The Old-Time Herald Volume 5, Number 8
Mel Durham: Cosmopolitan Old-Time Fiddler
by Steve Goldfield and Carolyn Russell
"In the length of my life, I saw my first automobile when I was about three years old. I saw my first airplane probably in about 1919 or 1920; it was a Jenny two-winger. In the 1920s we had radio come. All of a sudden, on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, you could get some really good old-time fiddling. That was like coming home, hearing that. Then, as we went along, WLS in Chicago. Then our own advent into it with the Wayne County Apple Knockers; my step from that into a jazz band which took up a lot of my life, and then back into it. And here I am."
At the age of 82, Mel Durham, Jr., looks a lot younger than his agewould suggest. Perhaps jogging two miles every morning keeps the twinkle in his eye, or maybe it's the music. Mel has strong roots in traditional music through his father, but he has also had a professional career as a jazz and bluegrass bass player. Mel put down the fiddle for many years but did not stop playing music. Mel's story is both unique and representative of traditional musicians who moved out of their home region and then found other musicians with whom they played both inside and outside their traditions.
Mel was born in July 1914 in southern Illinois, about six miles east of Johnsonville with its two general stores, a barber shop, livery stable, doctor, a little country school, and an apple evaporator to make dried apples. The Durham family originated from the landed gentry in Durham County in Northeast England, but Mel's ancestor was a younger son who emigrated to America. Mel's great-grandfather, William Durham, was born in the early 1800s in Columbiana, Ohio and moved his family to (what is now) White County, Illinois. He was an educated man, a farmer who taught voice and organ. He bought a 40-acre farm (purchased from a veteran who had received it as compensation for service in the War of 1812) just to the north in Wayne County, Illinois and started raising his family of three boys and four girls, eventually adding other farms to his holdings. He cut the timber on his land - hickory, red oak, maple, sycamore - and built the fine house in which Mel, his father, and grandfather were born. At that time, in 1818, Illinois had only recently become a state.
Southern Illinois is beautiful -- very rolling and hilly, with lots of trees and water. Mel says, "The country was pretty raw -- sweet dirt, clay, good farm country." The Durhams grew red-top hay, oats, and sorghum cane. Mel's grandfather was famous for his sorghum, which he sold commercially. The country was also great for hunting: prairie chicken, quail (there were no pheasants yet) rabbits, squirrels, coons, possums. And rattlesnakes, copperheads, and chiggers.
Mel's father, Melvin Durham, Sr., was born in 1892, and was the first fiddler in a family of seven boys and three girls. He learned his tunes from other fiddlers in the area. In the wintertime, every week the fiddlers would get together in a different home; the oldest fiddler would play first. "There were quite a few fiddlers there, and consequently my father being the youngest, he played last and had the opportunity to learn. Most of these gentlemen would give him tips on how to hold the bow, keep his elbow down and that type of thing. He was pretty much of a perfectionist, even as a young man, and he really practiced very diligently. Many times they would have to go to the orchard and pull him off of a stump to get his supper at night. Consequently, he was a very, very good fiddler. He was very supple and had a great right arm. His timing was good, and he was very particular about being in tune and he passed that on to me and my brother Don."
These southern Illinois sessions were a lot like modern jam sessions. However, the fiddlers played one at a time, often with accompanists. Mel's father had a cousin, Henry Durham, a barber who played threefinger banjo with forward and reverse rolls and what he called the square roll. Mel heard his first clawhammer banjo in about 1927 or 1928 when he was 13 years old. Mel describes the accompanists: "They always had a guitar, banjo, and pump organ. In our family, everybody had a Crown pump organ, and there were a lot of fiddles, there were five-string banjos, guitars, and mandolins there, though not a lot."
Mel's father and uncles had a family band called the Durham Brothers String Band, which played around the Johnsonville area in about 1910. In addition to Mel senior on fiddle, Oliver Durham played pump organ, Earl Durham played mandolin, and Wilbur Durham played guitar and banjo. The Durham Brothers participated in what might have been the earliest form of broadcasting by playing over the telephone on the party lines. Mel explains, "Back in those days you had a general ring to get everybody on the party line. Those boys would give a general ring, and then they'd play over the telephone to everybody. This used to make my grandmother really angry because she'd say if there was a fire or somebody needed help they wouldn't be able to call in."
