“Pigtail!”: History of a Life in Music, by Erwin A. Thompson
Pop wrote this piece to tell the story of his joys and sorrows in his life long search to pass on his music and play with others who love the music of his life as much as he does. “Pigtail” comes from Pop’s country school time and a game they played.–Janet
I wonder if anyone in this modern society besides me would recognize the call: “Pigtail!”
When we went to country school, one of the games that we played was “Andy Over.”
Choose up sides. One group to each side of the school house. Randolph School was a long building, with no fancy angles to it except the bell tower for the school bell that regulated our responsibilities for returning to the school house when it was time to resume our quest for knowledge.
The ball was thrown over the school house. If it actually went over the top, the side that threw it would call out: “Andy Over!” If it was caught. The children from that side would run to the other side. Only the person who had the ball counted, except for the general confusion of half a dozen youngsters descending on the other group. The person with the ball then tagged any or all of the children from the side that had thrown the ball. I do not remember what the cutoff point was, but somewhere the players divided again. Seems like the side being pursued started running for the other side of the school house. When they passed a certain point, the tagging stopped. The victors with their new members (the youngsters who had been tagged) appropriating the side they had run to, and the depleted group taking the other side.
This process was repeated until either: 1) one side captured all of the opposing team; or 2) the school bell rang, calling us back to our studies.
It was a lot of fun, good exercise, and developed a great sense of teamwork.
But, sometimes, the ball did not get thrown hard enough to go on over the roof ridge. It would roll back down to the throwing side for another try. In this case, the throwing side would call out: “Pigtail!”
Basically, this meant that the original side still had control and responsibility for the ball. To use a modern expression: “Back to square one!”
Pigtail meant that they had the ball and would try again.
The old expression, and the old meaning and significance hit me yesterday, as I contemplated my present situation with people to play music with.
I had been tinkering around, trying to pick out tunes from the time I was big enough to sit on a piano bench. Nobody paid much attention to my efforts. Dad showed me some things about the guitar, but conditions were against much real progress. Aunt Nell’s old guitar had been made for gut strings. The tension of the steel strings spoiled the neck, and pulled it all out of shape. The repair person at Plummer-Kramer finished spoiling it for good. I found a guitar at Davis Music when they were selling out, and began really learning to play. In 1935 our cousin, Lillian Mueller came to visit. She played accordion and was really good. She was also a very kind and helpful person, and clued me in on really learning to play. It was a two weeks course of intensive music training. This inspired me to buy a banjo-mandolin at the local hockshop for five dollars.
Jay Cline had a little building out back of his store on Piasa Hill that he had dances in sometimes. For music Bob Schwichert and his wife. Bob fiddled, and his wife played the piano. They allowed me to sit in with them and I got some good experience. I learned the beautiful waltz: “Moonlight Down in Lovers Lane” from them.
That Christmas, Aunt Mim gave me her manhead violin; where the scroll would normally be, it had a carved head instead. I started to fiddle.
In 1936, the next fall, I got acquainted with Eddie and Anita Lock. The families were loosely joined by the marriage of Frank Riehl and Jessie Lock, from the previous generation.
I taught Eddie what I knew about the guitar and he showed Anita. Together they wore indentations in the ebony fingerboard.
Eddie and I met Bee Lewis and his son, Bill, and started playing together. Sherman Bowen joined us after his accident blinded him. It gave him something interesting to do and he got to be an excellent guitar player.
This combination endured until Eddie met the girl that he later married. She had no interest in music. Since his interest in the girl exceeded his interest in the music, he gradually dropped out of the picture.
During this time we sponsored the dances in the old Elsah Town Hall. These were neighborhood affairs, and are still remembered by some of the people who are now old timers, who were just youngsters when the dances were being held. At that time they filled a need of the community.
The war intervened. Bill got married. He quit playing with us. Bee got older. He became bitter against the local government that had condemned his fields for a sewage lagoon. Sherry got religion. He quit playing the kind of music that we were playing.
I played a few times with Hank Wagoner. One night we played for some private party in Jerseyville with a young man named Londell. Londell got drunk and made a play for Wagoner’s wife. That was my only experience with Londell. Wagoner fizzled out. The incident just described might have influenced his decision, but that was the only time I ever played with Londell. Hank said he was too busy.
Gradually, back to square one.
I almost quit playing for awhile.
