What’s Wrong with the World

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Fiddling in the Mountains

I live for those moments when old time musicians just happen to meet together with no particular plans. Yesterday afternoon at the mountain fair, between fiddle concerts, some of these folks gathered casually on the front porch of a wooden building - a replica of a western-style “general store” – seating themselves upon rocking chairs and bales of straw. This was another impromptu “jam session”, a venerable tradition in old-time music circles that, when respected, creates its own incredible magic. The elder musicians delight in coaching and coaxing the children. They’ll play as slow as the youngsters need them to play, leading when possible and, of course, following when unavoidable! For them, it’s all about keeping the tradition alive, and that means inspiring the young people and building their confidence.

The musicians seemed oblivious to the surprise late-summer downpour, which was plenty noisy, though I can’t say whether any of the old buildings had a tin roof. As the mules splashed in the mud just fifteen feet away from my chair, gnawing at the wood fence, a seven year old girl in a homemade dress called out “Swallowtail Jig” and started in with her fiddle. So much for listening to the rain. The older musicians quickly jumped in and the rousing Irish jig began to attract a crowd. Ear-to-ear smiles, clapping, and delight all around.

Now a pretty young lady from the crowd begins to dance, all by herself, moving with astonishing grace and poise, though perhaps just a little too … freely. Some of us aren’t sure whether she is to be trusted, but I for one am captivated by her skill and decide, for the moment, not to give it another thought. A few songs later comes another stranger from the crowd, a matronly woman from Guadalajara in a colorful Mexican costume. She asks the lead guitarist to accompany her while she sings a few lovely ballads in Spanish. One can tell that, back in the day, she had a voice worthy of Lola Beltran. Hey, maybe she is Lola Beltran! In honor of this stranger’s Mexican roots, the group launches into “Jesse’s Polka” and thereafter returns to its familiar hoedowns, waltzes, and other favorites.

So, what does this have to do with anything? I don’t know. It all put me in the mood of John O’Keefe’s outrageously pollyannish jingle:

A glass is good
And a lass is good
And a pipe to smoke in cold weather;
The world is good
And people are good
And we’re all good fellows together

It’s easy to forget how much humanity is left when stripped of its crude ideologies. Indeed, there is an inverse relationship between the prospering of humanity and the burden of ideology, which is modernity's substitute for God. I think I share with my fellow contributors – and with most of this site’s devoted readers – a desire to make the world as safe for humanity, and as free from ideology, as is possible this side of the beatific vision.

Comments (10)

Now a pretty young lady from the crowd begins to dance, all by herself, moving with astonishing grace and poise, though perhaps just a little too … freely.

So you didn't take any pictures? So I could judge for myself? Better yet, a movie?

There is an inverse relationship between the prospering of humanity and the burden of ideology, which is modernity's substitute for God.

That is a keeper, right there.

I agree. I get so tired of tired ideologies and just want people to be people like they are sometimes as at the place you describe.

I love those scenes in a movie when people are at a park or a concert or a restaurant and everyone is simply at peace with each other and the world.

Excellent, excellent post, Jeff, to which I say a hearty "Amen." A reminder of good times. I forget who it was who said that politics is medicine rather than a sign of health.

If you haven't done so yet, do rent or buy a copy of the DVD 'Awake My Soul,' about Sacred Harp singing, which depicts this very type of thing in action. It's both a marvel and a model of how cultural traditions should be passed along to the young'uns. Plus it's hugely entertaining and very moving in spots.


What a lovely way to start the week! I hope that, when I get to Ireland, this tradition is still alive in their pubs as I hear it is.


Bill: Of all people, I trust your imagination can fill in the details. :-)

Lydia: Bravo to your statement that "politics is medicine rather than a sign of health". I'll borrow that one, if you don't mind.

Rob G: I second your recommendation of "Awake My Soul". Not only have we seen the documentary, but we have had the pleasure of hosting sacred harp singers in our living room. An experience not to be missed. Sacred harp is outside of our own religious and cultural milieu, but it's admirable just the same.

Kamilla: Thank you, and please report on your Irish pub adventures!

Jeff C.,

I'm not particularly fond of fiddle music and yet I found myself wishing I could be there! Great story.

"Sacred harp is outside of our own religious and cultural milieu, but it's admirable just the same."

I think that beyond the appeal of the music and the heart with which it's sung, the underlying approach to tradition on evidence in Sacred Harp will strike a chord with anyone who wants to hand on their culture to their children: intentionality, multigenerational involvement, respect not only for what is being passed on but for the elders doing the passing, remembrance of and honor for the deceased of the tradition, the importance of place, etc. -- all these things are vital to the continuance of any tradition.

If we were somehow able to take the lessons of 'Awake My Soul' and apply them culture-wide, we'd be on our way to taking our country back.

Oh, and by the way, I do think that if we Orthodox and Catholics sang our hymns with half the feeling and energy that the Sacred Harp folks sing theirs, we'd have a lot fewer empty pews come Sunday. Just a simple matter of singing like you mean it!

Great post Jeff. My kids have been involved in traditional music for 15 yrs. now. We started out as bluegrass musicians, but in the Chicago area it was just easier to find pub sessions with Irish musicians so we migrated over to the Irish side. My daughter has been a competitive fiddler in both traditions, but the trips down to Kentucky became difficult and she felt herself to be more competent in the Irish tradition, so she focused on that alone. It resulted in two trips to Ireland in 2006 and 2008 to compete at the Fleadh.
Traditional music has been a blessing to our family and I have observed that the principle of discipleship is more faithfully exhibited in the generation to generation transmission of the music than the transmission of the Gospel is in most churches today. Speaking as an evangelical Christian.

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