There were lots of squaredances in southern Illinois, either in homes or in large halls. "Every time a farmer'd want to have a square dance, they'd have the kitchen swept. They used to cut wax for the floors. Kids used to run around and get enough wax to chew. It was a lot of fun. They'd cut up the numbers in an old calendar for tickets, a quarter apiece. They'd always have some kind of a lunch, and they'd have a square dance."
In southern Illinois, the growing season is much earlier than in the northern part of the state. Most of the farmers would get their own corn husked and laid in, and then go 150 or 200 miles north and hire out for corn husking. That gave them some ready cash to bring home. They played some music in the north, but Mel points out, "When you're husking corn every day, when you get cleaned up at night and have your dinner, you're ready to hit the sack."
Mel started playing the fiddle when he was six years old, and continued until he was big enough to play guitar. "I think I was a pretty decent fiddle player," he says. "I was very small so I didn't put my chin on the side where the chin rest was. I put it on the other side so I could get to it. Then I started on guitar, and later my brother Don, who is two years younger than me, when he could, took over guitar. In one of the towns I found an old Lyceum bass fiddle. I bought that bass for $15. Boy, that was a lot of money my life savings."
Mel's first bass was a carved German flatback that needed some work. At first he learned to play it by ear, then in school he learned music theory, including how to read music. He sent to Lyon and Healy and got Schirmer's string bass book. He had a high school teacher who gave him some help but no lessons.
As the family grew, Mel's father and mother moved, first to Flanagan, Illinois, where Mel'sgrandparents were living, then to Chenoa, which is about 110 miles south of Chicago on Route 66. Mel's father served in World War I and suffered lung damage which kept him in a Veterans' Hospital near Pontiac, Illinois until 1922. When he was released, the family settled in Pontiac where Mel senior worked in a shoe factory to support the family. He also started playing for square dances, and Mel and brother Don joined in as soon as they were old enough.
They didn't find many traditional fiddlers in Pontiac although in Bloomington, about 30 miles south, there were a few. Mel remembers a very fine fiddler named Dolph Skinner in Fairbury, Illinois.
In the 1930s the Durhams had a family band with Mel playing bass, his father on fiddle, and brother Don on guitar. His father's cousin also played in the band. They played tunes such as "Old Joe Clark" and "Pretty Little Pink," and ballads like "Fair Charlotte," "Omie Wise," "Mary of the Wild Moor," "The Auction Girl," "Little Joe," and more. Many of the tunes and songs they performed were also common in theSouth. Others, like "Bachelor's Hall," were indigenous to southern Illinois. Mel says that most of his neighbors were English, Scottish, or Irish, most of whom had come to Illinois from Ohio or Kentucky.
Mel's father was 19 and his mother, Maggie May Pennington, was 16 when they married. She was from Mill Shoals, Illinois, close to the Indiana/Kentucky line.
Mel's mother didn't play an instrument, but she sang. As Mel tells it, "She knew all the songs. When my dad would be up north husking corn, my mom would take my older brother and me (he was two years older than me) and sing all these songs. Eventually, we knew most of them. By the time I've reached the stage where I am now, I've forgotten most of them." These were mostly sad tales of love lost, of children dying tragically, and the like. "It's a wonder that my elder brother and I weren't neurotic as could be, just from listening to these songs," he said. "'Mommy! Did she die, Mommy?' and our mother would say,'Yes, she died.'Then she'd watch out for the flood [of tears]. What great songs!
"My mother sang many English, Irish, and Scottish ballads. 'Fair Charlotte' was about a young lady who didn't want to wear her cloak because her gown would get mussed up. Fair Charlotte froze to death in the sleigh on the way to the ball. She also sang 'The Little Match Girl,' 'The Silver Dagger,' 'The Jealous Lover,' 'The Winebibber's Grave' -- they had wings in those days -- and two songs about little guys freezing to death, one of which was 'Poor Little Joe.' 'Cold blew the blast, down fell the snow. Out in the cruel world, he had no place to go."'
One unusual song that Mel remembers his mother singing was "Cy Ample." Mel's mother's songs, in the style of the time in which she learned them, usually had some lesson to teach about the foolishness of vanity, as in "Fair Charlotte," or the mistreatment of animals, as in "Cy Ample." There were songs about child labor, the wretchedness of the poor, and the evils of drink.
