Music is more than just a song to dance along to or sing. Music is a form of storytelling. It is a way to document the past and share with the future.
Written by Taylor Spencer
Photos courtesy of Taylor Spencer
It was raining when Charlotte and Alex pulled into a parking spot just off the old-brick historic town square in West Plains, Missouri. They were there for the Old Time Music, Ozark Heritage Festival.
Charlotte was used to seeing town squares like the one found in West Plains. They were sprinkled all over Missouri. Her hometown had one similar, but no matter how many times she drove through one, she was still fascinated. There was something about knowing these buildings had been around for decades, centuries even, which got her imagination turning. She thought of all the history that could have occurred there. What businesses had originally been housed in these historic buildings?
She did the same thing every time she was home. Located near the border of Kansas and Missouri, Union and Confederate states, Charlotte would imagine the battles that had been fought on the ground she walked on. When she would drive over the cobblestone square and hear the loud hum under her tires, she would imagine the sound of horse hooves clicking across the red-brick surface.
“Good call on the rain jackets,” Alex said pulling his gray jacket out of his backpack and drawing Charlotte out of her daydream.
“Thanks,” she said. Alex had pulled up the weather radar on his phone and Charlotte leaned over and watched the colorful splotches that indicated rain, travel across the screen.
“So, I read there are two stages. One inside the Civic Center, and another outside. Why don’t we hit up the inside stage until this burst of rain stops?” Charlotte suggested.
She pulled her curly brown hair into a ponytail and placed a headband around her head. Her hair didn’t do well in wet or humid conditions. Then, she pulled up her hood and stepped into the rain.
Charlotte and Alex snuck into the back of the theater and slid in the first two empty seats they could find. The band was seated in the middle of the stage performing a song, and Alex tried to slip off his wet raincoat as silently as possible.
Charlotte glanced around and became acutely aware that they were the youngest people in the room. Heads of white hair peeked up over the top of the brown theater chairs. Everyone there had to be in their late sixties or older, she thought. The men were dressed in checkered, collared shirts tucked into their jeans with snap-back ball caps on their heads, an outfit Charlotte was familiar with. She could tell they came from small, agricultural towns. She had seen the same outfits being worn by elderly gentlemen in her community growing up. And the women dressed the way her Memaw did, in bright colored capris and matching shirts or tank tops.
She didn’t feel uncomfortable being one of the youngest people in the room, she just felt out of place. Like perhaps she was intruding on an adult conversation or adult game night.
Alex wore a brightly colored striped tank top and shorts, and Charlotte herself was in a white tank. She felt as if they stood out. Several elderly couples had given them a look over when they walked in, not out of disrespect, but more in curiosity. For the most part, though, all eyes were turned to the stage, and feet were tapping along to the music.
“We’re going to play an original song next,” said one of the men on stage. There was a banjo laying across his lap and another one on a stand beside him. “This one is ‘bout our dad, and fishin.’ He used to take me and Jack fishin’ all the time. Our brother Lonnie not so much.” His scraggly voice faded off as if in thought. “I think he was off at war,” he said, glancing to his right at a gentleman wearing overalls over a green Hawaiian shirt with a black felt hat on his head. The man in the overalls nodded his head and the light from the spotlights glinted off his glasses.
“Yep.” He chuckled. “Remember when Lonnie used to buy me tobacca? We’d get out of school early and he’d take me on down to the convenience store and buy me some. Well, I’ll never forget the time Pops bought me some.” The man paused and leaned back in his chair. His chin tilted toward the ceiling. “He caught me with the cigs Lonnie had bought and took them from me. Threw ‘em out. Then he marched us on down to the store and went inside, and five minutes later he comes out with a tin and some paper.” He chuckled a deep-throated laugh. “He told me if I was gonna smoke ‘em I had to roll ‘em.”
The four men on stage looked at each other and laughed, then the man with the banjo lifted up his instrument and said, “Here’s to dad and fishin.”
A chorus of stringed instruments commenced, and Alex’s foot started tapping along to the rhythm of the song. A few elderly women got up and danced in front of their seats. Charlotte directed her gaze to the back of the seat in front of her and tried to concentrate on the lyrics, but her mind kept wandering.
