Untold, Music Unwritten
In Memory of CG
1912 - 1982
Fender Dual Professional lap steel is safe in its velvet-lined,
tweed case, the gray-pearled picks, slide bar, and pitch pipe
still in the side compartment. A few little rust spots have grown
on the slide bar. It's heavy and weighs down my hand with years
and loss, but the finger picks, though too big, have a good feel
when I slip them on.
I remember when you sized the picks, dropped them in boiling water,
took the pot off the burner and let them steep a few seconds.
You slipped one over your thumb and eased it to the right spot.
You placed the other two picks on your first and middle fingers,
fixed the wings, pushed the plastic curl to set the bend, flexed
your hand and picked a few air notes in satisfaction.
Your wood-bodied tube amp and folding music stand are nowhere-to-be-found.
And the old metal frame, red vinyl kitchen chair, the only chair
we had without side arms that got in your way, disappeared to
who-knows-where. It wore itself out when the steel rested on your
lap, when your foot tapped rhythms, when you called out, "Ah,
yeah. Play it now."
Theres carpet over the hardwood floor where we sat at your
feet, nodded our heads to your rendition of Steel Guitar Rag,
every bit as sweet as Leon McAulifee's, swayed to Red Sails
in the Sunset, begged, "Play another one, when
your home sessions ended with a song adapted from your early dobro-pickin'
I know why you took up steel guitar in 1946. I know why you stopped
playing music, even though you could have kept it up. But I waited
too long to ask how it all started, or how a boy from a remote,
hardscrabble farm came across the dobro, first patented in 1928
and then in 1932, he packed along to a 1933 Civilian Conservation
Corps camp in The Great Smoky Mountains. To find work during The
Great Depression, before signing up with the CCC, you hopped trains
bound for Texas. Did you find your music there? Or did your Tennessee
uncles, the old front-porch-pickers, lead the way? When I finally
did ask, no one answered.
Your grandson wrote a paper on the history of the Dobro® for
a class on music and culture at The University of Tennessee. As
part of his research, he bought a copy of The Great Dobro Sessions,
and on the liner notes, where homage is paid to all the great
pickers who never recorded a song and whose names aren't listed
in the album's credits, he penned in your name. Though he never
heard you play a single note and your time with him was short,
he knows your history.
We put those liner notes in a binder filled with the staff notation
sheets you drew up. While the paper shows its age, the notes you
placed on the lines and in the spaces remain perfectly formed,
as crisp and bold as if you'd written them yesterday, but far
too many pages are filled with the notes of music unwritten.
On the sky-blue September Saturday that would have been your 95th
birthday, I loaded up Leon, Jerry, Tut, Josh, and Oswald, and
we all headed south to your old hometown. Leon was up with Steel
Guitar Rag when I turned on the road to Po-Grab.
"Ah, yeah. Play it now."
Therber has published in community and educational newsletters,
a parents' magazine, the "Nashville Eye" op-ed column
of The (Nashville) Tennessean, and as a contributor in
a book on multicultural teaching strategies. Born in Montgomery,
Alabama, she grew up in Middle Tennessee, where she currently
resides. Her writing is rooted in family stories and oral histories
that are culled for unspoken words, unguarded moments, and simple