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Notes from the Field

Bowlbacks and Dreams

Rating: 1 votes, 5.00 average.
On assignment on the other side of the country. I brought a mandolin to keep me company after work.

It’s a turn of the last century American made bowlback mandolin, in a bright green fiberglass case that catches eyes at all the airports.

Several years ago, on this same assignment, I searched the web and found a local old time jam session in a pub not too far away. And I have been going regularly every time I am on this side of the country. I have been exposed to several new tunes at this jam, as well as some variations on tunes I regularly play.

Well this time I had opportunity to introduce a couple of tunes popular back home that were new to the jam. Folks caught on pretty quick and soon enough our corner of the bar was a booming orchestra that would make Clark Kessinger and Henry Reed proud. I was pounding away on that bowlback, which was singing for all it was worth, in that loud open mouthed voice it has.

I had purchased that bowlback for not a lot of money many years ago. It is in amazing shape for a 100 year old instrument, which unfortunately often means it was kept under someone’s bed for many many decades. I imagine it asleep under there, like a vampire gone underground, forgotten and patiently waiting to be re-animated. And I imagine the fun it is now having belting out these great old tunes. I bet it is particularly appreciative that I play it hard. I don’t baby it or treat it as if it was fragile. I treat it as I would any well made mandolin: I expect full throttle mandolin and it lives up to my expectations. Every time. I can and do depend on this mandolin to be there when I push it, and it never disappoints.

Bowlbacks are not that common in old timey jams. The hero of the bowlback in old time music is, of course, Kenny Hall. And I am constantly asked if I know his music. I suppose, because of the infrequency of bowlback sightings in old time music, there is the assumption we bowlback players have our own lesser known society of old time bowlbackers, all connected and constantly in contact, sharing tunes and taking notes. I wish. I never met Kenny Hall, but I have learned his Rainbow-Silverbell medley. (Mostly to have some kind of response when asked, but of course you cannot help fall in love with the tunes.) Sometimes, when I start to get tired, I even hold the mandolin at a steep angle like Kenny did, almost vertical. Though I will not give up the plectrum.

Well after the jam this fellow comes up to me. He tells me how much he appreciates my playing, and on a bowlback no less, and he explains that he has an old bowlback that is not getting any attention, and would I like to have it. I said I would be glad to take a look at it, but that this was the last week I was in town and I wouldn’t want him to ship it across the country. “Well, just hang on, I live right around the corner, I’ll go get it.”

It was a very nice bowlback, of about the same age as the one I was playing. The neck was straight and the neck joint was solid with no signs of repair. There was no top sinkage, and the pickguard inlay was in good shape. The sound hole, however, had been chipped out half way around its edge. Little chips, that reminded me of miniature tramp art defacing of old boxes and furniture. It turns out that this fellow has a huge parrot, who likes to sit on the instrument and pick at the sound hole. I don’t blame the parrot necessarily, but I was glad to get the mandolin away from this owner who would let a parrot get away with that more than once.

So I took the bowlback with me, as I say more to rescue it than to own it myself. The end of the week I had it enclosed in bubble wrap and boxed and gave it to UPS to take it across the country to my house.

Later that day I was on the plane going home. I was content. The assignment had gone very well, but of course my thoughts were on my extracurricular activities. I had learned a few tunes, taught a few tunes, reacquainted myself with these musicians I only see once a year, and I had rescued an old bowlback. I put the seat back and contemplated playing at my home jam, and teaching them the tunes and variations I learned at a jam 2800 miles away.

A week or so after getting home, the UPS delivered the rescued bowlback, and I placed it over the piano. That night I had a dream. There was this tapping at the front window and I went over, moved the blinds and looked out, and there on the ledge, silver gray almost blue, with a bright red tail, a huge African Grey parrot, tapping tapping at my window. I awoke from the dream screaming.

I was sick the next day, and I could not open the blinds for fear of seeing some grey feathers.

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Updated Jul-17-2019 at 10:44pm by JeffD



  1. Jim Garber's Avatar
    Hah, Jeff... reminiscences of "The Birds." Great story... Yes we bowlheads seem to attract these poor orphaned instruments. Sometimes if works in amazing ways. A friend of mine just was gifted a rather valuable Italian bowlback. So it goes.

    I like the idea of the mandolin player from far away showing up with the sort of exotic bowlback. keep up the good work. Someday we will meet...
  2. Bob Clark's Avatar
    Great story Jeff. I travel on business with my flat-top. I should follow your lead and seek out others to play with when I travel. What a great way to meet other musicians and share the music of our beautiful little instruments. Thanks for sharing this great story.

  3. JeffD's Avatar
    The internet has made it much much easier. Used to be I had to find a music store in the yellow pages, go there and look at their bulletin board for a flyer. It worked only about half the time. Today we can get on the web before we even travel, and line up some jams or dances in the area we will be working. Even call/email a few people to find out where and how and when.
  4. tkdboyd's Avatar
    Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
    Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
    While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
    As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
    “’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
    Only this and nothing more.”

    Quoth the Parrot “Nevermore.”
  5. Elliot Luber's Avatar
    Yeah. Shades of Edgar Allen Poe for Sure. Was it a Poe mandolin? Thanks for sharing this story. I enjoyed reading it.