Posts Tagged ‘Fiddle’

In Memoriam: Jim Brock

DSCN6917A legendary fiddler passed away last week. Mr. Jim Brock of the small town of Aliceville, Alabama, was a much more influential figure than many who knew him casually probably realize. In recent years he had recorded a couple of CDs locally (Me and My Fiddle and The First 55 Years), but hadn’t been active on the music scene.

Starting in 1952, though, he played with Carl Sauceman and the Green Valley Boys who had syndicated shows on radio and television. He would go on to play with Jim and Jesse and the Virgina Boys and with Bill Monroe and others, as well as to have a regular stint at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

The way I met Mr. Brock, as we always called him, was when our son, Aidan, started taking fiddle lessons with him. This was one of the greatest opportunities we had through our local Arts Council. We saw in the paper that Mr. Brock would be giving lessons, and Aidan had been playing violin with the local Suzuki group for awhile. We’d heard Mr. Brock play with a young local fiddler named Ruby Jane Smith, who he’d also taught, so we knew it was an incredible opportunity.

When we first started lessons, it was quite an adjustment, though. Mr. Brock told us right away that he didn’t read music, so Aidan would be learning everything by ear. That took a little getting used to, but Mr. Brock suggested we bring a video recorder to tape the songs, so Aidan could use that to practice with. After about 8 years of lessons, we have many, many hours and about 250 songs on tape, some well known standards and some West Alabama tunes few others know. By that point, Aidan and Jim were stretching Mr. Brock’s repertoire and getting beyond the point where taping was even necessary. Mr. Brock had introduced us to other fiddler greats, and Aidan often picked tunes up from their CDs.

Along the way, we moved from taking lessons in town at the Arts Council to taking them from Mr. Brock at his house in Aliceville. We often made the drive on Sunday afternoons down Hwy 69 from Columbus, through Pickinsville, and on to Mr. Brock’s house. So the drive this past Sunday down to the funeral chapel for visitation was a sad but familiar one. It was good to see his son Jimmy, who played with his dad in The Echoes, and his daughter and son-in-law and to pay our respects.

Jim Brock was a very humble and giving man, for whom passing on this music was clearly the most important aspect of the lessons he gave to our son and several other students. During the lessons Mr. Brock would often tell stories of the fiddlers he’d played with over the years, the jokes they’d tell, the wild life some of them (but not Jim) got into on the road. I often wished I’d had that recorder going when he launched into a story.

In addition to the lessons, Mr. Brock aslo encouraged Aidan to perform, asking him to join in on a few tunes when he played a concert at the Arts Council and agreeing to play with Aidan for the Columbus Pilgrimage or other events. And he invited Aidan to come out and sit in with him and Gene Robertson’s band, The Echoes, at a local dance. It was there I finally learned the two-step (at least a little) and got to know a great group of locals who liked to come out to the senior center to dance and have a potluck twice a month. Eventually, Aidan would put on his own concerts and invite Jim Brock to join him on a few songs.

Jim Brock became more of a friend and mentor than a music teacher. The world has lost a great soul with his passing, and though we know he is better off, we still mourn his loss.  We are honored to have known and learned from this master fiddler and generous man.


Unexpected Pleasures

One of the challenges of living in a small town can sometimes seem to be the lack of culture. There’s actually more to do than you might realize, and sometimes it’s just that you can’t find the time to do it. Life can keep you busy, but getting out to enjoy some culture when it comes around is vital to recharging those batteries. This spring we’ve had a couple of nice surprises in the form of live music.

The first came when Jim Brock invited Aidan to come play a song with his band, The Echoes, at the dance they play every 1st and 3rd Saturday nights. Though it was a busy Easter weekend, we knew we wouldn’t have another opportunity to do it anytime soon — Aidan’s soccer schedule aligned with the next several weekends, so he would be out of town. So we drug ourselves down to the dance a the senior center and had a blast. The music was old-time country. The people were more than friendly. Had we known, we might have even brought some food for the potluck at intermission. It turned out we’d met one of the dancers at a rest stop in Oklahoma a couple years back — the Mississippi plates with Lowndes County got their attention then — and all of us got on the dance floor. I’m not well versed in the two-step, so I was the most reluctant (and line dancing is not up my alley, so I didn’t even try to go their). I don’t think I broke anyone’s toes, but I might need to practice before we decide to go back, which I’m sure we will. Aidan played Faded Love with the band (on Mr. Brock’s fiddle). It was a lot of fun.

An even bigger surprise came when we learned that Tish Hinojosa was coming to town. I’ve known about Tish since my days at UT Austin, and have always enjoyed her music. The chance to see her live in a solo show it Columbus was just too good to pass up — and the ticket price couldn’t be beat — even though the concert was on a Wednesday night in a week when all kinds of grading and final reviews are coming due, not to mention committee meetings, awards days, a Suzuki performance, and coming on the heels of a long soccer weekend for Aidan and Kim. We almost didn’t get it together to get our tickets and drag our behinds out of the house, but we did, and we certainly enjoyed it. Tish is still singing in top form, though it’s been at least fifteen years since I last heard her live. The Arts Council space is so intimate, we were in the last row and still only a few feet from the stage. We bought a CD and had it autographed. It felt like having the artist in your living room. It is the kind of thing that doesn’t happen often in small town Mississippi, so we knew we had to take advantage of it no matter how tired we might be the rest of the week. And it was definitely the right choice.