She was thinking about her grandparents. Her dad’s dad and her mom’s dad used to take her fishing all the time when she was younger. She had found it boring at the time, but she was good at it. After all, she had caught the biggest Bass ever found in her pond when she was six.
She remembered sitting on the edge of the dock at her house dangling her legs over the water, her white sandals barely missing the glassy surface. Her younger brother squatted next to her in a gray tank top and blue Nike sandals. He was playing with a wriggling worm on the worn wooden planks. She held her pole in her hands and her Papa sat behind her in a navy lawn chair. He wore a polo shirt and a black bucket hat. There was a beer down by his feet and a cooler sat behind him.
Charlotte was bored. The fish weren’t biting and she felt like they had been out there for hours, so she began to talk about anything and everything. Until her Papa told her to be quiet. He told her the fish could hear her, and they wouldn’t bite if they knew she was out there.
Ever since, Charlotte would not talk while fishing, or if she did she would whisper. She knew it was silly, but it had stuck. It was part of her. It was part of her memories. Her memories of her childhood, and her memories of her Papa, and that’s exactly what the music was about.
This festival wasn’t just about music. It was, but it wasn’t. It was about so much more than that. It was about history and heritage. It was about tradition and family. These weren’t just songs. They were tales of loved ones and life forgotten. The songs told a story that continued from generation to generation.
Alex and Charlotte sat outside on the hay bales that had been set up in front of the stage. The rain had finally broke and the sun was peaking through patches between the tall thunderheads.
A man in overalls sauntered up to the front of the stage. He reached up and grabbed one of the microphones from its holder and then turned to the small group of people who had gathered to watch “Creek Stink.”
“Sorry folks, but the fire department shut us down. The storms are supposed to hit again around seven, so we’re gonna move everything inside. Creek Stink will still perform, and we’ll just move everything on the schedule up.”
Alex and Charlotte were intrigued, if not by the music that would be played, then the name of the band, so they walked around killing time. They stopped and talked to a woman about her pottery, watched another woman give a lesson on how to cook homemade biscuits in a cast iron skillet, and watched a group of old men do some flint knapping.
About a quarter til seven Alex and Charlotte made their way into the Civic Center. The previous band was still on stage performing. Up until this point in the day, they had only seen men in their sixties or older performing, so Charlotte was curious when she saw a girl of about 12 years on stage next to three men old enough to be her grandpa.
She didn’t play every song with the men. Her shoulders were rounded in. Occasionally, she would cast a glance around the auditorium, her eyes peering out from behind her thick black rimmed glasses before they quickly returned to one of the men on stage or a trained spot on the wooden platform.
When the performance was over, the man who had been addressing the audience for most of the performance introduced the other musicians on stage.
“And this is Emily; she’s our apprentice.”
Apprentice. Now that’s a term you aren’t used to hearing, Charlotte thought. I didn’t think they did those anymore.
She had read about apprenticeships in books while growing up. She had always found the idea neat. When was younger, she had always followed her father around the house acting as if she had an apprenticeship. She’d watch him work on the cars and hand him tools when he asked for them. She would ride on the tractor with him and figure out how he drove it. Sometimes he would let her steer while he worked the pedals.
Charlotte had been a part of Kiwanis when she was younger, and one of the events the organization put on was a car derby. She had entered into it and needed a racecar, so her dad had taken her over to her grandparents’ house because his dad had all the proper tools needed.
Grandpa’s garage was full of tools, to create things. He had table saws, jigsaws, vice clamps, drills, sawhorses… You name it, he had it. Her grandpa would build things and whittle for fun.
Charlotte remembered watching her dad and grandpa closely as they helped her build her car. It was dark and cool in the garage, which was also part of the basement. The only light in the room came from the single bulb that dangled over her grandpa’s workbench. Tools hung from the peg-board wall, and her grandpa stood, hunched over the scarred wooden countertop working away.
She stood on her tiptoes on the cherry red stained step-stool and leaned as far as she could over the bench to see what was going on.
Her grandpa had finished what he was doing on the bench and handed the car to her dad who tightened the vehicle belly up into the vice grip that stuck out from the table. Grandpa grabbed a drill and started putting a hole into the underbelly for weights, and Charlotte watched as small wooden snake shavings fled from the hole. The warm scent of smoking wood wafted to her nose. She breathed it in deeply.
To this day that scent brings her comfort and takes her back to that afternoon.
