Published December 15, 2008 in The Alliance Review
When I met him, my friend Tom joked that he wanted his ashes to be entombed in his mandolin. He loved that mandolin and infected me with that love, and I wasn’t happy until I had bought one of my own. He was an amazingly multitalented man and one of my greatest influences. Now he’s crossed over to Fiddler’s Green, the sailor’s heaven, where his glass is always full and the music never ends.
The late Tom Perkins claimed in a letter written from New Mexico after his retirement that years of technical reports had beaten all expressiveness out of his writing, but his correspondence repeatedly disproved that claim. He illustrated points with such diverse subjects as psychology, philosophy, history, mythology and physics. He was a retired geologist and in one letter drew a cross-section of Rio Grande valley faulting to explain the region’s topography. Mainly, though, he wrote about music, encouraging my studies, sending tunes he had written and reporting on his music studies.
I met Tom in 1989 at a traditional music session at Quail Hollow State Park. I had attended the sessions for a year as a listener, reluctant to take my violin because everyone at the sessions played without music. But I took my violin that night, and when Tom, discussing Celtic music with a hammer dulcimer player, pulled out a page of music, I asked if I could join. On that page were three Welsh tunes Tom had transcribed from a record. We played that music and followed it with tunes written by an Irish harper named O’Carolan, Tom playing flute, the woman on hammer dulcimer and a man playing 12-string guitar.
I discovered that night that some traditional music can be played from the printed page and some can be arranged in the more complex styles that I enjoy. I attended more sessions that winter, and the next year Tom began mentoring me in Celtic music. He recorded records, provided more sheet music and introduced me to Celtic mandolins. He formed a Celtic band in 1990 and asked me to join that fall, two weeks after I married the woman who was playing hammer dulcimer that first night. We named our group The Bog Carrot after an Irish reel. The other members of the band were Mark Roliff, the 12-string guitarist from the Quail Hollow session, and Jody Byers, whom we also met at Quail Hollow. Tom played flute, Irish whistle, guitar, mandolin, octave mandolin, recorder and bodhran; Mark played guitar, recorder, octave mandolin, bodhran and hurdy gurdy; Jody played hammer dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, concertina and melodeon; and I played violin, mandolin and mandola. We played together for 10 years, more often for our own enjoyment than in public, and disbanded in 2000 when Tom began studying flamenco guitar and I began studying colonial music.
We reunited for a farewell music session in September 2005 just before Tom and his wife, Eileen, moved to New Mexico, and that session relit our Celtic fire. It was ironic that Tom and I found new joy in Celtic music just when geography made sessions impossible. But we enjoyed corresponding, Tom’s letters bursting with encouragement and advice on my struggles with Celtic violin, and we knew that some day we would play and record again.
But in late 2007 Tom went to the doctor after he began “crabwalking,” as Mark described it, and the doctors found an aggressive brain tumor. Surgery and treatment gave temporary relief, but the tumor returned worse than before, and the doctor gave Tom three months.
I called Tom after hearing the news, and I told him that he was one of my greatest musical influences, that he introduced me to the world of Celtic music. I am forever grateful for the wealth of material he steered my way and for his often intimidating and always inspiring scholarship and enthusiasm. I can still hear his classically influenced finger-picked guitar on O’Carolan tunes and his strong, driving guitar strums as I practice Celtic rhythm. He said in one of his letters that he could hear my fiddle while he practiced his flute, and I can hear the opposite, his clean, crisp penny whistle and his rich wooden flute on Irish, Scottish and Welsh melodies.
Tom said in that final conversation that we will some day play together, and I believe him. And I hope he knows that everybody I touch with my music is touched by Tom Perkins. His drive to excel drove me to greater heights than I would have reached on my own. With violin and mandolin in hand, I shall encounter him again on Fiddler’s Green.