian in ye?”
“Both sides, I think,” said Gary.
“The Walkers,” I said.
“Well I have,” he said. “My dad was part Iroquois. He used to tell that they’d trade an old gun for as much land as a man could walk in a day. But then the White man went to cheating, and directly it was all gone.” he raised his fiddle. “Here ye go. You ones know this one.”
We played Cumberland Gap for quite a good long time. When we finished, Pappy stared off into days long gone. “Got married when I was twenty-four,” he said to no one in particular as Gary and I refined the tuning of our instruments. “I married her in Arkansas, when I crossed the Mississippi to work on the railroad. She was awful pretty, and she was sure my wife. She was full blooded Osage. She died of tularemia when I was twenty-eight.
“She took a notion for to eat some rabbit, so I went out and shot her a couple. Now I don’t eat no raw meat, but she did. In three days she took sick and died.”
He raised his fiddle and played Payroll, then Hell Amongst the Yearlings, then Mockingbird, then Arkansas Traveler and Old Molly Hare. On and on, picking up momentum, keeping us on the edge of our seats away into the night. At somewhere between one and two in the morning, we rose to leave.
“No need to be rushed off,” he said. “I can play all night if you fellows want to.”
A train whistle blew, off in the night, as we stepped outside.
“You’ve still got trains a-running through here,” I said. “We’re losing everything these days, trains, middles of towns. And all the small farms…”
“Why them’s the Hundred Cries,” he said as he steadied himself against the doorway.
“Yea. My Indian father-in-law used to tell about that. The Hundred Cries is the voices of the multitude, never to be heard, as they’re driven from the wilderness for good.”
The next February, Gary and I were pall bearers at Pappy’s funeral. We rode in silence most of the way back to Effingham from the grave yard. “He was the last one wasn’t he, Gary?” I said at last.
“Yeap. Sure was.”
If Pappy (Harvey) Taylor was not the absolute last who had learnt his tunes from older fiddlers instead of from the media, he was without a doubt amongst the last. Pappy had tunes in his repertoire several hundred years old. King’s Head, which he had learnt from his dad, was about the execution of King Charles I in 1649.
I cannot help but feel that the passage of people like him leaves us all impoverished. Tunes imitated from the media are not the same. However, the passage of the old fiddlers isn’t the half of it. I grew up with regular square dances. The neighbors got together and had big sings. Dad sang with a barbershop quartet. We sang in church, a mile away. All this is gone. So what? We all know that the rural neighborhoods are gone, wiped out by centralization. But that’s not all. We used to sing every day in music class at school. We looked forward to the traditional carols we practiced at Christmas. Several years ago, the music teachers replaced the old songs with shallow parodies of them from the media. Soon the schools stopped having music classes. Soon the grade schools gave up recess. This is ‘way better for us, all sped up and modern, right?