My father was a mountain musician – one of those multi-talented fellows who could play anything: banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, piano. Not only that, he also “made up” songs. According to my grandmother some of them were beautiful and heartbreaking. She once told me that my father would sit on the porch in the dark on warm summer nights and play songs which she said “never had been writ down” and sometimes she would say, “Oh, that was pretty John Lyndon! Play it again.” She said that sometimes, he would try but would usually quit, saying “I’m sorry, Momma. It’s gone.” When I used to sit on the porch with my grandmother, she would tell me a story like that and then smile and say, “Now, ain’t that wondrous strange!”
While he was still a teenager, my father was in a string band called The Smoky Mountain String Band that became popular in the region.
They played in courthouses, high school gymnasiums and auditoriums throughout Western North Carolina. They became a feature on a radio station in Asheville and began to travel outside the region: Walhalla, S.C.; Gatlinburg, Tenn.; even Nashville, Tenn., a time or two. Mostly though, they performed in a 50-mile radius of Sylva: Bryson City, Franklin, Webster, Waynesville.
Early on, my father developed a reputation for playing a sentimental waltz called “The Raindrop Waltz.” Allegedly, it had been written by an unknown, drunken guitar player in an Asheville jail. It was a rainy weekend and the sober musician spent a couple of days staring out of a window in his cell, listening to the rain drip off the roof into a clutter of cans, jars and bottles. At some point, this fellow thought he recognized a three-quarter time melody – like a waltz – and he picked up his guitar and began to play the melody. After the song became popular, someone wrote a set of lyrics ... the kind that yearns for a lost love.
My father’s good humor earned him the nickname, “Happy,” and for several years he operated a little gas station up in the section of Sylva called Moody Bottom called “Hap’s Place.” This was during the Depression, and the station was usually packed with local musicians and what my grandmother called “trifling loafers.” Happy didn’t sell much gasoline, but his place became popular for the music. People would even bring chairs and sit on the hill behind the station.
Over the years, I have met several people who remembered my father and actually remembered hearing him play “The Raindrop Waltz.” One of them had actually been in the string band and told me that my father always played his signature song last. Since it was the depression and hard times, audiences were hungry for entertainment – so much so, they would object when the band tried to pack up and leave. According to this guy, the audience would get “contrary” and demand that the band keep playing. That was when my father would play “The Raindrop Waltz.” According to him, the song acted as a “palliative” and the rambunctious members of the audience would “settle down.” My mother would tell me the same thing some 50 years later. She said that the song seemed to make everyone docile and content.
My father was killed by a local drunk, a little man with big glasses who sat outside the entrance of Hap’s Place for several years. He drank wood alcohol, which has killed a lot of alcoholics. The day he shot my father, he showed up with an old, rusty pistol he showed to everyone who came to the store. At some point when the store was crowded, the little man with the pistol entered the store and shot my father. He then dropped the pistol and ran out of the store and across the railroad tracks to Scotts Creek where he sat down on the bank and took his shoes off. Then, carrying them, he waded up the creek. He hid out in the Balsam mountains, but after several days, he was captured. He never said why he did it. The band attended my father’s funeral and played “The Raindrop Waltz” at my grandfather’s request.
My father’s death wrecked our family. My grandfather never quit grieving the death of a son he considered gifted. In time, he came to feel that music killed my father. My grandmother said that he announced to everyone, “There will be no more music in this house.” He took my father’s musical instruments to the attic where they hung in that gloomy space – the guitar, the banjo and the mandolin – like lynched co-conspirators.
I wrote a play about my father’s death and my grandmother’s struggle to stay out of the nursing home. It has been given several hundred times in places like San Francisco, Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. Now, after a long while, it will be given as a “reader’s theater” production in Asheville on March 6-7. My play has been “revived” due to its alleged merits as an insight into Appalachian culture. If you need additional information, you can contact me at email@example.com.
The accompanying photograph was made a few weeks after my father’s death. I think I was 18 months old. My mother once told me that I didn’t understand death and sat on the porch each afternoon, waiting for my father to come home. I probably still don’t understand Death.
(Editor’s Note: Gary Carden’s play, “The Raindrop Waltz,” will be performed Friday and Saturday, March 6 and 7, in Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. The play is being staged as part of Asheville History Center’s “Hillbilly Land” series. Each performance includes light refreshments, gift raffle and a book signing and discussion with Carden. Tickets are available at the door and cost $15 for the general public; $10 for Western North Carolina Historical Association members; and $5 for students. For more information, visit www.wnchistory.org.)