Tish is traveling on a long driving tour of the US (her home these days in Hamburg, Germany), and will be playing lots of small venues along the way it seems. Check her website for the  tour dates. Make time to go out and see her, if she’s coming anywhere near you. Or if you can’t do that, find another live music venue, even one as unassuming as the local senior center if there’s a dance, and take a break from your daily routine. You’ll be glad you did.

Local Culture

This weekend, we took in a little of the local culture and had a lot of fun.

Friday night, thanks to organizers Chris Hannon and Adele Eliot, there was an open mic night at Cafe Aromas in downtown Columbus MS. I took a few poems to read, and Aidan brought his fiddle. Since there weren’t a ton of people willing to perform, we each got to go twice. I read six poems, mostly newer ones. One thing I realized as I was reading — if I’m going to keep doing that in low-light situations, I’m going to have to try harder to memorize (or nearly memorize) the poems before I go. Reading was a bit of a challenge, but still the poems went over well, and I had fun trying them out loud. Aidan played four songs and got lots of applause. For us, though, it was as much fun to listen to the other poets and musicians as it was to perform ourselves. Everyone did a great job, and it was a treat to hear some live music and spoken word for a change. This is planned as a monthly gig, so hopefully it will keep going for awhile. The crowd was decent, close to 50 people, and really filled up the space, so that’s a good sign. We could use more poets, so maybe I can encourage a few of my students to give it a try.

Saturday was very different. This time we went more mainstream for our culture, taking in a Mississippi State / U of Alabama basketball game at The Hump (Humphrey Stadium at MSU). Aidan had a great time, especially since he got to take a friend from school, and Kim and I enjoyed it, too. Still, being with a crowd of 8,000 (though some season ticket seats weren’t really filled) and listening to the loud music during every break in the game was a bit different from the previous night. Probably there weren’t too many others in the crowd who had done both. It was a close game, and the Tide lost, much to Aidan’s disappointment. Still, it was worth going to see.

The Father of Waters or What I did on my Summer Vacation

One of the places we visited this summer was the Mississippi River. It’s hard to call this a ‘place,’ though, since we crossed and recrossed it all summer long, starting with our first trip down to Natchez to the Great Big Yam Potatoes old time music festival in May. There we walked along the bluffs of the river and visited the mounds at the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians. On July 3rd we watched fireworks along the river in Dubuque, Iowa, where we had traveled for a reunion. The next day we toured the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, where we saw channel cat, alligator gar, and lots of other fish, plus river otters, exhibits, and even a dredge riverboat. Traveling back to Osage with my mother, we stopped in Guttenburg, where my ancestors first crossed the river into Iowa, then went on to McGregor. The view there from Pike’s Peak (yes, named after the same Zebulon Pike who named the other, taller peak) used to be our favorite view of the river, and a frequent stop when I was a boy, anytime we headed east on Highway 9.

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Mississippi at Pike's Peak

Though we always cross the river on our way to Iowa, spending this much time along it reminded me how important a presence it was for me growing up. We lived along the Cedar River, and often biked a mile or so out a gravel road to fish or swim in it. But the Mississippi was always grander, and always called us back whenever we could go.

Another site along the river that we visited were the Effigy Mounds. These were the first Indian mounds I saw as a kid, and I probably didn’t realize they were so unique. I did become interested in the mound-building cultures, and gradually came to realize that other groups built mounds that were higher and perhaps more impressive all along the Mississippi and its tributaries.

After spending some time with my family in Osage, Kim, Aidan, and I continued on our journey, this time to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi in Lake Itasca State Park. There we heard and saw a loon, biked along the lake, walked across the stones that span the river (placed there by Civilian Conservation Core workers in the Depression when the headwaters were ‘restored’ after a logging dam upstream had been removed), then waded back across to where we’d left our shoes. There in the Northwoods of Minnesota, the Mississippi seems much less powerful, more tame. It is hard to imagine the small stream it is at its head when you drive across it in Memphis or walk the bluffs in Natchez. And it is hard to imagine, when you’re wading across, that this insignificant stream will become the Father of Waters, a central channel for transportation, trade, and culture that has been the backbone of the continent for centuries.

I am reminded that Walter Ingliss Anderson carved a magnificent sculpture, almost a totem, that he titled The River or Father Mississippi. In the center stands a blue man with what appear to be antlers or the tributaries of the river emanating from his head. He is flanked by ducks on each side with a stag deer on the left and a possum, a crane, and other animals on the right. Most of the statue is gone, but a picture can be found in Christopher Mauer’s biography of Anderson, Fortune’s Favorite Child. I have often thought of writing a poem of the river to add to my Barrier Island Suite, which was inspired by Anderson’s logs. Traveling along the river this summer may give me ideas for how to begin.