The family band of the 1930s became the Wayne County Apple Knockers. They played at picnics and fairs, and in 1936, they won first prize in the traditional stringband category at a contest held at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Mel's father played fiddle, Mel played bass, Don played guitar, cousin Henry Durham played banjo, and a young friend, Yale Rosenberg, played mandolin.
The Apple Knockers played for a while on radio station WMBD in Peoria, Illinois, about 60 miles from home. In 1937 they represented the State of Illinois in traditional string-band music at the first National Folk Festival, held in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. "It was big," Mel said. "We did that, and consequently we had a lot of work. We were on that radio station for about three years, usually on the weekends on Friday or Saturday. We played a lot of county fairs, and we were pretty busy. WLS had traveling road shows to promote theWLS Barn Dance. We always went with them." Mel recalls the radio stations of the day as being very modern with good microphones and studios.
The Apple Knockers played together from about 1932 until 1939. The band liked to play songs with a beat and some drive such as "Carroll County Blues," "Salty Dog," and "Pig Ankle Rag." Mel has a play list from one of their dances with "Bilin' Cabbage Down," "Skip to My Lou," "Crawdad Hole," "Cindy," "Old Dan Tucker," "Old Joe Clark," "Whoa, Mule," "Ground Hog, " "Pretty Little Pink, " "Blue Eyed Boy," "Yellow Rose of Texas," "Sweet Kitty Wells," "Press Along to the Big Corral" (also done by the early Sons of the Pioneers), "Drunken Hiccups," "Worried ManBlues," "CarelessLove," "CyAmple," "When I Left the State of Georgia," and "Sugar in My Coffee~." Mel's father wrote a song called "Skillet Fork" about working in a sawmill that belonged to his brotherin-law, Tom Weaver.
Way down yonder in Skillet Fork workin' in a saw mill.
Chasin'those widows on Saturday night.
I won't but old Mel will.
The singer would substitute the name of somebody who was at the dance. The other verses mentioned his cornbread and beans and the like.
Mel remembers hearing a lot of fiddling on the radio. "Growing up through the radio times, there was great old-time fiddling like in Muscatine, Iowa. On Friday nights, they'd fiddle all night long. Back in those days you could broadcast as far as you wanted to before they got any laws. The broadcasters would wet the ground around the towers to get more power to send on. I heard lots of very, very fine musicians. Of course, WLS had a big Barn Dance thing with a lot of good musicians, and there was WSM in Nashville. We could hear them, too. So we heard all of the artists of the day, Arthur Smith, in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mel's father did not go to many fiddle contests, but Mel remembers one held in Bloomington, minois in the late 1920s that his father won.' In the contest you played a couple of different kinds of tunes, and a tune of your own choice. You had your own accompaniment. They judged you on how well you understood the tune. I remember the year he won things were pretty tough. We were coming right up after 1929. He sure brought home a lot of groceries."
Mel Durham, Sr., was a very well respected fiddler in southern Illinois. The local blacksmith, George King, who was also a fiddler, named his son after Mel, Senior. Melvin King, about the same age as Mel, became a pretty good fiddler, too. Mel, Senior died at the age of 55 of his war-related disability. Mel describes him as very upbeat with a wonderful, fun-loving attitude and a great sense of humor, and very familyoriented. Mel thinks the band might have continued if his dad had not died.
Mel met Peg McMahon in high school. Her father had emigrated from Ireland and managed a grain elevator about seven miles south of Pontiac; her mother was Welsh/ Irish. Mel and Peg were married in October 1940 and were married for 54 years. She died in 1994. "She was still my sweetheart," Mel says, and describes her as a very protective mother for whom their three children were everything
Before World War II, while he was waiting to go overseas, Mel played bass for about three years with a very fine Class B jazz band (a local or regional band, whose members typically have day jobs, as opposed to bands like that of Harry James, whose members worked full-time, touring nationally). In the army he played with bands in the 34th Infantry Division and the 88th Division. Mel received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during the war. He was not released from the army until December 1945. "They needed musicians for that group," he explains, "and you didn't go home until a replacement musician was found.".
When he got back, he moved to California in November 1947 and played with the Ray Middleton Trio. In addition to Mel and Middleton, Ralph Larrance played guitar. Ray Middleton heard that Frank Gould's bass player was leaving and Mel got the job. For eight years Mel made his living as a full-time musician with Frankie Gould's Big Band.
