HURDY GURDY MAN

By John Thomas Tuft

There was a first one. There always is. Nobody knows who or where or when. Nobody knows why. But then again, each and every one of us knows why. Maybe it was lightning behind a rainbow. Perhaps thunder rolling down a canyon then echoing back again. Maybe someone looked into the eyes of a newborn child and saw the reflection of forever. Sparks in a fire snapped and popped and soared into a blanket of stars while nightingales performed a doxology. Two humans drew near to each other and felt the pulse of the earth hesitate while some strangely irresistible force like the beating of the wings of a million butterflies brought their lips together. Maybe. Perhaps. And the result was the first one. The birth of music. The first song.

Beat, rhythm, scales, pitch…melody, harmony, simplicity, complexity. Communication, ritual, celebration, unity…dance. Of course, dance. Music and song are “sound that conveys emotion.” And so much more. A siren call, abandoning one’s self, listening with your soul, yearning for the stars, free to be, hovering on the horizons, call of the wild, down and dirty, whispers of angels, triumphs of the kings, rock and roll, feel the beat, beseech the gods… Tell me that you love me. We are the world. The water music. Morning has broken. Whistling in the dark. ABCDEFG. Happy birthday. Beethoven’s ninth. The echo of the drums. Please don’t forget me. Hit all the right notes. Sing it loud, sing it clear… Marry together touch and sound, sight and soul, heart and mind and we make music. Create it, express it, perform it, dance to it…lose ourselves in it, draw closer to those around us. And if we forget how, we may need a visit with the hurdy gurdy man.

In and around the hills and mountains of Appalachia there are certain places one does not go unless one is invited. Close knit communities, where the blood of your ancestors is the most potent capital, who are protective and understanding of those with unique gifts. Some say there are clues to the location hidden in the music of the Kruger Brothers over Jonesboro way, but others say that’s just mountain legend. Somewhere west of Asheville, NC, near the border with Tennessee, at the far end of Britches holler, in a small house framed by ancient trees, by invitation only, one can find him. Approach with honesty and humility. Come with nothing in your hands and a heart wide open. He’s there, just on the other side of that crooked door. He is waiting. The hurdy gurdy man. The only living soul who knows the first song.

He sits in his old rocker, behind him plain wooden shelves piled high with ancient texts and stocked with Mason jars cradling white lightning. His hair gone white now, thick glasses magnify his striking eyes. He will look you up and down, silent and still, like a field mouse that knows he’s been spotted by an owl. Because he wants to know if you can do it, be silent and still before the music. His voice is a bit gravely as he asks, “What’cha going to do with it if you hear it?” You don’t need me to tell you there is only one answer to that one. After a bit, he says, “After you hear it, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to catch the wind.” Weigh that carefully. Because everything might change. It could change what you call your favorite music, your favorite singer or group. Even what you sing in church, if you’re so inclined toward such things.

The hurdy gurdy man pays no nevermind to distractions like time and distance. “Remember me to one who lives there,” he murmurs, staring out the window at the distance. “For she once was a true love of mine.” He blinks hard, as if summoning himself back from faraway place. “Is the song a gift?” the visitor feels inclined to ask. He looks surprised, claps his hands together hard. “What isn’t?” Claps his hands together again, softer, then again. He starts a beat, sits up straighter. “You bring a guitar?” he asks, with a twinkle. Oh, the joy for those who do bring something! “Is it a love song?” the visitor is eager to know. “What isn’t?” comes the reply from the hurdy gurdy man, keeping the beat.

He begins to sing. The very first song. The first melody. That expression of what it means to be alive. Of what it means to be us. At the sad part, his eyes water and the flames in the fireplace bow low. When it soars, the whole place lifts off. When it ends nobody wants it to end. When it ends, nobody wants to leave.

But that’s just it. The hurdy gurdy man insists that you take it with you. Just don’t forget the words. Or, the melody. You have been entrusted with the very first song.

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.