The year was 1956. I was 2 when I picked up the first of what would be a vast repertoire of odds and ends tunes that to this day rattle around inside my skull. The song was Tennessee Ernie Ford's immortal "Sixteen Tons". It was a folk song Tennessee made into a hit on the radio and I’ve never forgotten it. "I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine. Woke up early, went to work in the mine...."
The song was partially responsible for my love of traditional folk music and my disturbing tendency to pick up guitars and play snatches of "Freight Train" without warning. I learned this from my Grandpa. Grandpa was the second folk musician I ever encountered. According to family tradition, he’d once upon a time played a hot piano, but my Grandmother sold the piano early in their marriage and the subject of pianos was never again discussed. The only musical instrument my Grandmother ever played was a $12 Sears clock radio that wailed Earnest Tubb, Jim Reeves and Hank Williams for a couple of hours a day. It was all the music she ever needed and she operated under the assumption that this was about enough for anyone.
We all suspected she was a little jealous of the attention my Grandpa got when he played. Grandpa, a large pleasant looking man with an unlimited supply of blue overalls, occupied a tattered Barca-lounger at the center of my memories of their home. He was probably the most hen-pecked individual I ever knew, but even under the relentless domination of my sturdy Scots-Irish Grandma, he had his small rebellions. One of these was his collection of harmonicas. Periodically, under covering fire from the grandkids, he would pull out his mouth harp and rip off an assortment of scandalous old tunes to his delighted audience. I used to watch her peek around the kitchen door and shake her head disdainfully at us. She’d probably heard "Polly Wolly Doodle" and the "Rain Barrel" song thousands of times over the years, but we never tired of it.
The height of one of these sessions was when he let each have a short blow on his precious "C" harp. We always tried to get extra time by catching Grandpa alone and asking him to play for us. You knew you’d get more blow time without the rest of the grandkids there, but it didn’t always work. For one thing there was a sort of two kid minimum audience requirement unless my Grandmother was outside or she was in a festive mood because she had just inherited serveral thousand dollars from a relative she didn’t really like. Since the latter seldom happy, we had to sneak in harmonica time whenever she was outside messing around in the garden and complaining because Grandpa’s weeding left a lot to be desired.
I did manage to get a lot of one to one time, though, because I was the oldest and lived in the same town and was allowed to walk over to their house by myself. Grandpa taught me to make train whistle sounds first and then I picked up a couple of simple tunes. He later tried to explain how to triple tongue, a miraculous technique he used that made it sound like two or three harmonicas were playing at the same time. I’ve never quite managed it despite my wearing out 4 or 5 harps of my own as I grew older.
The old man played a mean harmonica. I learned wonderful tunes like "I Never Loved You Like I Loved You Last Night in the Back of My Cadillac 8" and "Let me call you Sweetheart". His harps often went missing or wore out, but whenever he got without one, one of the grandkids would find an excuse to replace. It got to where someone bought him a new harmonica every Christmas, Father’s Day, Birthday and, in an emergency, Bastille Day. He had a whole drawer full, so that he always had backup harps in case one wore out or got "accidently" tossed by my grandmother. He played "Polly Wolly Doodle" to four generations of children and taught us all to carry a little music with us wherever we went.
At the age of 10, I discovered a Peter, Paul & Mary album in my Grandmother's small record collection (a surprising discovery as this was a woman who considered Ernest Tubb a god and everyone else - well, silly!). I guess someone in the family was trying to encourage her (unsuccessfully) to branch out in her musical tastes. She wouldn't give me the record even though she hated it and I hinted shamelessly. So, I had to sit in her parlor on the stiff green sofa with my hands folded to listen to it over and over for hours on her hi-fi set with the volume turned respectfully low. Even under those conditions I became a hopeless folkie. During my adolescence I bought a battered Mexican guitar for $6 from a friend and rebuilt it. That next summer, I took a job at summer camp. Before I left for camp, I bought a Peter, Paul and Mary songbook and learned to play "Polly Von" as I remembered it from that album. It was the only song that had really simple chords and I played it incessantly all summer. I was known about the camp by my detractors as "Two-chord Tom. Each summer for 5 years I played for campfires and worship services adding Shel Silverstein's "The Boa Constrictor Song", Burl Ives' rendition of "Three Crae, Sa' Upon a Wae" and, of course, "Blowin' in the Wind".
I soon knew Alice's Restaurant (the entire twenty minute monologue) by heart. Just the first three chords used to send people running for the brush. Then I discovered the Clancy Brothers and to the dismay of my roommate in the dorm at boarding academy, I purchased a banjo. Over the next year, I heard approximately 3,000 banjo player jokes (How do you get two banjo players in tune? Shoot one!). I spent my senior year living alone in one of the nicer rooms in the dorm. Dean never did find anyone who wanted to live in my room despite the fact that some of the rooms had three guys bunked in them. A tribute to the power of music!
Seven guitars, four banjos, a dulcimer, 3 recorders, 43 jaw harps, 8 harmonicas, a mandolin, bodhran and two sets of bones later, I've been happily married for 25 years to a beautiful Scotch-Irish Indian woman and fellow folkie with a lovely voice and a passion for sad Scottish songs about suicide and betrayal. I am, at present, resisting a sudden urge to buy a set of bagpipes (since I like my current roommate and am well aware that most of those banjo player jokes can be equally applied to pipers).
When my grandpa died, my grandmother gave me most of his mouth harps. "That one there, you might as well throw away," she told me as I examined the collection on their kitchen table. "It got clogged up or something and he tried to put 3-In-One Oil in it to make it work again." she turned away from me and pretended to wash dishes. "The thing tastes like oil. You can’t play it. I don’t know why he even kept it."
I examined the harp; blew on it tentatively. It left an oily taste in my mouth. Then I remembered how once he’d been playing for the grand kids some years back, before we kids started keeping him supplied with fresh harps. He played a couple of bars, then stopped, frowned, licked his lips and made a face. We urged him on. He played another and another, just as long as we kept hounding him and then he played "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" to finish off the set. He must have tasted oil for a week. Now that was a dedicated musician!
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