In 1954 Jim Weeks moved into the brown cottage. I found out that he played guitar, and also his brother, Dwight played with us sometimes. His parents came to visit from Southern Missouri. They were full of old gospel songs and old ballads. We all enjoyed the experience of sharing our music.
Right after the war I became acquainted with Reverend Boston, the pastor of the Mount Gilead Church, where Ruth’s parents went. He was a fine musician, playing the same kind of music that I did. He lived in Jacksonville at that time, and Gary lived there also. Sometimes I played with Reverend Boston and then spend the night at Gary’s when I was working on the Rushville property. I found that he had a practice of meeting with his fellow musicians once a week, on Thursday evenings.
By this time, Jim had moved to a house that he had bought, over on the Stanka hill.
With this model in mind, I called Jim and asked him if he would like to meet once a week and play music. We decided on Tuesdays.
Louis Hunter heard about our musical meetings and asked if he could join us. Surely! My friend, Ed Keller, in Elsah, told me that one of his neighbors played, Lindell Blackford. Lindell joined us. His friend, Alan Carlson also joined us later. Nancy Lippincott came. I had played with her occasionally, but not on a regular basis. Phil Dodds’ shop teacher, Homer Vowles, heard of our project and came. Rhonda, a girl that Grace Barker knew came. Our living room was getting crowded.
One night one of them suggested that we should form a club.
So we arranged to use the fire hall in Moro, and each of us asked everyone that we knew that played music to attend.
It worked! The River Bluffs Traditional Music Society was formed. At one time it was really rolling. I have seen the time that there was one group performing and two others warming up in the wings.
But there was a cost attached to it for me. The Tuesday evening music sessions fizzled out completely. They got their musical outlet in the club meetings.
The Moro fire department people were a great bunch. They had to back the fire truck out to give room for the music. It worked fine until one cold day when the fire truck froze up while sitting outside. Obviously, we needed to find another place to meet.
Back to square one.
I was asked to furnish music for the Calhoun County Historical Society meeting. It was a special anniversary meeting of some kind. I had become acquainted with Warren Wilson, through the fact that Nancy had told him I might help him fix up an old banjo, which I had done. Don Peters had come up to me one day in the Sears store and started a friendly conversation. So I asked them if they would help me, and they agreed. We started playing together and it worked out fine. Their wives were very warm, hospitable women, and made us welcome to meet in either home.
This performance at the Calhoun meeting got us started playing for the annual car and quilt show at Hardin each year. We also played at the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis for the annual meeting (National) of the Kaiser- Fraiser club. It was a good mix. We became good friends as well as fellow musicians. With the help of Durward Ferries, Ernie Springer and Herb Short and his son we played nursing homes for over six years, every Tuesday evening. On my 75th birthday Marlene Peters made a bountiful evening dinner for the group including wives. This combination lasted until Warren and his wife moved East. Don really leaned more to bluegrass, and without Warren’s influence he went back to it.
Back to square one.
I started playing with Herb Short and his son. Herbie really leaned more to the modern music, but he helped us. Herb was a good musician, but he had suffered a nervous breakdown due to his army experiences in the South Pacific during World War Two. He had his own style of playing and there were those who did not like to play with him. His mother lived to be a hundred and four. They were tied up to take care of her a lot, so I went there to play. She really enjoyed the music. I wrote a poem for her 90th birthday. That was at least 14 years of musical involvement. She died. Herbie went to a high-rise apartment. Herb went to a nursing home.
Back to square one
About ten years ago Lois Wood brought her ten-year-old son. He had been taking lessons for five years from a teacher who was using the Suzuki method. His instrument was out of tune, and I told him so. He replied that he knew it was out of tune, but he didn’t know how to remedy the problem. I was amazed. That would be the first thing that I would show a student. So I showed him. He took the help gracefully and we went from there. He came about once every two weeks. We played whatever came to my mind. His mother came and “sat in” with most of our sessions. She taped them. Progress! He learned to “sit in” with an adult group of musicians and offered some good help. We played for dances. At age seventeen he won an “open” fiddlers contest, with all ages and stages of training all lumped into one. But, off to college during the regular school year and down to New Orleans to help rebuild after the tornado damage. So far as regular music sessions: Pigtail again.