Charlotte viewed this experience watching and helping her dad and grandpa work as an apprenticeship.
“We just love to have Emily around learning from us. It’s so good to see young people getting interested in their history and the arts.”
A man in a black cowboy hat came on to the stage and the band players got up to exit.
“Give another round of applause to the Roe Family Singers for their performance,” the man said gesturing to the musicians shuffling around on stage. “I’m sure by now you heard our stage has been shut down outside, so we’re moving everything in here. Our next performers will be Creek Stink, followed by the tribute to the Rhodes Family at eight.”
Charlotte placed an arm along the back of her theatre chair and turned around appraising the rest of the audience. The theater had started to fill significantly as elderly couples shuffled in through the auditorium doors and down the aisle to their seats.
“I see some young faces joining us today,” Mr. Cowboy Hat cast a glance in Charlotte and Alex’s direction. His dark brown mustache was just visible over the top of the microphone. “It’s good to have you. I love seeing young folk come out to the festival and hear the heritage and the stories that are told through the music. These aren’t popular songs. They don’t play on the radio. There is no sheet music or lyrics to be printed out. In fact, most of these songs are passed from generation to generation orally. They are a way to preserve history. The songs tell a story. Without you young folk the stories might end with us. Before too long there might not even be a festival anymore.”
Charlotte glanced at Alex. He was on his cell phone looking up something for his guitar one of the men at the finger picking demo had told him would help improve his playing.
Something about the man’s words and seeing Alex on his phone made her sad. He wasn’t hearing what the man had to say. They were the only hope the history had of being preserved. She couldn’t do it alone. Music wasn’t her talent. It was his. He needed to hear this.
In any other circumstance, Alex would have been paying attention to what the man had to say. He was very respectful. Charlotte knew he was just eager about his guitar. It was something his grandpa had been good at before he had passed, and he wanted to be just as talented.
They had seen a fingerpicking demo advertised on the schedule of events earlier in the day and Alex had been super excited to go to the show. He had sprung from his seat to go talk to the instructors once the presentation had ended, but the image of him on his phone, coupled with what the man was saying, and the self-consciousness she felt of being one of the younger people attending the festival made her feel sad and scrutinized.
“While we wait for Creek Stink to set up on stage, I want to read to you a letter we have from World War I. It’s one of the memorabilia we have left to remind us of the hardships and the experience of war.”
At the mention of war, Alex looked up from his phone. He had always been interested in war as a kid. Not just war, but history in general. His dad and Charlotte’s mom worked together at the elementary school in their hometown, and after school in the hour before his dad was allowed to leave, Alex and some of the other boys would go out into the woods behind the building and play army. They would crawl around on their knees and elbows and pretend they were behind enemy lines.
“First-hand accounts. This isn’t just something you’ll learn about in school. These were real people, and this is their story,” Mr. Cowboy hat finished. He reached into the front pocket of his black pin-striped pearl snap shirt and pulled out a piece of paper. He transitioned the microphone to his armpit and carefully unfolded the letter.
“Dearest Mother, November 11th, 1918 will always be remembered by me. We moved out at 4 am in a heavy mist and we marched until about 4 pm.At 9:30 am there was a terrific horrendous German barrage. I sure thought it was all up for us. At 10:45 am, the order came to cease firing. Rumors started to spread that it was the end and I’m sure I was not the only one to utter a prayer that it was true. Then, at 11:00 a dead silence just like they said. That was absolutely the happiest moment, THE happiest moment in my entire life. The rest of the day, little groups of smiling enemy soldiers came up to the line with tobacco and something to drink. At dusk, as far as the eye could reach there was a regular Fourth of July celebration going on. And campfires. A thing we had not been allowed to have for months. It was great. And I finally had some sleep before a roaring campfire. Mother dear, I will come marching home one of these days and we will be together and happy again, won’t we?”
The man paused, then looked out at the audience. “One thing we’ve noticed from the Revolutionary war up until now is that everyone has written about the same things: their lovers, missing friends and family, home, the food, the smells. It’s all very real, and all something we can relate to.”
Charlotte thought about her writing and something one of her professors had mentioned in class. This was what she was writing for. She was writing to touch others. She was writing to tell her story, to capture her own history, but it was more than that. Charlotte was writing to connect to people, the same way the music connected to these people.