Monday, May 19, 2008

Beethoven—A Country Boy

My orchestra performed its final concert for the season on Saturday with "country aires" as our theme. Two young women from Nashville, one a singer and one a fiddler, joined us to give our starched style some country wrinkles. Both of these women grew up in Small Town but have been living south to make their way in the music profession. A local band joined them so that we would have a keyboard, banjo, guitar, and steel guitar, and I was amazed at the music these guys played from. On their stands were pieces of paper marked with penciled-in chicken scratch, and they never missed a note. When they needed to stomp their feet on the stage for effect, they just did it. When the orchestra needed to stomp our feet on the stage for effect, we had to have Xs printed on the staff so we would know exactly when to stomp and how often. To give you an idea of how popular country music is here, our orchestra normally does pretty well in selling tickets, but for this concert we played to a sold-out crowd with people sitting in chairs in the lobby. And they hollered when they clapped. It was a ball.

We opened the concert with the first movement of Beethoven's 6th symphony, and I'm sure the un-usual crowd was wondering if they were in the right auditorium. But then the conductor sang a little song he had written about wanting to take a walk in the country with Beethoven and share ideas and enjoy nature. The last line was something like, "and I think deep down Beethoven was a country boy." And that was how we segued from classical to country—brilliant.

I am not a country music fan. In fact, I usually hate it, or at least I hate the newer stuff. But when I hear a traditional steel guitar or something set in stone by Patsy Cline, I warm up to the idea of sitting back with a good fiddle and a little fringe to trim the yoke on a plaid shirt. I grew up listening to the pop of the 70s mixed with band music and classical piano, but I also grew up hearing stories of how my father and his brothers entertained themselves before the age of TV. During the 30s, my father and his five brothers would spend evenings playing folk tunes and blue grass on their front porch—their family band had guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin, and a banjo or two—and my grandfather would dance on the wooden slats with his heavy work boots. When my father would talk about those days, he liked to mimic his father by saying, "Make 'em stop, Mama," as if he were a limberjack and had no control over his own flailing legs and was forced to dance whenever his boys struck up a tune.

On warm summer nights, their music could be heard way down the road at the farm worked by a black family, one that had their own band. Sometimes the black family would stand outside the fence and listen to my father and uncles, and sometimes the Wells boys would stand outside the fence down the road and listen to the black family play. Imagine, had they been allowed to hop that fence and actually join forces, what kind of band they would have formed. This was a segregated Alabama, though, and that just wasn't done, so they had to enjoy each other from a distance. It all came to an end during WW2 when most of the brothers went to war. When they came home afterwards, it was time for getting jobs and finding wives, so they rarely played together again.

I don't think I could ever play from chicken scratch—I've been working so hard at becoming paper trained—and I will probably always need to be told when to stomp and when to clap. I did not inherit my father's sense of playing by ear, but I did get a dose of appreciation for music that makes people so happy they spontaneously let rip with a "woo hoo" and a whistle now and then. You don't get that with Beethoven.


MmeBenaut said...

Must have been wonderful playing amidst all that hollering and clapping! Sounds amazing Robyn.

dive said...

What a great night, Robyn!
You got to play with Nashville Cats? Cool! You have to be so darned good to make a living as a musician there; they are a really picky bunch, so it's nice to hear that a couple of Small Town musos can make it.

Your wonderful tale of your father's boyhood band and the segregated black band down the road brought tears of mingled joy and sadness to this old bluesman's eyes. Oh, how I wish I could have heard them!

This is a wonderful post, Robyn. I'm about to put a load of Carter Family, bluegrass, field holler work songs and delta blues in an iPod playlist for tomorrow's train journey and I'll lay back and smile and think of the Wells Boys and their black brethren singing sweetly in the evenings.

Rich said...

After reading this, I feel like a chicken fried steak. Nice post Robyn. I usually enjoy all your ramblings about your orchestra with a bit of envy. cheers!!

savannah said...

i could hear the concert and the audience appreciation of the music, sugar! xox

Cheri said...

It sounds so amazing! And so very well told.

Shan said...

Good story. I think reading music from the page and improvising use two different areas of the brain. I don't know but it is so hard to cross over instantly from one to the other so that is my theory. I am nothing but improv when I'm just messing around but when I'm playing/sining music or acting I want an exact script!