Gould's band worked the Crystal Ballroom in Long Beach for about three and a half years, and then did another three and a half years at the Majestic on the Pike. They also played at Horace Heidt's Ballroom in Southgate. "At that time I was doing nothing but playing music," Mel said. "It was a good job. It paid very well. But affer the youngsters started coming, I didn't have anything to do in the daytime, and I didn't have anybody to run around with. So I got into management in the appliance and furniture business." Four-piece rockbands had taken over all the old dance halls, and the big bands disappeared almost overnight.
In 1958, Mel got into bluegrass. Mel played with Ron LeGrand, a left-handed banjo player, Tom Keuhl, guitar and lead singer, Richard McEwen, dobro and guitar, and Evan Anderson, mandolin. At different times, Bill Cunningham from Asheville, North Carolina, and Jack Carter from Rosine, Kentucky, played fiddle. Jack Carter also had his own band, Jack Carter and the Country Ramblers, which featured Mel on bass. In the late '50s, Mel, Carter, Truman Adams, and Don Durham were the house band at Sunny Hills, a former citrus packing plant which was the mecca for square dancers from all over the country. It had beautiful hardwood floors and held 150 to 200 squares at a time. Some of the callers they worked with included Glen Story, Bob Ruff from Whittier, two brothers named Van Antwerp from Long Beach, and Carl Nelson from the Valley. The band also recorded on the Windsor, MacGregor, and Sets in Order labels..
Mel played with LeGrand for more than 25 years in various bands and played with Anderson for a long time, too. Mel describes the bands, "We'd change from the Bluegrass Ramblers to Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party and then that split. I went with the Wild Oats group. Aunt Dinah did a national TV show with Andy Williams in 1967. We worked on channel 5 in town. We were a very, very active band. We stayed steadily employed doing that. We knew Clarence White and that group of very fine musicians. We pretty much knew them all." The Bluegrass Ramblers, which was active from 1958 through the early 1960s was led by Tom Kuehl and Herb Rice, father of Tony, Larry, and Wyatt. Red Ashley played fiddle, and Ron LeGrand played banjo.
LeGrand describes Mel as dynamic, funny, witty, the best slap-bassist on the West coast, someone wise to get good counsel from, and adds, "He is like a father to me."Ron never performs "Salty Dog Blues," without publicly dedicating it to Mel Durham. Mel and Ron played together in about 1961 with Richard McEwen and Wendall Millis in the Wilmore City Muckrakers (Wilmore City is the original name of Long Beach). Around 1965, Ron put together the Cumberland County Boys with McEwen, Curt Malloy, and, at one point, Larry Rice. Affer that came the Fly-By-Night Fleabags in which Mel and Ron were joined by Bill Cunningham, Sonny Larson, Jack Carter, and Ben Wightman. Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party was another LeGrand band, which played at Sid's Blue Beet in Newport for more than four years. Aunt Dinah did a lot of work for southern California auto dealership magnate Cal Worthington (and his dog, Spot). Aunt Dinah cut LPs for Blue Dolphin and Rural Rhythm Records.
Wild Oats was the final LeGrand band, established in 1969, with the motto: "Fiddles, Banjos, Cowboy Boots, Fuzztones, Tequila, and Good Times." They played at Ronald Reagan's gubernatorial victory party in the 1970s and were also invited to be the performing band at his presidential nomination victory party held at Century Plaza in 1980. Wild Oats opened Magic Mountain, played at Disneyland for five years, and also played at Knotts Berry Farm. Personnel changed a lot in the various bands. Bruce Johnson, a well-known Los Angeles area bluegrass fiddler who currently plays guitar with the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, recalls playing with the band and speaks very highly of Mel. Bass player Bill Bryson, also with the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, also spoke of Mel with great respect.
Mel was often called on to play bass with visiting bluegrass musicians or with local musicians. Del McCoury and Billy Baker (Kenny's cousin) moved to southern California in 1964 and formed The Shady Valley Boys with Steve Stevenson on banjo and Mel on bass. They played for a few weeks on live television for car dealer Cal Worthington, and they could have played at Disneyland through the summer, but Del and Billy and their families moved back east. The band was together for only about five months.
