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Notes from the Field

The Mandolin in America

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I recall, a long time ago in a grade school far, far away, a teacher attempting to take us into the very distant past and get us to imaginatively appreciate ancient history in the first person. As if we were there, in ancient times, living it. This must have been fifth grade, or likely earlier. A class mate raised his hand and offered the observation that, “it was much easier to go to school back then. Kids didn’t have as much history to learn.”

I think this is a very American observation. Not that it couldn’t happen anywhere, but it captures a quirky fun thing about growing up in America. Our relative youth as a country. Our stories, many of them, have a well defined, identifiable beginning. Here is how it started, here is what they said and did. These things happened. We do this because they did that.

World history, by contrast, goes back to before there was world history. The beginnings of things, like mandolins, are covered in mist and semi-myth and layers of dust. To get to the beginning we have to go back to unrecognizable objects coveted by unrecognizable people, the original Og and Charlie, sitting on rocks, who spoke languages nobody speaks or reads anymore. Where the earliest objects, the antecedents, are either vague images carved in stone, or treasured artifacts in museums, whose connection to us and to our coveted objects is not always immediately obvious. We often strain to grasp the connection with our imagination. The stories of these beginnings are found in ancient written histories that we only know about because they are referenced by more recent ancient written histories, translations of translations of translations, going back to times called “primordial” and “antediluvian”.

While so much history is grand, it also can be a great intimidating weight. Hard to “get ones arms around”. By the time anything recognizable as our world comes along, we are worn out tired keeping track of all the "begats."

In America, the firsts are far more recent. We recognize the people involved as being much like us, speaking more or less like us. The stories of the beginnings are often contemporary newspaper accounts that we can read and understand in all their nuance and subtlety, confident that the original readers understood it in much the same way we understand it today. I can “get my arms around” it. The history is manageable. It is a story I can tell, about things I understand, often from my own experiences.

Walter Carter has written a delightful book. “The Mandolin in America”. Not the world history of stringed instruments, or a cultural history of musical expression. The story of the mandolin in America. A clearly defined place and time, with handles I can pick up and carry. And what a book it is. I found it to be a page turner. I obsessively read it cover to cover, and now my copy has a good ten or fifteen sticky flags to things I want to go back and dig into.

The history of the mandolin in America is, in the history of the world, a small blink, the furthest front edge of any reasonably accurate world timeline. But to the eye that is blinking it is everything. It is my eyes and my blink.

I am in that book. It is, in a lot of ways, about me. My history. (Well all of us really, but I am keeping this personal.) No, my picture is not there, but it is a history in which I participated and in which I continue to participate. A history that I have experienced as directly as anything else, and more directly than a lot of history I have learned to adopt as “my heritage”.

I felt this directly and vividly in Carter’s book.

A mere 100 years after the mandolin came to America, I was already a few years into playing the instrument. I was already passionately addicted to these eight string wonders.

Only a little more than half the history is before my time, but certainly not irrelevant to my present day mandolinning life. It is, in this way, a lot like books about World War I, which happened before I was born, but in which I had relatives who I heard about from people that knew them. Or World War II, also before my time, but in which my father served. These events are not so long ago. Their immediate and long term consequences are part of my immediate experience, my daily life. They weren’t history when I first heard them, they were memories and reminiscences. The yesterdays of my fathers and grandfathers. Like the stories of my parents before I was born, and the stories they heard from their parents about the time before they were born.

The difference is the world wars came to an end, (mercifully), while the history of the mandolin continues, with me an active participant.

I have personally met a few of the more recent heroes of the mandolin story, and certainly have met and interacted with many who personally met most of the others. I have heard most of their music. They are not abstract historical personages. They are not ancient kings whose names I can’t pronounce.

I have held and played more than a few mandolins like those mentioned in Carter’s book, and I personally own a few. The main mandolin I play today, was already over 60 years old when I acquired it, over 30 years ago. I have in my possession, sitting on my side table, the mandolin my maternal grandfather played in a mandolin orchestra in North Jersey, 100, give or take, years ago.

I grew up recognizing some of the iconic music of the mandolin. I heard Ray Jackson’s mandolin solo on Maggie May on the radio getting dressed for school, before I knew for certain what a mandolin sounded like. Before I even knew it was being played on a mandolin. And I personally have played, or tinkered at more accurately, much of the music played on the mandolin since then. I presently play a lot of music that was old when I was young, some of it very old.

Carter has done in this book what I was hoping he would do when I first heard about it. He has given me a history, a well written, exciting, engaging history, with a clear describable beginning, and an open end in which I (we, all of us mandolinners), write the next chapters.

When I see my own hand picking up my own mandolin, I can, with the other hand, pick up a document clearly describing and explaining what it is I am part of. Sure it’s a small part, but not an irrelevant part. What I do, where it came from, and what it's all about up to now.

My Dad did many things in his life. He lived in and spent much time in many places that do not exist anymore, pre-communist China, the Jim Crow South, the Territory of Alaska, and his stories and reminiscences are part of my story.

Well Dad did not play the mandolin. But Walter Carter has written the mandolin story down and handed it to me, and the story of The Mandolin in America can be just as much a part of my story. Just as much as I am a part of the story of The Mandolin in America.

Thank you Walter Carter.

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Updated Jan-27-2017 at 9:46am by JeffD