I can’t remember exactly how I got started playing with Mike Hammerbacher and Gordon Dingledein, but they started coming out each Sunday afternoon. I believe this was tied in somehow with my friendship with Don Peters. This worked well. Mike was good with the guitar and mandolin, trying to learn to fiddle. I gave him the opportunity to do it, and I went back to playing mandolin most of the time. But the lumber company that he was working for closed their Alton location. This was devastating to him. He lost some really good orders that he had been working on, and now has to drive many miles to another location. We are still friends, but the regular playing engagements are ended.
Six years ago I became aware of a ten-year-old girl (neighbor) that was having trouble. The school system refused to allow her to keep the rented instrument over the summer because she was not taking lessons from their teacher. There was no money in their family budget for lessons. I bought her a good instrument and gave her the benefit of my musical knowledge that I had accumulated in little pieces throughout the years. She has twice been part of the University of Illinois Summer Music Program. She has progressed to the point of being first violin in the high school orchestra. Time was when she was eager to come up and play with me and learn the kind of music that I play. But: “Time changes everything.” She still plays with me occasionally, but her time and main interest has been transferred to a different kind of music and to other activities.
Many good things have happened in my musical associations through the years. First of all, the music was very good for me. It was satisfying, and it got me out into the social workings of the community. More so as the situation progressed.
My friendship with Eddie progressed. I persuaded him to go back to high school after he had quit because he got four “F” grades at mid-term. Fortunately I had graduated from that school three years before and knew all of the teachers involved. He became a pilot during World War Two and taught flying as a profession all of his working life afterwards. We maintained our friendship throughout the years. He followed his love for music by participating in the “Barbershoppers.” All good benefits.
My friendship with Bee Lewis carried on to his death. I was one of the pallbearers.
After the war we gathered up all of his poems and had them published: “Gems of Yesterday.” We saved, and made available to the reading world, a great collection of deep thinking and gentle humor that was a great part of our friend “Bee” Lewis.
The Elsah dances were one of the things that I am most proud of in my musical accomplishments. Everyone in the neighborhood that could play an instrument joined in. The neighbors gathered to dance, listen to the music, or just visit with whoever happened to turn up.
My friend, Sherman Bowen (blinded by a work accident) certainly profited from the social association. In spite of his visual handicap he became a good guitar player. He also loved to dance and was good at it with the cooperation of a partner who knew his handicap and adjusted for it. At least one couple met, fell in love, and married. The marriage lasted until the death of the husband more than half a century later.
Playing with Reverend Boston’s group was never a regular thing. I got with them as my own planning permitted me to stop by there as I passed through on my way from home to Rushville to take care of my father’s property. The friends moved to another locality and Reverend Boston suffered a heart attack which ended his musical career. We remained friends until his death.
The River Bluffs Traditional Music Society grew out of the “Tuesday Nighters.” The bunch wanted to expand. It was a great idea and it worked! But it was the victim of its own success. The various musicians found others in the group that fit into their musical tastes. Gradually they splintered off and left a few stragglers who eventually fizzled out.
The Moro firemen were very interested and cooperative, but the one thing that we failed to consider was the weather! One cold Sunday the fire truck froze up as it was parked outside to make room for the music. Clearly, we needed to find another place to meet! We did: an old school house.
Two outstanding incidents in the Moro phase are firmly lodged in my memory.
A young woman was singing to her own guitar accompaniment. One of her guitar strings broke. She was paralyzed. Another young woman walked out to stand beside her. She took her own instrument and handed it to the embarrassed and confused performer. They traded instruments, so far as the audience could tell without a word. Certainly with less confusion than exists sometimes trying to figure out what key somebody is intending to play in. They were a couple of amateurs but they handled the situations with the poise and expertise of seasoned performers.
Another outstanding performance was a young woman singing. She did a song that I firmly believe must have been her own composition. It was a great piece of music that was timely and appropriate to the times. “My bright blue star has turned to gold.” The blue referred to having a son in the service. The gold signified the death of a son in the service. Little pieces of it linger in my memory, forty years later:
“I had a bright blue service star,
So proudly hailed
My bright blue star has turned to gold”
I cannot imagine how the song writers of that day could have overlooked that theme. I feel the loss to the music world that her rendition of it could not have been preserved. It was everything that a piece of music should be. Lost forever, so far as I know. Tragic.