Mel remembers his first meeting with Ray Park, then playing with Vern Williams as Vern and Ray. "The first time I met up with Ray Park I was the part owner of a club called the House of the Rising Sun in the Torrance area. Ray was with Vern Williams. Vern played mandolin, and Ray was playing guitar. They came down and worked for us, and that was the first time I met him. I never even knew he was a fiddler. But he is a very fine fiddler and a great vocalist, a great harmony man. I played bass with Vern and Ray one night, filling in. I didn't travel with them because they were from up around Placerville. I didn't run up with Ray again until about 15 years ago and found out he played fiddle." Mel was one of three owners of the House of the Rising Sun. They bought the club as a going concern and sold it after two or three years. Some of the acts that played there included the Dillards, Hoyt Axton, Stuart Clay, Vern and Ray, and Mel's band Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party.
Ray Park later moved to the Los Angeles area. Ray and Mel played bluegrass together in the Ray Park Rangers at Knotts Berry Farm and the Harvest Festival for about eight years. The Harvest Festival includes crafts and music and moves to a different town each weekend: Phoenix, Arizona, Long Beach, Anaheim, San Diego, Riverside, Pomona, and two weeks in Los Angeles. The Rangers also included Larry Park, Dennis Caplinger, and Ross Landry.
Ray Park remembers that Mel was always on time and ready to play, the consummate professional. Ray says, "If I had five Mel Durhams, I'd have the best band in the world." But he adds, "I'm the only guy that can eat more beans than Mel can."
Mel was not playing jazz any more, and he was not playing the fiddle. In fact, he did not play the fiddle from about 1939 until nearly 1960. He explains how he came back to it. "When the folk craze started, I got back into it. I was still playing bass; I wasn't playing fiddle. But then in a short time I began to fiddle a little bit, and in 1968 the Old-Time Fiddlers Association came to Signal Hill. I went down a few times with my brother Don and joined. You could go on a Sunday and play traditional fiddle music. Some other places you could play bluegrass or anything. But one of the clubs had traditional fiddling only. It was for the preservation of traditional fiddling. Fiddle was the only lead instrument. Boy, there were a lot of fine fiddlers. Lots of them have gone on to that big picking party in the sky. In fact, I'm still president of that association now after about 15 years."
It was at the Old-Time Fiddlers gatherings that Mel met people like Earl Collins. Mel recalls, "I spent many, many hours with Earl[we] play a lot of the same tunes. Everybody calls him Oklahoma; he's really a Missouri fiddler. Earl was born in Missouri, and his fiddling is largely Missouri tunes. I've heard tapes of a Missouri fiddler named Bob Holt whom I don't know. He plays several of the tunes that I play, and we play them very closely alike." Mel went up a few days early to the first week of the 1996 Festival of American Fiddle Tunes to meet Bob Holt (Mel was scheduled to be there the second week), and the two had a chance to meet and play together.
Mel also remembers an old gentleman named Cork Carpenter, who knew Eck Robertson and many other famous fiddlers. Bob Rodgers, Howard and Neal Moore, and others also belonged to the group. And at the Old-Time Fiddlers gatherings Mel got to know Byron Berline, who would sometimes play with Mel's bluegrass bands. Mel played with Byron, John McCuen, Marty Stuart, Vassar Clements, and some others on Austin City Limits back in the 1970s.
Byron Berline fondly refers to Mel as "brother-in-law"; Mel calls Byron the same thing. Byron doesn't know why. He first met Mel when he moved to Los Angeles in 1969. They jammed a lot together and played in some shows. Byron used to sit in with Wild Oats and with Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party. Byron says, "Mel has always had a great sense of humor S we were always kidding around."
As time went on Mel began to remember the old tunes he had learned from his father and uncle in southern Illinois. In the mid-60s Mel met another California musician, Tom Sauber, at the Old-Time Fiddlers. Of Tom, Mel says, "He's like my boy. We've been very closely associated over all these years."
Tom recalls first meeting Mel, who played "a nice, clean, sparse style, pretty much the same as he plays now. Mel had a small repertoire of tunes that were definitely his tunes." Tom says, "My clearest memory is of Mel teaching me tunes, because I was at that time really playing more bluegrass. I was playing banjo with Mel and Mel's brother Don, who was a phenomenal rhythm guitar player. Mel showed me a lot of his repertoire slowed down so I could learn to play it."
