By Barbara Gregorich
Shelby Stubbs stepped onto a bale of straw and looked down on the group of musicians. I leaned against a porch rail and watched everything in sight. Even Stubbs, though he wasn’t the thief.
Stubbs hooked a thumb through his belt, puffed out his chest, and repeated his announcement. “No sir. Absolutely not.” This was directed at Vance Jurasek, who was balancing a string bass on its endpin. "Only fiddles, guitars, and banjos,” Stubbs lectured. “No other instruments allowed. That’s ‘cause no other instruments belong.”
“You’re kidding.” Jurasek settled his bass against the rail and scowled.
“No sir. You don’t see a bass in old-time music. It’s not traditional. You never saw an old-time player carrying a bass around. No bass in my class.”
Jurasek, his thin ponytail hanging limp in the prairie heat, waved a small emerald-green instrument bag at Stubbs. "You'll accept a mandolin, though, right? Bill Monroe played the mandolin."
Stubbs glared. “Don’t tell me what Bill Monroe played. I don’t dispute that mandolins have a fine sound. Fine for bluegrass. But they don’t belong in old-time music. 'Sides, I heard you playing that mandolin as we drove in, and either you or the instrument is off key."
Face flushed, Jurasek shot Stubbs a murderous look.
My eyes scanned the two dozen people agape at Stubbs' announcement. Ranging in age from late teens to early seventies, they had one thing in common: folk music. Make that two things: folk music and T-shirts that advertised the festivals they’d already attended: Augusta Heritage, John C. Campbell Folk School, Summer Solstice, Swannanoa Gathering.
This week they were attending Midwest Music Madness where, based on what happened the two previous years during Old-Time Music Week, at least one of them would have an instrument stolen.
“Waydell Ames would have taught us,” someone said.
“Waydell’s dead,” Stubbs retorted.
The bluntness of the remark stopped conversation cold. Stubbs and his band had been signed as a replacement after Ames had died of a heart attack three weeks earlier.
Seconds ticked by, then argument started in again. “The hammered dulcimer—”
“No! No big old hammered dulcimers. The sound is much too rinky-tink, it just piddles around in the high end. A hammered dulcimer can’t drive the music.” Stubbs pointed a finger at the dulcimer player. “Only a fiddle can drive the music.”
I glanced at the name tag of the musician who had just spoken. Guy Dufour, Maine. Sensing my scrutiny, he turned and stared at my tag in return, seeing Frank Dragovic, Chicago. Dufour's name tag didn’t identify which instrument he played. Mine didn’t identify me as a private eye.
"Hammered dulcimers play in old-time music band all over New England." Dufour shouldered two large gig bags easily. Maybe back in Maine he was a lumberjack. Didn't matter, because I wasn't here to watch him.
“That’s contra dance, not old-time,” Stubbs barked, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a yellow bandana.
Not even 9 A.M. in downstate Illinois and the temperature had allemanded past 90° and was eager to do-si-do with 95°. Sweat percolated down my neck and into my White Sox T-shirt.
“Hammered dulcimer in a contra band is fine if you can get a good player. But it ain’t an old-time instrument.”
On the opposite side of the porch, Kofi Quay and Booker Hayes leaned against a rail. Quay held an African drum and observed; Hayes softly plucked a banjo and grimaced. If they were pondering the antics of white folks, I couldn't blame them.
“Nothing in the literature excluded other instruments,” Dufour insisted. “I paid my money, I am going to take your class.”
Sneering at the word literature, Stubbs patted back his salt-and-pepper hair and hitched up his pants. He breathed deeply, his belly stretching out his dark blue T-shirt. Any Old-Time You Wanna, it offered. Unlike most of us, who wore shorts to fight off the heat, Stubbs — who had not arrived Sunday night with everybody else, but during breakfast this morning — wore chinos. “Old-time music is fiddle, guitar, and banjo,” he reiterated from his wobbly pulpit. “The fiddle plays the melody, the guitar holds down the rhythm, and the banjo fills in. That’s the way it is." He looked down at the group. “I’ll be touring France later this year, and that’s what I’ll be taking with me — my fiddle, a guitar player, and a banjo player.”
“What about autoharps?” asked Jurasek angrily. Standing with his left side facing Stubbs, the better to see him, he removed a minidisc player from his pocket and flipped it open. Jurasek's right eye was glass. Last night he’d worn a black patch, this morning he didn’t. He was one of those I was here to watch. I looked around to see if he carried an autoharp in addition to his bass and mandolin. Apparently not.
“Autoharps are for ladies who like to strum and pluck. So are mountain dulcimers.”
The sound of a vehicle driving over gravel made me glance left. An old blue Ford pickup bounced across the parking lot. A nylon tarp covered what I surmised was camping equipment and an instrument or two. From the dining hall behind us plates and silverware clattered. People ambled by on their way to class, staring at Stubbs on his bale of straw. Under a massive sycamore tree a boy of about ten practiced “The Battle of New Orleans” on his guitar. To my untrained ear, he sounded good.
The group around Stubbs milled restlessly, its din reaching crescendo.
“I will come to your class,” repeated Dufour, who was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and heavy boots. July in Maine must be a nippy month. I wondered if he’d make it through a hot and humid week in the Midwest.
Craning his neck, Stubbs studied Dufour's second bag. "What've you got in there — a pregnant mandolin?"
“I build and play the hurdy-gurdy.”
