Tuesday, October 02, 2012

City Mouse, Country Mouse, City Music, Country Music

I suppose you could say that I am a city mouse, and since moving to the "country" 27 years ago, I haven't changed my stripes. I still busy myself with "city" (or old-school city) things, and I haven't forsaken city music for the country music that seems to be the music that really puts down roots and flourishes in this area. You could call it a Platzgeist.

Country music around here runs rather deep. There is a fiddle tradition that has deep roots in southern Illinois and Missouri, and, thanks to a bunch of musicians (some who happen to have grown up in the very town I'm writing from), that tradition has been preserved, and is still being preserved the old-fashioned way. The operative word for how this music is being preserved seems to be the word "collected," because people learn traditional fiddle tunes by going out into the country and playing with the old fiddlers who either made them up or learned them from another (perhaps even older) fiddler.

My friend Gaye Harrison, who was married to the recently (as in a few weeks ago) departed Garry Harrison, used the word "collected" to give the origin of a fiddle tune she played the other night (she was playing with a former student of mine who decided to try out life in the world of old-time music rather than the life of old-school music) at an enthusiastically-attended outdoor fundraising event.

I certainly don't begrudge people choosing old-time music over old-school music, but, being a "city mouse," I have never been very good at making old-time music myself.

We know a terrific plumber named Rick who grew up in Charleston during the 1960s and 70s. He loves to recite the various businesses that used to be on the town square, naming their owners, and discussing various features of the bowels of their buildings (which he knows intimately). It was a flourishing place of commerce. Rick told us that while he was growing up there wasn't anything anyone could possibly need that you couldn't get on the square.

Yesterday I had a phone conversation with a man in his 90s who grew up in Mattoon, a town eight miles west of Charleston, in the 1930s and 40s (he read about our Jewish Community Center in the Chicago Tribune). He talked about Mattoon as a paradise: an extremely tolerant and friendly place where businesses thrived. It was an important railroad town, complete with a roundhouse, and people who went into business there could have things sent in by train (fruit, furniture, hardware, clothes, you name it), and sell it in their stores.

Nobody in Charleston really had the need to go to Mattoon to get anything (Charleston had goods delivered by train as well), and nobody in Mattoon really needed to go to Charleston to get anything, except for "high-brow" culture.

Charleston has a university, and at one point the university had a president who loved music, and he encouraged the university to start a school of music. The school of music attracted some excellent musicians, and it looked like Charleston could eventually become a cultural center. I found a town plan in the public library that had an elaborate proposal (complete with pictures) to turn Charleston into a cultural resort-type town with an arts festival kind of like Interlochen. It all had something to do with a fake lake project, and I suppose this plan was part of Charleston's bid to get the lake, which would bring resort-type tourism to the area. People moved to town to get in on this project from the start, but the lake went to the town of Shelbyville, and the arts center was forgotten.

The Zeitgeist changed after that president retired, and the school of music became a department of music. The people (all city mice, like me) brought here as faculty members of the school of music have all retired, and many of them are no longer alive.

But the music that is native to the area is kept alive by people who care about it, and that is something to celebrate.



For Simpsons fans, the reference to Shelbyville is amusing. (They're Springfield's town rival.) I can easily imagine a whole episode in which Springfield loses a lake to Shelbyville.

Elaine Fine said...

In addition to the glorious towns of Charleston and Mattoon, we have a Springfield in Illinois as well. Don't think for a moment that we aren't reasonably sure that the Simpsons live in downstate Illinois. If you look at this page, you will find that Illinois is the only town where Springfield and Shelbyville could be rivals. And Capital City (called the "Windy Apple") could easily be Chicago. Springfield is our capital, but it is a city that seems pretty much the size of the city in The Simpsons. The distance from Springfield, Illinois to Chicago, Illinois? 220 miles! That's precisely the mileage if you drive by way of I-72 to I-57. And the drive from Springfield to Shelbyville takes a little over an hour.

Elaine Fine said...


I mean the only STATE where Springfield and Shelbyville could be rivals, and Springfield is our CAPITOL!