"Mel was also playing bluegrass bass when I met him," Tom adds. "I'd go down to see him all the time at a nice restaurant gig in Newport Beach. That band eventually evolved into a kind of country rock/bluegrass band, Wild Oats. At some point they recruited me to play fiddle. I had a lot of fun. It was a unique band. They had electric guitar and pedal steel, and also somebody who played banjo in those tunes."
Tom describes Mel as "open as he could be, somebody who's brimming over with love of anything to do with old-time music and bluegrass. He's played all types of music so his ears are totally open to anything, and he is more than willing to share all of his experiences. One of the great things about Mel is just the fact that he's so physically fit and activeit's either an inspiration or just disgusting. Here would be Mel, this older guy (though he wasn't even 60 when I met him), playing church league basketball two nights a week, lifting weights, and a serious runner hanging out with the rest of us slugs."
Of his own family, Mel says, "My number two son is an excellent musician. He plays good five-string banjo but doesn't play much. He plays guitar, plays the blues, and plays good surf rock and roll on a '52 Tele[caster] that I gave him." Eldest son James was born in 1947 and lives in the Seattle/Tacoma area. John, the musician, lives in San Diego and was born in 1950. Mel's daughter Judy was born in 1954 and lives near Mountain View, Arkansas.
Once he got back into old-time fiddling, Mel felt he had a choice to make. "I decided I either had to quit playing fiddle or I had to practice and play. So I did. I got really into it. I started playing my fiddle more and more. Then I got individual bookings for just fiddle. Cities would hire you, farm festivals, even the Robinson-Mayes department stores. The last couple of years have been quite good. I play fiddle tunes, and they love it. Sometimes I play with Tom, or we use three people. People actually love it. It's just great to do it."
Mel feels that old-time fiddling is a living tradition. "I've heard some real young people who are into traditional fiddling and they're very good, too. Hopefully, we can keep this going and keep that part of our culture alive. You've got traditional fiddling, and you've got Texas-style fiddling, which is like a classical style applied to the music. Quite often it takes a tune out of context. There's that difference. They're good to listen to, but they have that real classical technique. It's quite a jump from traditional music. That doesn't mean that traditional music isn't good. To play traditional music, you've got to be in tune and meter. Sometimes people think if you play authentic music, you've almost got to be out of tune. That isn't the case. My dad wouldn't move his bow if there was anybody out of tune. You want to play well, have the technique, have that certain sound that real traditional music has. I like a good guitarist who plays open chords, and I do like old-time banjo with my fiddling. If I'm going to play 'Take Me Back to Tulsa,' then you can play bar chords."
In 1992 Mel was invited up to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. He thinks he was invited because they wanted fiddlers from different areas with their own style. He taught five tunes that his students had never heard before. Mel recalls, "I have a little tune that I've never heard anybody play but me. It's a great square-dance tune. It's not the name I learned it by, but we call it 'Jingle at the Window, Tidy-O,' key of D, just a lively square-dance tune." Mel returned to Port Townsend in 1996 as a performer and fiddle tutor. Unlike many older fiddlers, Mel is able to break down his bowing and teach it in detail. He was also an honoree at the 1996 Solstice Festival in Calabasas, California.
Mel learned "Jingle at the Window, Tidy-O" from his father as he did most of his tunes. He also learned some from his uncle, Willie Howell. Mel says his uncle "was close to a Texas fiddler: he played long bow, and he played a lot of notes. I liked to hear him play hornpipes. I used to follow him around to hear him whistle 'Grey Eagle.'" Uncle Willie was from Mel's grandmother's side of the family.
Another tune Mel played at Port Townsend is "Rocky Mountain." Some people said it sounds a bit like "Rocky Mountain Goat," which Mel has not heard. Mel plays a tune called "Take Me Back to Georgia." He used to say of that tune, "I have not yet heard anybody play it unless they learned it from me." In Port Townsend he learned that Bob Holt plays it under another name. "Going to the Free State" is another old tune. Mel had not heard it played in Los Angeles, but in Port Townsend there were some people who played it as "Avalon Quickstep." Mel tells a story about another tune: "I played one tune for a fellow named Jack Phillips, who knows Chirps Smith, and he said, 'Chirps Smith plays that tune.' I said, 'What's he call it?' Then he told a story about Lotus Dickey. Dickey was trying to remember a tune and came up with this one instead. He couldn't remember the name so the guy recording it says, 'Well, we'll call it "Dickey's Discovery." We call it "King's Lament" after George King, a blacksmith and a fiddler in Johnsonville, Illinois. I got the tune through my dad. I played it for Chirps, and he said, 'That's the tune all right.' He said maybe that's the name, and I said I wouldn't bet on it because a lot of tunes have different names."