“Ohhhh!” wailed Stubbs, throwing back his arms in mock despair. “The hurdy-gurdy is nothing but a substitute for bagpipes. Now if you like bagpipes, you have another problem.”
I felt a finger tap my arm. “What’s happening?” whispered Suzanne, the main reason I was here.
“Madness,” I whispered back.
Mary Ployd, the organizer of Midwest Music Madness, and my employer for the week, emerged from the breakfast area, winding a thick guitar strap around one hand. “What’s going on here?” she demanded.
“He’s telling us we can’t take his class. We signed up and paid our money and he’s telling us we can’t take his class.” Lafayette Wafer bounced up and down in indignation. He was another one to watch. “I paid to play the bowed psaltry in Waydell's class, and now Shelby—”
“The bowed psaltry!” roared Stubbs. “I liked it better when you scratched away on that miserable little fiddle of yours, Lafayette. The bowed psaltry ain’t even a real instrument! It’s a Christmas tree gone bad! No instrument — I repeat, no instrument — deserves to be in a class with a bowed psaltry.” He shuddered dramatically. “Compared to that thing, the hurdy-gurdy sounds good.”
Mary pushed her way through the group. “Shelby,” she questioned, "are you trying to exclude these students from your class?”
Stubbs barely looked at her. “They don’t belong in an old-time class, Mary. You should know that.”
“What are you talking about?” she demanded, swinging a long braid of brown hair over her back. Her voice lowered. “You signed a contract to teach old-time ensemble. I sent you a list of twenty-five students, with the instruments they played. Our agreement was that you teach them.”
“That’s right!” shouted Lafayette Wafer in a reedy voice. Mary scowled at him over her shoulder.
Stubbs shook his head. “Didn’t get no such list. Wouldn’t have agreed to it if I had.”
Mary unwrapped the web strap from one hand and wrapped it around the palm of the other, like surgical tape. Or brass knuckles. “Be that as it may, you signed the contract, the students paid their money, and the best thing for everybody is that you accept them into your class. Next time, I’ll make it clear that only fiddle, guitar, and banjo are permitted in your class.” From the way she looked at Stubbs, I doubted there would be a next time.
He shook his head. Avoiding eye contact with Mary, he gazed out over the heads of those gathered on the porch.
“Let’s go to my office and discuss this.” She turned to go.
She turned back to Stubbs. Unwrapped the strap from her hand. Clipped it around her waist. “It would be better if we discussed this in private. We’re upsetting everybody out here.”
“I am not upset,” shouted Dufour. “Nobody can keep me out of the class I signed up for."
Mary turned in a circle. Caught my eye. I half-expected a sign that she wanted my help. Dealing with big-headed musicians wasn’t what she hired me for, and I didn’t think she wanted me to blow my cover, but I was willing to drive a charge against Shelby Stubbs if that’s what she wanted.
No sign came.
“Shelby,” said Mary softly. “Please step down from that bale.”
He considered it. After a moment, he acquiesced.
“I want you to think about this.” She touched his arm. He flinched. “This is the kind of thing you could end up regretting. Imagine driving along on a dark, rainy night. Twisty roads, nobody in sight. Fog everywhere. The kind of night that makes you look back on your life, you know?”
Stubbs stared at her.
“There you’d be, all lonesome and sad, just you and the dark and the rain. What would you be thinking? I know you’d be wishing you could do things over. This would be something you’d wish you had done different.” She paused. “But then it would be too late.”
I stared at Mary, whose words carried an overtone of threat.
Stubbs cleared his throat.
“So do the right thing now, Shelby. Teach these students what you know about old-time music.”
Nobody spoke. Sensing her advantage, Mary pushed on. “Half of them — more than half — didn’t sign up until they heard you were going to be here. They came because of you, Shelby. They aren’t beginners, they’re all advanced students, and they want to take a master’s class from you.” Again she paused. “Please don’t disappoint them.”
Stubbs worked his jaw. “It ain’t right,” he croaked. “It’s against my principles.”
I heard Mary grit her teeth. Sounded like four-four time to me. “I understand that,” she soothed. “But what if you didn’t do it for yourself? What if you dedicated this class to Waydell’s memory? An honorable gesture from one musician to another.”
Stubbs shifted from one foot to the other.
“You knew Waydell long ago. Played with him way back then.”
A truck door slammed. Stubbs jumped as if he’d been stabbed with a psaltry bow.
“All right,” he grumbled. “All right. I’ll do it. Just this once.”
“Good,” said Mary.
I had my doubts. Ako laze koza, ne laze rog. A Croatian saying my mother is fond of repeating. If the goat lies, its horns don’t.
Wafer and a few others picked up their instruments and headed toward the barn. Jurasek balked. “I’m not taking his class! The son of a pup is closed-minded and musically unimaginative.”
Not saying son of a bitch struck me as prudish, if not closed-minded and verbally unimaginative, but I wasn't here to spice up anyone's expletives.
Mary pushed Jurasek in front of her, back toward the farmhouse. “You can take my class, Vance. You’ll be a welcome addition, with your knowledge of music.”
I turned to Suzanne, who I had met when she came to me with a case last October. I wanted us to live together, but she wasn’t saying yes. “You were right,” I said to her. “It won’t be dull.”
Behind us, somebody tolled the bell. Suzanne hurried off to her morning class, as did the other 200 or so students. I strapped on my tool belt and headed toward the barn. For this particular gig, I was undercover as a carpenter.