Soldier’s Joy — a tale of music and romance

Earlier this month, four of us old pickin’ buddies got together one weekend at my cousin Jimmy’s mountain cabin. On Sunday morning, Brant and I were playing a few old fiddle tunes on the front porch with his hand-built mandolin and my guitar, and I happened to tell him the story of learning to play Soldier’s Joy, which turned into a bit of a saga. When I finished, he said, “You need to write that down.” So here goes.

In the mid-70s, some promoter apparently decided that Atlanta needed a bluegrass version of Woodstock. It would be held at the Fairgrounds on Labor Day weekend, it would last for 48 hours, and the tickets would include the option to camp out.

Blaylock Album Cover

Blaylock Album Cover

A banjo player and music store owner named Bill Blaylock decided that this event would be a good opportunity to showcase his unique approach to banjo playing as featured on his record, “A Gentleman and His Banjo.” Cousin Jimmy had taught Bill’s son in middle school, which is how Jimmy got to know him. So when Bill needed pickers that summer for the album and for the festival, he recruited Jimmy, and Jimmy recruited me.

Over the summer, Jimmy and I traveled to Marietta once a week to learn the songs Bill wanted to play. I was playing an upright bass borrowed from Bill’s music store, and Jimmy was playing his Gallagher six-string guitar.

To be honest, my relationship with the upright bass fiddle was awkward at best. I had briefly played a bass belonging to First Baptist Church of Atlanta when I was a college freshman. The only instruction I received at the time was, “It’s the same notes as the top 4 strings on the guitar.” The student chorale I sang in, and played with, mostly performed show tunes, and I had a fun time, despite the fact that the bass’ warped bridge would occasionally go flying across the room if I played too enthusiastically. I have no idea how it sounded, but they didn’t make me quit, so it must have at least been palatable. Or perhaps just entertaining.

Bill’s bluegrass songs were a little simpler than the show tunes, but the fact that we were going to be playing on a big stage, with a big sound system, and a big crowd, was a little nerve-racking.

The weekly practice routine came at an opportune time for me. A few months before, my fiancee had hit “pause” on our wedding plans, then took a summer job as a missionary to a Native American tribe on a reservation out West. Her first (and last) communique to me from Arizona was a “Dear Carl” letter, which sort of left me at loose ends. A summer full of picking was a welcome distraction. Who needs romance?

One of the tunes we learned for Bill was Soldier’s Joy, a very popular fiddle tune with an ancient Scottish heritage. Like many fiddle tunes, the chords seem to change at unexpected times, but the “B” part of the tune has a distinctive walk up on the bass that made it easy for me to remember over these many years. During the Civil War, Soldier’s Joy referred to a combination of whiskey, beer, and morphine that soldiers drank to reduce pain from war wounds.

In addition to learning lots of new music that summer, a couple of otherwise minor events still stand out in my mind even though nearly half-a-century has passed.

To set the scene for the first event, picture us rehearsing after-hours in the music store, with the main store lights turned off. I’m standing off to one side with the bass while Bill and Jimmy sit in folding chairs, accompanied by a small bottle of Coca-Cola (Bill) and a tobacco spit cup (Jimmy; you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t ever take the country out of Jimmy.) The only lights on are the ones in the back hall of the music store, and several of Bill’s friends are sitting in the hall watching and listening to us play, and otherwise trying not to interrupt.

It was a very cool scene, with the dim light streaming out of the hall, putting Bill and Jimmy and their instruments in silhouette from my perspective, and I’ve often wished I had taken a photograph. But that was long before a camera would fit in your pocket.

On one particular song, Jimmy was using a capo to raise the chords up to the correct key. The capo he was using was mostly a nylon strap rather than the big steel spring kind. When we finished that song, Bill started right into another, and Jimmy quickly flipped off the capo and dropped it beside his chair.

Immediately, a wave of chuckling began to emerge from the listeners seated in the hall; the chuckling grew louder, until we finally had to stop playing to see what was going on. It took a few charade-like gestures from down the hall, but we finally figured out that Jimmy had dropped his capo into his spit-filled tobacco cup. (Yep — yuk!)

The second event that stands out in my mind involves the actual show. The Bill Blaylock trio were scheduled to play three or four sets over the course of the festival. In addition, at the last minute, Bill told us that he had signed us up to accompany another performer for several sets.