Some other tunes in Mel's repertoire are "Birdie" in the key of G, "Eatin' Cabbage," "Wagoner's One-Step" in C, "Over the Mountain," "Alonzo Janes," both in A, "Give the Fiddler a Dram," "Grey Eagle," "Ryestraw," "Soldier's Joy," "Too Young to Get Married," and a lot of standard tunes. His "Guilder Roy" is a lot like "Red Haired Boy"; the top part is the same. Mel says that his tune "Pussy and the Baby" is the old Irish tune "Boys of Blue Hill" converted from a jig to a reel.
Mel is an avid collector of fiddles and lots of other things. He says, "I have my dad's Stainer. Stainer studied under Guarneri. Up until the Stradivarius took over, the Jacobus Stainer was the most popular instrument for chamber music in Europe. But I play a French violin made by Francois Salzard. I've had it for 46 years. It's a sweet instrument. And I have another Stainer with me. Of course, I have about 50 violins. I have a lot of very, very fine instruments. I have thirty or forty old-time banjos. I have a Fairbanks Whyte Laydie #7 made in 1902 and sold in 1903 for $100, no sales tax. I even have the bill of sale.
I like to collect things. I used to have a car collection. I had five 1932 Auburn automobiles. One of them was a V-12 Boattail Roadster; it sent my kids through college. I've just been a collector all my life. I just hop from one hobby to another. I picked up the instruments in different places: swap meets, house sales, ads. I never paid market price for anything. Some of them are fine name-brand banjos; some don't have a name on them. You don't find them like you used to. The Japanese collectors asked about my Whyte Laydie, but I told them I wasn't interested. I might give it to my son. I'm getting close to the end of the trail so I'd better put names on them. I've got a couple of things already laid away for Tom. One of them is really a fine old-timey banjo with 38 brackets. By the way, if I can't take it with me, I ain't goin'!"
Talking about this end of his life reminded Mel of his beginnings. "One thing that I can say, there are good times and bad times. I had a very loving mother and father. My mother, incidentally, went through the eighth grade and was very adamant that you had to get at least a high school education. She loved us and took care of us. We were never abused. But we had very strict parents. We knew what 'no' meant, or we found out."
Mel continues, "Then came the depression times. We always had plenty of food and a big garden. We learned how to do all that stuff as youngsters. A river ran right through town, and we fished and hunted. We didn't have a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun. We had love at home, and all of us went to school, and all of us were good students. In high school I was not very big, but I lettered in basketball and gymnastics.
"In the length of my life, I saw my first automobile when I was about three years old. It was on a rainy, wet day, and it was all clay roads down there. A horse was hitched to the car because the mud was so deep. That was the doctor; he was making a call. I asked my mom; she told me it was an automobile. I saw my first airplane probably in about 1919 or 1920; it was a Jenny two-winger. In the 1920s we had radio come. I remember as a little kid listening to a crystal set; you could Nashville, Tennessee; you could get some really good old-time fiddling. That was like coming home, hearing that. Every Friday night up through the thirties in Muscatine, Iowa, they started fiddling at 7 at night and were still fiddling at 7 the next morning. We'd be up all night every Friday night. We could always get this great kind of music that we were kind of made of, too.
"I saw a two-inch TV in Chicago at the World's Fair. Then came World War II. Then the man on the moon. Now I'm a grandpa."
Steve Goldfield reviews old-time music for Bluegrass Unlimited and Fiddler magazines, and has written about old-time music for Mel Bay Publications. In 1995 he started the Internet discussion group rec.music.country.old-time. He wrote an article titled "Old-Time Music On the Information Highway" for the summer 1995 issue of the OTH.
Carolyn Russell is president of The Living Tradition, a nonprofit group working for the support and preservation of traditional music and dance in Orange County, CA. She has written for Folk Roots and Folk Dance Scene, as well as for the West Coast Cajun and Zydeco Assn.
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