The Simple Life
by Michele Meier Vosberg
Rosin up the Bow
Santa put a mandolin under the Christmas tree. Before I begin this, let’s be clear about one thing. I don’t play the mandolin. I’ve never played the mandolin. I’ve heard that it has the same fingerings as a violin. I don’t play the violin either. My mandolin is a lovely thing with two toned wood and eight taught strings. I am fairly certain that if you press the strings in the correct position you will get a “G” chord. “C” and “D” chords can’t be far behind. If you can figure out a few chords, the musical world will open up to you. I know for a fact that the classic hit song of fifties and sixties revival bands, Louie Louie can be played with only two chords. I’ve heard it myself from bands that actually make money performing, not that I would ever attempt Louie Louie on the mandolin. It’s not that kind of instrument. What would I play on the mandolin? Good question. I haven’t a clue, but I’m willing to try.
I need music making in my life, and it seems that it has always been there in some form or other. I wasn’t fortunate enough (or tortured enough, according to some) to have piano lessons as a child. All my friends had lessons. I begged for them, but since we had no piano and no hope of ever affording one my mother thought it impractical. Now I own a beautiful old piano, a treasured possession I have dragged from house to house even though no one in my family plays. I have taught myself the old piano teacher classic Moccasin Dance. The piano is a glorious piece of furniture. It will come in handy when tuning the mandolin, that is if I can ever figure out which string corresponds to which note on the piano.
My parents did buy me a clarinet, and I slogged through lessons for years. I disliked it in elementary school, but it paid off in high school. My high school marching band was nationally ranked. Summers meant long hours of daily practice on the field followed by fascinating weeks of traveling all over the country in Greyhound buses, sleeping on gym floors and eating at Howard Johnson’s. We were musicians in every sense of the word; we practiced, we performed and we earned our way with the money we made winning competitions. It was during these long, hot, seemingly endless summer days that I learned the magic and power of making music. Though my marching band days are long gone, something of the soul of the musician has stayed with me.
In college, I missed making music. I bought a guitar, as college students have been known to do, and taught myself. It was a solitary reprieve from study and work and I enjoyed it. Occasionally I played with friends or sang at weddings. My uncle taught me a few rock and roll riffs. It was a great way to impress the seventh graders I taught in my early teaching career.
Back in my single days, my friend Ginny and I would often play and sing together. We were a good match, she a soprano and me an alto. At bar time we’d often wind up with a dozen or so people at my apartment and sing the night away. We were always a hit then, though whether it was our singing, that fact that we were decent looking single females or the alcohol that was consumed earlier I was never quite sure. We had a captive audience; it was bar time and there was no place else to go. For good or bad, we sang our hearts out.
I’ve toyed with other musical venues as well. I joined community theater groups in every town I lived in, singing in any musical theater show that would have me. I joined a community choir, my first formal chorus experience and I learned a lot about how to sing. I directed talent shows, one of which is still going strong years after I moved away. Though I wasn’t the talent, I discovered I was the one who could organize the talent. Though I have no formal musical training other than high school band, I directed many school musicals, each one more time consuming than the last, and each one a true labor of love.
Perhaps my favorite musical experience of all was singing back up for a friend’s country folk band. It started as an act for one of the talent shows I was directing. They already had a group; I begged my way in. I didn’t play guitar well enough for these guys, they could really play. I offered vocal harmonies accompanied by various rhythm instruments. Perhaps out of pity, or because I was directing the show, they let me join the group. I have a fairly decent sense of rhythm (maybe it was all those years in the marching band) and I can play a mean set of sticks. My best rhythm instrument was a jar half full of popcorn. I had a microphone and an audience, I was making music and I loved every minute of it.
I think in the olden days, people had more chances to make music. They didn’t have TV or movies. It was considered desirable for young ladies to play piano in order to entertain guests. Or perhaps Pa would get out the fiddle after dinner. Anybody could sing along. I like that. Once, years ago, I attended a concert at Milwaukee Summerfest. We had gone to see some rock band, but couldn’t get near the place. We ended up, instead, at the bluegrass stage. The band playing was the Earl Scruggs Review. You might remember them from The Beverly Hillbillies show. It was decidedly not a cool band to listen to in the guitar rock era of the late seventies. We stopped, more as a joke than anything else. What is amazing is that we stayed. This band was storming the place. We ended up dancing on the tabletops with an old lady who must have been in her eighties and a young couple and their toddlers. Everybody was singing and the band was cooking. I have never seen fiddles and banjos, and yes, mandolins, played with such talent and such passion.
I had forgotten about that concert. Recently, after my aunt’s funeral, my extended family ended up at my brother’s house. Let it not be said that only the Irish can conduct a proper wake party. My brother and uncles got out the guitars and a mandolin. Three generations of family members started singing. We all knew the first verse to a lot of songs, though nobody knew the second verse to anything. It didn’t matter. “Second verse, same as the first,” someone would yell. Somebody taught my daughter a couple of chords on the mandolin. She followed the guitar players, changing chords when they did. Every now and then somebody would yell out “G” or “D”. I asked for a jar of popcorn. My dad joked that all we needed was a moonshine jug. In a time of sorrow, making music brought us to a happier place and I remembered how much I love making music.
And that brings us to the mandolin. Maybelle, get the fiddle ready. Tighten the strings on the old washboard. I’m gonna learn to play the mandolin. Me and the boys are going to make some music.
If the Dixie Chicks ever need a backup singer who plays a mean pop corn jar, I’m there.
Michele Meier Vosberg is a teacher, consultant and freelance writer. She She’s doing her best live a simple life in a complicated world. When all else fails you can find her in the backyard reading a book.