Music is powerful stuff. Possibly one of the most powerful art forms that humankind has ever imagined. When carefully applied it can create joy, stimulate memory, cause melancholy. When used with the images in a film, it can create visceral emotion resulting in tears, laughter, even horror.
I’ve loved music my whole life. As a small child I remember listening to some thick vinyl LPs of the “Philadelphia Philharmonic.” I sat in our darkened living room, cradled in the recliner, listening to Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” imagining shepherds and maidens frolicking around the verdant countryside. I studied the liner notes, looking at the pictures of white-wigged composers. I wondered how those silly-looking individuals were able to write that amazing music.
That inspiring music made me want to play an instrument. I tried guitar and learned enough chords to play most John Denver songs (which isn’t saying much). I played the oboe for about four years in school (only because the band director told us that the oboe was the hardest instrument of all to play). I even tried the piano but after a year of pulling teeth to make me practice, my poor teacher showed me the door.
That’s OK. What I really loved to do was sing. There was no stage safe, school choir, talent shows (which were always won by the girl with the flaming batons — you know who you are). But the kudos were secondary to the sheer joy that singing brought me. If there was a song to be sung, I was the girl to do it.
Some things never change. I still sing at the drop of a hat. This past weekend I went to the Bowdon Junction flea market, not exactly sure what I was looking for. Maybe some cheap turquoise jewelry. Maybe some French pastries. Maybe some new drawer pulls for the bathroom. I was just searching around. I was somewhere between the hardware booth and dented can booth, when I heard somebody picking a banjo. At first I thought it was an old gospel record. Then I realized it was live music. Like Dr. Livingston, I followed the sound until I found the source. There was a booth where guitars hung like ripe peaches from a summer tree. There behind the counter, a whole gaggle of pickers sat, fingers flying across strings. I had found what I came for.
Now, although I love most kinds of music, I must confess that bluegrass is my favorite. It comes from the Appalachian Mountains, like my ancestors. It’s hard to describe. Bill Monroe called it the “high lonesome sound.” And it does sound like wind keening in pines — like mist lying low in the hollow. Bluegrass sounds proud, like people who can scratch an existence out of hard, rocky soil.
Hypnotized, I sat there in the flea market for a couple of songs, leaning against a rickety table. I was shifting from one foot to another, feeling a little like a wallflower at a junior high dance. While I was there, lots of people passed by, pausing for a refreshing musical break. But I was the only hardcore bluegrass groupie who continued to hang around.
Finally, the lead guitar picking fellow said, “You gonna stand over there all day, or are you gonna come and join us.” I looked over sheepishly and drug across the aisle. “You play?” he asked. I said, “No.” He replied, “Then you must sing. Get over here and sing us one.” In the immortal words of B’rer Rabbit, I replied, “Please don’t throw me in that briar patch.”
Well, I sang one. “Your Cheatin Heart” in G. And they liked it, so they made me sing another. And another. And before I knew it, I was sitting on a stool, strumming an inept guitar, bellowing tenor bluegrass harmony at the top of my lungs. It was wonderful.
As we sang, I was aware of people drifting by and pausing. Some leaned on the counter, also hypnotized by the tart harmonies and plucky banjo leads. Some joined in, moved by the force of the music. A lady and her little girl stopped to sing, “I’ll fly away old glory, I’ll fly away in the morning.” A fellow stopped and requested Patsy Cline so we fumbled through “Walking After Midnight.”
After we had played a while, they asked me what my name was. They introduced themselves. We talked for a minute, about the dreadful dry weather and the stingy rain we’d had. But we didn’t talk too long. There was music to be made, so we got back to work. There’s something really wonderful about meeting strangers and tucking in to make music with them. It’s an exchange that occurs on no other level. I looked around me at the crowd of strangers who had gathered to share in the song and was reminded.
Music is the universal language.
Gentry, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.