Don Peters and Warren Wilson started playing with me and that lasted until Warren moved away. Don remained a friend, but his taste was really bluegrass. But we made some good music. Warren wanted to learn to fiddle. He bought a mandolin, and learned the basic fingerboard. I let him fiddle. We recorded our music sometimes. One of our friends was listening to the recording and remarked to Warren that he was doing a good job on the guitar. Warren laughed. He then told the man that he had not been doing the guitar on that recording, he had been doing the fiddling. “A little humor.” The friendship with Don and Marlene lasted until their deaths. We played for nursing homes for more than six years, every Tuesday evening. We got some nice compliments and had a really good relationship with the occupants.
We played for the Calhoun County Historical Society for their antique car and quilt show for several years. Met a lot of nice people and got some good compliments. Had our picture taken with “Miss Calhoun County”. (A most gracious young lady)
With the Shorts we played for nursing homes and for a group of Jerseyville square dancers who wanted to put on a demonstration with live music.
My niece Cynthia Barker has a book club. Once a year they use one of my books to review. At this meeting, we gather up our present musical group and furnish music of the period that the book covers. It makes a nice program.
We had square dances at the church, and several of the youngsters joined in and learned the old art along with having a lot of fun.
The music has been a great help to all of those who have been a part of the groups throughout the years
So. In spite of the breaking up of the various groups, the deaths, the disappointments, we have had a lot of fun and satisfaction during my more than three-quarters of a century of making music for my neighbors, my friends, and my family.
As I said in one of my writings: “I have played with some good musicians. I have helped make some good musicians.”
A few years ago I was attending the Illinois State Fair. I was attracted to a group of musicians who were playing the kind of music that I was interested in and which is a part of me. At a little break between numbers the fiddler—Bill Rintz—came down off of the platform, sought me out of the crowd of listeners, shook my hand and said: “I remember when I was a very young, beginning fiddler. You gave me some good advice and some good help.”
A few years ago the Elsah Historical Society gave a square dance in the old hall, commemorating the hall’s hundred years and a fifty year anniversary of the dances that I hosted there back in the depression years. It was well attended, and a good time was had by all. At least one couple attended that were a part of the original bunch, fifty years before.
I loaned my Gibson five string banjo to a young woman some years ago. She returned it eight years later when she had been able to purchase one for herself. She said she waited until she could save enough money to buy one of that quality. She won the banjo contest at the Illinois State Fair. They gave her a nice write-up in the local paper. She gave me credit for starting her out and loaning her the instrument. She also told me privately that her music with the banjo had sustained her in a severe personal crisis. Another good one. Andy Over!
The girl that I started helping when she was ten won a half scholarship to the University of Illinois Summer Music Camp this year. (A $300.00 value)
Evan, the young man that I got acquainted when he was ten, took vacation “down South” last summer and made enough money playing music to cover his expenses. He has played with some pretty good musicians as he rambles the country.
Julia, our oldest (killed in a tragic car wreck) was quite good with the French Horn and the piano. It was almost certain that when her friends came here for a party they would gather around the piano and sing songs. They liked the hymns.
Gary played base fiddle in a local band as he attended high school. He made enough money to buy a horse.
Janet, our youngest, still plays occasionally. She has gone with us when we play at the nursing homes. She taught herself to play guitar while she was in Africa for five years.
Diane, Julia’s daughter, lives next door. She started out being really interested in the old ballads, but as she got older her interest turned to other things. She is covered up with her job in the legal profession.
Amelia, her oldest, fifteen, is taking piano lessons and is quite talented. She has been playing my Gibson mandolin for several years. One time I heard one of the “grown-up” musicians remark: “She does not even look at her fingers. I can’t even do that!”
Margaret, eleven, taking professional violin lessons. But her older sister sneaked in and taught her to play “Liberty;” an old piece that dates back to the Revolutionary War or before. They are both splendid musicians, and are dedicated to learning and passing on what they know. I am proud of them.
So, as I said, I have helped make some good musicians.
at age 96, I am still playing. Still looking for people who value the music that has been the life blood of civilization since the beginning of time.
Years ago I learned a piece of music from Bee Lewis. He did not have a name for it, so we called it by the name of the man that he had learned it from. It amazes me how that tune has travelled!
And always traceable back to the beginning, Bee Lewis and his friend, Herb Short. Whatever else I have accomplished in the musical world, I have helped to preserve a great piece of music.
Erwin A. Thompson