Fletcher Fawkes Told Me That it Was My Turn


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