Roni Stoneman with Grandpaw Jones

At the time, Roni Stoneman was billed as the world’s fastest banjo player. In addition, she also played the part of a rural country wife on Hee-Haw, a redneck version of the Ed Sullivan Show. In a typical comedy sketch, she was depicted as a tired housewife, ironing clothes in a run-down house, with a couple of teeth blacked out, and an accent that exaggerated her already strong Southern drawl, exchanging laconic lines with Roy Clarke or Grandpaw Jones.

On stage, however, she was a consummate professional who knew exactly what she wanted. A few weeks before, her manager had sent Bill a list of songs that she would be playing, mostly standard bluegrass numbers, so he could make sure we knew how to play them. Just before her first set, the three of us got together for the first time to go over the tunes, and she made sure we knew what she wanted — a straight up rhythm section in four-four time, bass on beats one and three, guitar on the back beat, no runs or leads from us. She would play through each song multiple times, and at the last turn-around of the song, she would lift her cowboy-boot-clad foot as a signal that the end of this song was nigh.

As best I can remember, the actual playing at the festival was fun and rewarding. The crowd was smaller than expected, but sufficient to encourage us. One of the Blaylock sessions was early in the morning of the second day, and the fog-muffled, pre-dawn grayness, combined with the sleepy-eyed campers clustered near the stage, made the set feel and sound like something from another era.

I think it was during our second set with Roni Stoneman that the second memorable event occurred. (Try to remain calm – remember, it was a very minor event.) We were a few songs into the set, and starting to relax a little, feeling a little more comfortable with the whole scene. Roni was playing the fire out of a song, and me and Jimmy were keeping the rhythm going. Her fingers were just flying, and for some reason I did a little walk-up, like C – G – C – G a b – C – G – C.

Without missing a note, she swiveled her head around to glare at me, and yell (out of microphone range), “NO RUNS!!”, then turned back to the audience with her 100-Watt grin, and continued to pick the fire out of her banjo.

Needless to say, I didn’t play another run the rest of the session with her!

Unfortunately, despite all the fun Jimmy and I were having, the festival ended prematurely. As Jimmy and I were driving back and forth between sets, we had noticed a definite lack of Woodstock-sized crowds. As I recall, there were a lot of other large and small events happening in Atlanta that Labor Day weekend, competing for folks’ attention — a Braves baseball game, a big race at Road Atlanta, and many other similar opportunities for late summer entertainment.

About half-way into the festival, we had played a couple-three sets with Bill Blaylock, maybe two sets with Roni Stoneman, and had watched Doug Kershaw, the “Ragin’ Cajun,” dance from one end of the stage to the other, sawing madly on his fiddle. Charlie Pride was scheduled to play, but I don’t remember whether he did. (The big-name stars were flown in from a nearby hotel by helicopter, to avoid the traffic crunch that never quite happened.)

Anyway, Jimmy and I were standing next to Bill in one of the underground tunnels that led up to the stage entrance, when legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs came rolling up in a golf cart. I believe his son Randy was with him, and maybe Earl’s stage manager. They were all discussing with Bill whether Earl should go on out and play his set as scheduled, and the final consensus was that he should not. I remember someone saying something like, “It don’t look good — it’s liable to get nasty out there.”

I later heard that the sound crew, observing the low attendance, decided to ask for their payment immediately, or they would shut down the system. It seems that the promoters had not received enough money from the gate to pay everyone they were indebted to, and had even tried some tricks, like giving the sound crew a check with only one signature when two were required.

Eventually, some sort of announcement was made, the sound crew shut down the sound and lighting systems, and the whole thing ended, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”

But it was not all bad. Jimmy and I had the chance to play a lot of music, and to see some famous pickers. And, just before the festival, my ex-fiancee called to say that she had some of my belongings to return, would I be at home that weekend. I just casually mentioned that, no, I was going to be playing at a big bluegrass festival all weekend, that maybe Tuesday would work.

Coincidentally, Ted Turner was just starting up his cable television station, and he was looking for content to broadcast. The bluegrass festival was local and available, so he broadcast the whole thing (as long as it lasted) live.

Also coincidentally, I had mentioned to my ex-fiancee that we might be on channel 17, and she actually watched us play, recognizing me by my ever-present cowboy hat.

So when she brought my stuff to my apartment on Tuesday, we had plenty to talk about. And talk we did. In fact, one thing led to another, and we’ve been married over 40 years.

And Bitsyland, the Americana string band I play bass with now, still includes Soldier’s Joy in its repertoire.

One Response to “Soldier’s Joy — a tale of music and romance”

  1. Brant says:

    Even better than I thought! Great story and telling of same.

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