by Paul Hawthorne
This was first published in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in the August 1997 issue.
It is presented here in slightly modified form.
Trash was in the gutter as he walked down the street of a part of the city that had seen better days. A charity shelter was open down the block and he wondered if he should cross over to the other side to avoid having to go through the crowd of homeless drifters waiting for dinner to be served. He traveled often on business, and it gave him the chance to spend some time in old junk and second hand stores. One time he found a treasure trove of music books from a store that had gone out of business, and there had been a few banjo things there too.
He paused at a cracked store window filled with clutter. The sign read "Good Stuff, Old And New", but there wasn't anything new in sight, and what was in view was dusty and dingy. As he looked at the sign, his mind wandered off to the past.
He had been attracted to the banjo by chance, meeting an old man while he was out in the mountains. The sound of music had filled the quiet valley; he had followed it to its source and found a banjo player sitting on his porch. The man impressed him in ways he found hard to describe, and it felt good to be around him. He had become the old man's student, coming up from the city once a month, winter and summer, no matter what the weather, to learn to make the rippling sounds and to begin to understand what the musical life was all about. He followed the old man's instructions, listened carefully to the old recordings that were originally on phonograph records, and learned to play well and fluidly with his own style and subtleties.
Gradually his relationship with the old man had shifted almost to one of father and son. Along with the music lessons, the old man talked about past times, about hearing classic performances live, right up close, and playing music all night. He also had some ideas that did not seem to be grounded in reality. The old man said that he would understand these when the time was right.
Why he was here in this neighborhood today, of course, was to find an old banjo like the masters played. He had been looking for years, in places like garage and estate sales as well as shops. His teacher had found him his present banjo, and it had a wonderful sound, yet he wanted the real thing, an antique instrument with all its magic. The prices at the vintage instrument dealers were astronomical, so he kept on looking, hoping and praying.
He almost didn't go in, but his feet led him on anyway. It was even more of a mess inside than he had expected, with old china, stone age personal computers and unused software. As he wandered through the piles of junk he almost missed it amid all the dirty disarray, the end of an old banjo case away over in the corner. As he dragged it out, the elderly proprietor came shuffling over.
"That caught your eye, eh? Do you play the regular banjo? Don't get much call for them now. I got that one a long time ago and nobody has even looked at it in years. I'll make you a real good deal on it."
He told the owner a little about his teacher and his music as a place was cleared to put the case. He opened the case carefully, hoping beyond hope that he had found his Holy Grail. The brilliant blue color of the case lining and the smell of old wood triggered a surge of emotion that swept over him like an ocean wave. There it was, a genuine late 1900's Ome Grand Artist banjo in virtually new condition. It was right out of the middle of the Golden Age of Bluegrass that had lasted until well after the turn of the 21st century. He looked at the delicate inlays of real sea shell and the flawless fretwork and wood carving. How could they have done such good work with the crude tools they had then?
He lifted the neck to look in the case pocket and found a sales receipt that was actually handwritten among the picks and strings and things. It was difficult to read the old-fashioned script through his moist eyes. It had been a special order instrument for a Mr. Matt Brewer. What had this person been like? Had he dreamed of being a performer at the festivals, played with friends, or had he just wanted to play in his bedroom for himself? Why had it been unplayed for so many decades? He must have loved the sound of the banjo to order such an upmarket instrument new.
Among all these thoughts and more that tumbled through his mind while he examined the wood and detailing, another question kept intruding. It was simple: how could this treasure actually be here, as though just waiting for him?
He picked a string, and the sound made him feel as though the shop was filled with translucent energy. Tears were running down his face now as he ran his thumb down the strings. It was almost in tune. He took out his picks, touched up the tuning and played a few rolls.
"Do you know any of the old songs?" the old man asked him. He nodded assent. "Maybe you could play some of the ones that were on the radio when I was younger, if it's not asking too much."
"There was one I liked a lot, which I haven't heard in years. Would you be kind enough to play When You and I Were Young, Maggie? I think a man named Don Reno recorded it."
The old man sat quietly and listened while he played through Reno's three breaks to Maggie with all the fireworks and then added an improvised solo of his own. When he was done, the man slowly stood up. "Thank you. That was beautiful. It brings back a lot of memories." He paused. "I have some things to do, so just play it as long as you like."
Time flew for the next three hours as he played a variety of tunes and styles from the past and present. If anything, the sensation of translucence intensified as he and the Ome began to know one another. The proprietor puttered around in the shop, occasionally asking for a tune from the Golden Age. The fellow must have listened to the radio a lot because a few of his requests were pretty obscure. Finally, it was time to leave and get back to the hotel. The owner came over as he was putting the banjo away and helped him lay it gently back in the case.
He asked the price and paid the man out of what he had in his pocket. Bargaining was needless at the trivial amount; it was less than the cost of his room for that night. It seemed odd, but then he wasn't about to say what the banjo was really worth.
His mind was still in turmoil as he went out the door when his tutor's voice came back to him: "It's the way it works. When you are ready, your teachers will appear. And when you are ready, your instruments will come to you." With the case clutched tightly in his hand, he decided the master's words were true. Then he noticed the dirt covered lettering in the corner of the store window:
Text ©1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 Paul J. Hawthorne
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 07 Apr 2007 by WF