We wondered if the man in the handlebar mustache would be there. He always stood in the back of the room while his wife played the bass. Most nights he would pick up a banjo and struggle to play along with the more seasoned musicians.
Music didn’t come naturally to either of them. They played softly and tentatively, grimacing when they missed notes. The man never joined the jam, but over time his wife mastered enough chords to join the other musicians. She remained ill at ease when she played.
Last week, Brenda and I ventured to one of our favorite places to visit, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. We both appreciate the history embodied there, its people, and its quaint out-of-the-way places.
We meandered along the downtown streets before we entered one of our much loved destinations; the old music store and the bluegrass jam.
Bluegrass music in Gettysburg has a rich history. Brenda and I first stopped in the Arrow Horse music store to listen to the local musicians and their unique music one night nearly twenty years ago. Every Friday at seven o’clock, the doors opened and we walked into a world of music that had virtually gone unchanged for generations. There is comfort in tradition. There is a sense of family in bluegrass music.
There are times when we need security in this careless world. The bluegrass jam at the Arrow Horse was just the balm we needed when we wanted to escape for a couple of hours into a place that was safe, constant and consistent, to go to the same location and to see the same people. There was something soothing about seeing the owner’s dog lying in front of the screen door. The dog never barked. He just watched as we walked inside.
We felt good knowing that Larry, Kenny, and Johnny would be playing their guitars, fiddles and mandolins, and singing their songs in the historic shop with its smooth, wooden floors.
We knew, too, of course, that things change, often quickly. People come and go. But, we had found a place and a sense of time we never wanted to end. We wanted it to last forever.
Most of the downtown stores are still there, but as we walked into the Arrow Horse at 49 Chambersburg Street last week we discovered the biggest change of all.
Dresses, blouses, and sweaters invaded the store windows where banjos, guitars, and fiddles were once marked for sale.
The old music store was now a dress shop.
A small sign on the window told us the jam sessions had moved to the YMCA across town. Disappointed by the news, we decided to venture to the Y. The air was cold and the windblown drizzle seemed to penetrate us deeper as we walked toward the front door of the fitness club. The scent of chlorine had replaced the familiar smells of rosin and fresh-brewed coffee.
The room was too bright for bluegrass. The music is best played where the twilight shadows lengthen, or on the front porch just after dinner before the sun starts to go down.
Terry the left-handed guitar player was still there. He sat beside a 96-year-old fiddle player who at one time had been the East Coast Champion. A woman sitting next to Brenda told her that Donnie, the guitar player, had come back after years away from the group. She said Donnie had ‘found the Lord’ just four years ago.
The people had grown older. Many of the men seemed to have palsy, their fingers shaking as they strummed the strings. They could still play, but lacked the once familiar confidence. They gallantly battled old age.
Within a minute, we knew our bluegrass experience in Gettysburg had changed forever.
We were told Frank had retired. Kenny and Johnny had died. Larry, the best musician of the group, had gotten mad and quit.
“Where is the man with the handlebar mustache and his wife?” Brenda asked the woman beside her.
A look of sadness crossed the woman’s face. Quietly, she whispered, “Oh, that’s a sad story. Just about a year ago now, he walked into the family barn and hanged himself.”
The 96-year-old fiddler put down his bow and began to sing in a high, lonesome tenor voice:
“I can’t sleep and I can’t eat all I do is sit and cry,” “And listen for your footsteps at my door,” “I keep asking myself why that you never said goodbye,” “And I guess I’ve cried a million tears or more.”
We mourned not only for the man with the handlebar mustache, and his wife, but we mourned for the Arrow Horse, the musicians, and in a sense, for ourselves. We know deep down that life is short, and that all things change eventually, and yet we are infinitely surprised when the change occurs.
Sometimes the things we can’t change end up changing us.
This was one of those times.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.