Pappy Taylor’s 93rd Birthday

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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.

“Now what was that?” said Gary.pappy02

Six Pound ‘o Feathers in a Cuckoo’s Nest.”

“I don’t recall ever hearing that one.”

“Yea.

“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 pappy01gun 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.

“Hundred Cries?”

“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 mqdefaultfiddlers 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?

Tom Phipps

Fletcher Fawkes Told Me That it Was My Turn

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Gary Harrison stumbled into quite a gold mine for old fiddle tunes in its twilight, a weekly hqdefaultgathering of old musicians and people who came to listen, in a one room school house in a little place called Bible Grove (once known as Georgetown). There was always quite a crowd, though they were nearly all elderly. We drove down there quite often and learnt quite a few tunes.

One evening we found the place more packed than usual, with folks milling about, having pie whilst waiting for the musicians to get settled in their circle of chairs with their 5492092_3530UDPNTinstruments. Since I grew up on a dairy farm with fresh skimmed milk in my tea, I passed by their smelly fat homogenized stuff and got a Styrofoam cup of black coffee and sat down with it next to Fletcher Fawkes, an old bald headed fiddler known to everyone as Guy. Guy gave me a nod from behind his crooked spectacles as he shifted a fresh chaw of tobacco around in his mouth, 450866spitting into a Styrofoam cup of his own. As usual, he had his fiddle all wired up with electrical tape to a dinky little speaker which always made his instrument sound shrill. He would have been much better off without it, but I always allowed that it made him feel up to date.

PhotoheadingOTThe music began with a flourish of microphone feedback as Bud Ingerham with his flattop and brilliant red bow tie played a boisterous Dixieland rendition of Wabash Cannonball on his tenor banjo as the rest of us $T2eC16J,!)EE9s2ufWcHBQ)NtMgitg~~60_35followed along the best we could. The next tune, Natchez Under the Hill (Turkey in the Straw) was led on the fiddle by old Benny Sutton who sat in the chair to Bud’s left.

On it went chair by chair, until it got around to Guy. He bashfully beamed, spit in his cup and shifted about on his seat as he thumbed his strings and raised his fiddle to his collar bone. He began playing Town Hall Jig. I would be next.

3healthrisksI picked up my coffee from the floor beside me. “Funny it’s gone cold, just like that,” I thought as I took a swig. “Better drink ‘er down quick.”

Suddenly, I could see how it all was. “Holy rollercoaster in a cup! God forbid!” I thought as I spied my hot cup of coffee on the other side of my chair whilst vomitous waves played up and down my throat. “Mercy, mercy! You putrid old grasshopper! You ghastly foul old fart!” I thought as I considered the gustatory nuances of his sputum, his overpowering bouquet of fetid, sugary rot clinging to my lips. “Oh how could I already have it swallowed…!”

Guy gave me a gentle poke. “Look alive Tom,” he said innocently enough. “It’s your turn.”

large_EarlScruggs-453As a rush of prickles came up my spine, I raised my banjo in my cold sweaty hands and played an urgently feeble version of Silver Bell.

Tom Phipps

Garry Harrison was the Best Fiddler Who Ever Lived

My great-granddad Bill Walker had in his service a Mr. Harrison, whom he swore was the best fiddler he had ever heard. He probably knew what he was talking about, because it was an age of fiddlers.

Mr. Harrison’s great-grandson appeared with his fiddle at my door one day, saying that he’d heard that I played banjo, and he wondered what tunes I knew. Well I knew a few, since I grew up in a neighborhood where we had big sings and where we socialized with big Sunday dinners and playing music at each others’ houses. But my tunes were nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what he knew.  

This Garry Harrison learnt fiddle from his dad and spent all his free time scouring the countryside, hunting for old timers who had grown up before radio. “I’ve got to get to ’em before they all die off,” he said. “Their tunes will be lost and gone for good if I don’t.”

Soon, I was spending all evening, several times a week, In Garry’s living room learning tunes he had picked up from old fiddlers, such as Harvey (Pappy) Taylor of Effingham, Illinois (the second best fiddler who ever lived, shown here in his Stetson), and almost every weekend we would go down to an old school house in Iola, Illinois to sit around, playing music with a whole nest of old fiddlers.

Throughout the time we played at taverns, parties and square dances, Garry was collecting tunes, which he tirelessly kept up until the very last ninety year old fiddler had passed away. By that time, he had collected far more tunes in Southern Illinois than the great Alan Lomax had in the Appalachians. When Carol and I were living on the Navajo Nation years later, he published the fiddle tune compendium, Dear Old Illinois, ISBN-13: 978-0-9793338-0-4.

This past September, before we ever got around to looking him up to play some more tunes, we heard that he had passed away in his sleep. 

Tom Phipps