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.
|photo by Tim Yarrington|