Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

When the Music Stops

Robert E. Ridings


The old say it is sad when the music stops, when life is suddenly silent. So say the old ones. And, as I sit here thinking about it, I am convinced they are right.

I remember the young times, the young days, when life was just one long happy time. We were all a bit giddy with life and everyone was going to live forever. Mama and Daddy were the backbone of the family and were ageless. We raced through our younger years, never looking back, what with school and friends and playtime. And there was music—around the house, on the radio—everywhere. Music was as much a part of our lives as the air we breathed.

In our home, Daddy played the fiddle and Mama played the piano, her long, slender fingers stroking the keys as though she were stroking a kitten. In their earlier days, they played for square dances and there were always musicians around the house. I guess that was when we kids got the bug and realized that we had talent in that direction, also.

My three older sisters were singers. Mildred, Frankie, and Betty Sue sang on the radio and anywhere else folks would listen. I have to admit, they were good. I think they took their cue from the Andrew Sisters, who were very popular during World War II. My sisters sang just like them, and they would sing at the drop of a hat. I don't know how they ever decided who should sing the parts of the three-part harmony, but their voices blended perfectly. They continued to sing together down through the years. Whenever we would have a cookout, we would all be singing something together, but, through it all, you could hear the girls singing their parts, and it was beautiful and happy. I loved them very much. Not only were they fun to grow up with, but they taught me a lot—as in "don't interrupt" and "stay out of sight."

Then the younger group came along five years later. I was the middle child, the oldest of the later generation. My sister, Aileen, came next, and then Jim. Joe came along and completed our family of nine.

You could tell there was talent in the later group also, and through the years, we showed it in different forms. Well, maybe not Jim. He was the quiet one, but there may have been talent galore if he had pursued it. His talent showed up and shown like a star as an athlete—he was a good one.

Aileen showed her talent in her singing and writing. She could sing up a storm and sometimes sang with the older sisters. Joe probably wound up with the most talent of us all. Where he learned to play the guitar, we never knew, but he took to it like a duck to water and could put other musicians to shame. He played in bands, and played lead guitar for Tammie Wynette on her tour. From classical to country, he could make his guitar sing. I've always envied him and at the same time, cheered him on like a hero. At cookouts with the family, he and I would get the guitars out and play. He played and I diddled. I always looked forward to the cookouts—the food, the joking, and the forever laughter. Everyone sang, and the music was great. We thought it would last forever.

As time went by, and we got older, Daddy played the fiddle less and less. Sometimes Joe and I could coax him, and he would get the old fiddle out, resin up the bow and begin to stroke the strings. He would play little bits of the old songs he remembered back when he and Mama were young and played together, and you could tell as he made that fiddle hum that he was thinking of the olden days, their younger times. Joe and I would try to play along with him on the guitar, and he delighted in suddenly changing "gears" (as he called it) and then watch to see if we could find what key he was playing in. Then he would suddenly stop playing and lay the fiddle aside, as if the dream was over. I guess for me that was when the music began to stop. Except when I'm alone and it's quiet, the echo of his fiddle playing "Dry and Dusty," Under the Double Eagle," Turkey in the Straw," and others, still rings clear in my memories.

In 1965, I moved to Florida, and I never heard Daddy play the fiddle again. Soon after, he had an accident and was paralyzed from the waist down and as far as I know, his music stopped.

Mama could play just about anything you wanted to hear on the piano. She played everything "by ear." To my knowledge, she never took a music lesson in her life. We could hum a bit of a song, and her fingers would pick up the melody and go flying up and down the keyboard like magic. Sometimes she would sing along while she was playing. As she got older, her voice became raspy and soft, and as she played and sang, you could tell she was living the time when she and Daddy played together. It would have been so good to be a part of that memory she was living as she played, but the dream was hers alone.

After Daddy died, she didn't play much anymore. The piano sat in the corner, but never got dusty. Every once in a while, someone would open the lid and bang on it—out of tune, out of time. After Mama died, the piano went to Joe for whatever reason, and it was okay with everyone because without Mama's hands to stroke it, the piano was, well, just a piano.

After Frankie got cancer and had such a rough time of it, I never heard my three sisters sing together again. When God saw that Frankie had taken all that she could take, He took her home to be with Him. There was a hole in the family that no one could fill. For the first time, there was a "toehead" missing that would not be back, and as we had to do after the deaths of Mama and Daddy, we "circled the wagons" as best we could.

The music was fading.

Then, our oldest sister, Mildred, was called home. What a lady she was. She could write a story with such descriptive phrases you could swear you were there. She could write about anything. It was clearly a talent from God. She was a good Christian and I loved her very much.

After that, two harmony parts were gone and the music ebbed as the ocean tide. We tried, those of us who were left, to keep it going. Cookouts were never quite the same, but my sister, Betty Sue, would say, "Get out the guitar, Bob and Joe," and we would sing the old songs and try a few new ones.

And then, too quickly, Betty Sue joined her sisters in heaven. The harmony stopped, and so did the music. Jim and Joe joined the family who had passed on, leaving only me and my sister Aileen to circle the wagons. We both write—bringing into our stories the memories we hold so dear. It is our way of continuing to hear the music that stopped too soon.

***

Robert Ridings was born and raised in the Deep South. He is a devout Southerner and an author of published nonfiction stories about the South. His sister is Aileen Ridings Bennett, author of the book The Annie Chase Story.

© Robert Ridings

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012