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In the Ozarks, the Pandemic Threatens a Fragile Musical Tradition

2021-02-03 16:00:45
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McCLURG, Mo. – In an abandoned shop along an almost deserted country road, Alvie Dooms, 90, and Gordon McCann, 89, played rhythm guitar. Nearly a dozen other musicians, many of them older adults too, participated on violin, mandolin, banjo and double bass. Their tunes had names like & # 39; Last Train Home & # 39 ;, & # 39; Pig Ankle Rag & # 39; and & # 39; Arkansas Traveler & # 39 ;.

The old dance music – cheerful and sweet, or slower and melancholy – evoked the lively jigs and rolls of the Scottish-Irish pioneers who settled in these rugged hills generations ago. A precursor to bluegrass, their sound was unique to this particular corner of Missouri.

The McClurg jam, as the Monday night music and potluck party was known, lasted for decades, the last gathering of its kind in the rural Ozarks. But the coronavirus pandemic has silenced the instruments, at least temporarily. And the suspension has raised concerns: what will become of this special musical tradition?

"Because it's ear music, it's a bit fragile," said Howard Marshall, 76, a retired University of Missouri professor and violinist himself. "I'm not playing it exactly like the next guy will play it."

In other words, the McClurg violinists and banjo players of yesteryear mostly learned the tunes by listening to each other rather than reading through sheet music, passing the tradition down from one generation to the next. Many of the musicians who know the songs best are getting old and left out for the time being.

"I'm one of the younger kids, and I'm 74," said Steve Assenmacher, a bass player who lives just above the McClurg Store hill and acts as a caretaker.

In normal years, the store, still crammed with faded boxes of bras and women's pumps from a generation ago when the business closed, is revived once a week for the jam. Musicians pour into McClurg on Monday nights, about 240 miles southwest of St. Louis, performing in front of friends and husbands. Playing in a circle, they glance at Mr. Dooms' callused fingers to gauge where his rhythm guitar goes next.

Behind them, the women of the mostly male musicians and a handful of regulars snack on stew, quiche and pies. Every now and then someone gets up to dance.

Also called & # 39; mountain music & # 39; mentioned, the old genre has survived for hundreds of years due to gatherings like the one in McClurg. Here is sheet music & # 39; chicken crabs & # 39; and formally trained musicians are at great risk of being judged as 'stiff'. For generations, children with a knack for music have picked up and played a family instrument, instead of taking formal lessons.

Mr. Dooms remembers sitting in the back of a wagon shivering as a boy while his parents drove through the Ozark hills after dances, while a violinist's music echoed in his head to the rhythm of the feet of a dirty horse. hit.

"That was when they danced in people's homes," said Mr. Dooms. "You know, they would all move the furniture into a few rooms. The musician sat in the doorway between them and they could dance in both rooms."

A crossroads more than a city, McClurg is home to a certain kind of early music that is not played in exactly the same way anywhere else. Just a hundred miles away, in downtown Missouri, old music circles are producing more waltzes and & # 39; schottisches, & # 39; dances that resemble a slow polka because of the German immigrants who settled closer to the Missouri.

So when the pandemic prompted Missouri officials to restrict in-person meetings last spring, the musicians who met in McClurg promised to find a way to keep the sessions going. Last May, Mr. Assenmacher swept out a shed next to the store and turned on some lights. They canceled the potluck, concentrating only on the music, while sitting visitors out in the open at the entrance to the barn.

The music sessions continued for most of the year. But finally, in mid-November, when alarmed hospital officials warned that their facilities were nearly full and the freezing temperatures were turning uncomfortable, the jam session was called off indefinitely.

David Scrivner, a younger violinist of 38, said the decision came with some apprehension. The McClurg jam featured variations of songs that couldn't be heard anywhere else, he said. But the safety of the older musicians, whom he describes as & # 39; treasures & # 39;, was paramount, he said.

Mr. Scrivner has won awards for his fiddling. But he doesn't read music, and so does his mentor, the legendary Ozarks violinist Bob Holt, who died in 2004 at the age of 73.

The McClurg Jam was the classroom where Mr. Scrivner immersed himself in the stories and techniques of the older musicians, especially Mr. Holt.

He recalled a particularly practical lesson: when and how to tap his foot to keep time. "I didn't have it," said Mr. Scrivner. "And he stopped in the middle of a tune and told me to tap my foot to the right or not at all."

That classroom no longer exists for the time being.

Even before the pandemic, younger residents had not shown much interest in old music circles, leaving Mr. Scrivner concerned that the music might not survive for a few more generations. Now he fears the timeline could be shortened.

Mr. McCann, the rhythm guitarist, stopped making the hour-long trek from his home in Springfield, Missouri to the McClurg Jam in October because he was "shocked" by the virus.

"My wife said, 'Don't take it home,' Mr. McCann said." We've been married for 68 years, so I'll do what she tells me. "He noted that his wife had stopped visiting years ago, the evening that she heard that a family of snakes had settled outside the outbuilding of the old store.

Mr. McCann has donated hundreds of hours of recordings to a local university, where the audio has been uploaded to YouTube.

Dr. Marshall, who taught art history at the University of Missouri, said the Internet had guaranteed many of the songs would last. It's the stories behind the songs and institutional knowledge that will disappear when jams like McClurg cease to exist.

He's seen recent videos from other pick circles or music parties that have continued despite the coronavirus.

"I think that's something their families will regret one day, but you can't explain that to people," said Dr. Marshall. "A lot of the people who play old folk music are, shall we say, independent of mind."

He understands the fear behind McClurg's decision to quit playing. Even if the musicians aren't affected by Covid-19, he said, a long hiatus is precious time – because with age they are 'rickety'. could be.

And that is exactly what is happening to the McClurg elderly as they wait for the pandemic.

Mr. McCann suffered a second stroke in November. He tries to keep his calluses by playing guitar alone in his basement.

And Mr. Dooms, who has survived three major heart attacks in his life, said his "lungs are not good."

When winter is over, Mr. Assenmacher hopes to welcome musicians to the open-air shed. But, he said, until the musicians are vaccinated and public health officials declare widespread immunity, the old McClurg store will remain closed.

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