Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The First Meeting

Tom Perkins and his James Jones mandolin in the early 1990s.
I was sick the night I first played in a traditional music session. I had a cold, and when I get a cold I sign up for the first class edition, featuring all the best in fever and fatigue, rendering me incapable of functioning in any meaningful way. My dad suffered in similar fashion. It wasn't quite that bad that night, but I told my friend Brian when he arrived to pick me up for the session that I wasn't going.
"You're going!" he snapped. "Get in the car." So I went.
I had attended the traditional sessions at Quail Hollow State Park near Hartville for a year, from 1988 to 1989, always watching and listening, never playing, because I did not know the music, and those folks used no printed music. But that fall, in October, they played a few familiar tunes, and I thought, "I can play that," so I took my violin to that third session of the season, on Nov. 2.

The centerpiece of Quail Hollow is the Manor House, a sprawling white wooden building with delightfully creaky floors and a library at the far end that always entices me with its shelves of nature and science books in the nook off its main room. The Appalachian musicians held forth in the library, bluegrassers picked near the main entrance, and those I joined, who played a mix of Celtic and American tunes, gathered in the dining room in the middle of the house.
It was a large group at first, and I sat suffering from sickness, leaning my head back against a side wall, until several players departed for the library, leaving only two men, Tom and Mark, and a woman, Annette. Tom pulled out a piece of sheet music, and Annette, who played hammer dulcimer, had a thin book of tunes, so I asked if I could join them. The single piece of music contained three Welsh tunes that Tom had transcribed from a record he owned, and I had hardly played a few tunes when Annette said, "You can play like that and you've been sitting there with your violin in the case?!" Or something like that. I wasn't anything great on violin but was better, I guess, than the average self-taught fiddler.
Annette's book was a small collection of tunes by the 18th-century Irish harper Turlough O'Carolan published by The Kitchen Musician, Sara Johnson of Cincinnati, and, having long loved Baroque music, I immediately took to O'Carolan's music, an enchanting hybrid of traditional Irish and Baroque styles. Tom played a wooden flute, and Mark accompanied on his 12-string Taylor guitar.
Soon the others returned: Dennis, who played guitar and upright bass; his daughter Becky, whistle, flute and guitar; and Mike, hammer dulcimer and bodhran, an Irish hand drum. With the return of that group the tunes gained tempo and momentum, and I improvised using my knowledge of chords, not knowing the melodies.
Tom also played guitar and mandolin. His mandolin was shaped more like a pear and lacked the scroll you see on the typical bluegrass mandolin, and it sounded gorgeous. He said a man named James Jones built it.
I left that night brimming with joy, and when I sat in Brian's car, I thought, "I feel awful." I had completely forgotten about my illness during the music.
Thus began my introduction to and immersion into the world of traditional music, and just over the horizon lay a world of Celtic mandolins that became my calling.
A good view of the Quail Hollow Manor House is at

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