Thursday, March 22, 2012

Poor Little Soldier's Boy

Mountain Mistrelsy, a book by Henry Shoemaker, arrived in the mail.  We sat down on the porch to read it.  It is a collection of songs from the turn of the century, the previous one not the recent one, collected from the porches, campfires, hunting and lumber camps of Northern Pennsylvania.

You can't open the book and sing the songs.  The tunes were lost, only the words remain.  Soundless songs of loss and despair, of love and death, cries for social change.

A group of local musicians are bringing these songs back to life for a recording project called Mountain Mistrelsy.  Gus has been asked to play fiddle for the project.

We flipped through the book, reading a page where the title grabbed our attention.

Gus was immediately drawn to A Soldier's Poor Little Boy, the story of the orphan of a soldier freezing in a snowstorm and begging an old lady to let him into the warm.  I read the story, but it didn't sing to me.  I only saw words on the page.

He ran to his banjo and asked me to read the first line.  He plunked around and found some chords.  We wrote them down.  I read the next line and the banjo replied with more chords, until we reached the end of the first verse.   He played through it until he was satisfied.

He had reached through the pages of the book and the chords on his banjo drew the outline of that orphan from long ago, freezing in the snow.  

 I played through the chords for him and he listened quietly, then began to play fiddle, first long notes like blowing wind, and then a simple melody that descended with the boy's dispair, and rose with his hope, repeating over and over between the verses.  The notes of the fiddle sketched in the features of the hungry child and the woman who saved him.

We played the song together as a family over and over again, adjusting words and changing the key to accommodate our voices.  It became real to us, a spare haunting melody, like a black and white photo of the boy saved from the storm.

Gus played it for the rest of the Mountain Minstrels.  They played it together on guitar, banjo, bass, drums, mandolin, changing the phrasing and the tempo, round and round until a complete song emerged.  The boy's story, like the boy in the song, had been rescued from the whiteout of time and obscurity.  A complete picture emerged of a lonely woman who had lost her son in the war and the rescued boy, playing and singing their song by the fireplace as the storm receded into the background outside.
photo by Tim Yarrington

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