scared thrilled scared thrill scared thrilled

I find most things in life both scary and thrilling. I suppose I should hope it's always this way, but sometimes it feels like an awful lot of work.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Musical Bones

People sometimes talk about having, or not having, a “musical bone in their bodies”. I wonder sometimes how true it might be, that music is carried deep inside, in the marrow, and passed like life itself from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters.

My grandfather was a Mennonite, which is (loosely) a sort of Canadian version of the Amish, and I am now officially in trouble for such an insufficient explanation. It was Western Canada in the early 20th Century and life in a Saskatchewan Mennonite colony was tough. Mennonites are sober and pacifist, and the music (strictly acapela) which drifted as a mist from their churches reflected the seriousness and dourness of life on the frozen prairies. My grandfather, with his brothers in tow, chose another path, riding from town to town on his horse with a violin on his back and a six-shooter stuck in his belt. Like a minstrel outlaw, banished from church and community, with steel that glinted from his eyes, he played in barns and halls across the Canadian prairies.
He spent his life as a carpenter and owned the enormous, gnarled hands of those who built houses before the arrival of power tools and nail guns. I remember the rough feel of his palm on my head as he told me “You look like a girl. I’m cutting your hair.” He had a rough touch. But his home was filled with instruments, brass and woodwind, guitars and violins, drums, a marimba, and when he touched them there was only gentle sighs and tenderness.
By the time I was 19 my grandfather had long since died. Most of his instrument collection had been floating in our house for years. That winter my brothers and I packed some of Grandpa’s guitars and amplifiers into our Ford Topaz and drove to Nashville to start what turned out to be five years of recording and touring as a band. His amps have blared into the night in every Canadian province and almost every American state. But that was another life and, amazing how it seems this way, must have happened to another person.
I recently visited my parents in Canada and I brought back to Seattle my grosspappa’s lap steel guitar. I bought a steel slide today and some finger picks that look just like the ones he kept in an old coffee tin. I hope I can hear him when I touch the strings. And hopefully the music in my bones will remember when it was inside Grosspappa, and how he opened his body’s rough-hewn cage and let it out like a dove.