My family has long had a close relationship to the making of music. If you go back far enough in my mother’s family, we were probably connected to the German composer of operas and organ music, Johann Georg Kühnhausen, whose Matthäus-Passion (Saint Matthew’s Passion) is still occasionally performed. But for the most part, we played much more informally.
My father and several of his buddies toured around Eastern Washington in the 1930s and 1940s, playing dances in little towns like Othello and White Bluffs as the Five Jives. Two of his brothers were members of a long-lasting semi-professional band that formed under Steve Laughery in Moses Lake and which continued to tour the west after Laughery died in a landslide. The memory of these bands survive in some of the artifacts we still possess, some sheet music inscribed with “Five Jives” and a couple of vinyl albums from the Many Sounds of Nine, my uncles’ band. I have written before about the old violin my father used to play, passed on to him from one of my mother’s uncles. I use it to play dance music in a couple of contra-dance bands in Northwestern Washington now.
Last month I found a very interesting instrument, seemingly meant for me. It had a peculiar back story and it fit a special niche in a musician’s repertoire. For there will always be a time when you want to create the most annoying sound you can musically make. In this case, with a banjo ukulele.
There was no brand on the peg head of this instrument. It is made of blonde maple, with a wooden back that fits onto the instrument with a single screw. The metal resonator ring bears the inscription “Elton,” a company that marketed their instruments through many retail outfits. Montgomery Ward carried their products during the thirties. The man who consigned the banjo ukulele did some restorative work on it, probably replacing the head and the tuners, maybe a few other things as well. One thing he did not tamper with was the pair of old photographs glued inside the wooden back, portraits of two dashing young men who bear the monikers Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart.
I guess these two never made it to the scale of stardom that would forever make people stop and say, “Oh, yeah! I remember when they played the Paramount. That was some concert!” No Rolling Stones or Van Halen. Who these men were, I will probably never know, but I can relate to the fact that they staked their claims to fame on the inner wall of a banjo ukulele that was probably purchased from Montgomery Ward. If there is anyone out there who knows something about these guys, be sure to let me know.
My attempt to immortalize my fellow musicians and myself was much more subtle. When I first moved to the Bellingham area, my wife and I had fairly frequent musical gatherings at our house. In honor of those occasions, I drew an image of one evening’s festivities, but I made the musical personalities into various forms of animalia.
Amongst others, the banjo-playing bear was David Nerad, a local luthier and fine musician. His wife, Margie Katz is the horse clomping out chords on the piano…I always intended that to be a total farce, considering how finely formed her chords were. Some of the animals, incidentally, were from life, also. That white horse lived in our barn and once sent me to the Emergency Room with a hole in my neck that required fourteen stitches (on Christmas Day, no less). The cat playing guitar (based on my lap cat, Tolstoy, may he rest in peace) represents one of many guitar players in coveralls. Mike Schway was that guy in these sessions. There is a green frog in front, squeezing a concertina at an angry-looking rabbit playing a bodhran. That would, of course, be me and my old friend Randy Mohr. His hurdy-gurdy wasn’t a good fit to those sessions, so he played the bodhran or a mandolin. The willowy looking rat in the Hawaiian shirt would have been fiddler Ward Beebe. He and Margie and I once had a contra band in Seattle. The Weimaraner was one of our house-dogs at the time. She once foiled a burglary, also during the Christmas season. She plays…as one might expect…bones. Also present, the fiddle-sawing beaver, many local musicians might fit this description, and a barn mouse who is simply observing the jam.
Weeping Willow and Loansome Hart reminded me that the animal jam would be a meaningless parody without the key to the personalities in the picture. Remember this.