Remembering Dick Barrett
A kid who’s been raised on the side of a mountain and educated at home is just bound to develop a special relationship with her fiddle teacher.
My parents taught me everything - how to read and write and figure, how to ski, how to throw a ball...well I didn't really ever learn to do that, but it wasn't my dad's fault. He tried to teach me how not to throw like a left handed girl. But it turns out I AM a left handed girl, so what could he do? Mom and Dad taught me how to sing, how to recite poetry, how to talk to people. But one thing my dad realized he couldn’t teach me was how to play the fiddle.
So, when I was 9, Dad took me and my 10 year old brother Luke on a roadtrip from Grants Pass, Oregon up to Rapelje, Montana, to study contest fiddling for a week with Dick and Lisa Barrett. I had taken lessons from people here and there, but I'd never had a teacher who treated me much like a student before, and I had no idea what to expect.
Dick was a REAL fiddler. The kind who grew up in Texas during the Great Depression, who learned to play in dance halls after long days of picking cotton. He played with his brothers and brought his earnings home to his folks and 8 siblings. He played because music was the only thing that relieved the sorrow and hopelessness that surrounded him. He was the kind of fiddler who learned about spirituals and the Blues from a black man named Amen who sang his troubles away in the cotton fields.
Of course I didn’t know any of that when I was 9. I just knew he was pretty gruff at first, and I was nervous as heck when I tried to play for him. He was an intimidating personage, with a big voice full of John Wayne and Johnny Cash Americana. But it didn’t take me long to figure out that he got a kick out of kids who were impertinent and precocious (as long as they were generally well mannered), so I pulled out all the stops trying to make him laugh. Like the time he introduced me to a buddy of his and told me, "Now this guy is one hell of a fiddler," to which I replied, “Wow, you must be really great if Dick is saying that!” and Dick laughed his huge laugh that sounded more like a bark and slapped his knee and said to his friend, “See! What did I tell you about her?"
Dick wasn’t happy unless I played each tune exactly the way he showed me. And he didn’t tell me how to do it. Not at all. He showed me. I guess he figured if he had to tell a student too much, then they weren't worth teaching. If I didn’t catch on right away, he’d record the song on a tapedeck and say, “Now you work on that for awhile. Let me know when you’ve got it.” So I would, muddling through and taking special care to get the bowing just right, and when I’d play it for him he’d shake is head and say, “No no no, like THIS!” And he’d take my fiddle and play it for me again, opening his eyes wide and enunciating each note and making that perfect combination of singing tone and steady groove look effortless. Then his wife Lisa, herself a champion fiddler and master luthier, would take my fiddle from Dick and say, “Here. This is called a hook. You play the triplet going up the string, all in one bow, and then you sort of hook your bow over to the next string and hit the open note.” And that’s when I’d get it. Dick taught me to play Durang's Hornpipe and Forked Deer and Huckleberry Hornpipe and Sally Johnson and Leather Britches and lots of others. He didn't like it if I tried to get too fancy - he said I had to be able to play the straight melodies first, and for goodness sake not too many slides or triplets. If he said it once, he said it a thousand times, "Kids need to learn the TUNES, not the variations! Nobody plays the melodies anymore."
About a year after we first met them, Dick and Lisa came to stay at our house. My parents had decided it was time for me to buy a really quality instrument, so Dick and Lisa brought some fiddles with them for me to try. I was having trouble deciding which one I liked best, so they agreed to leave my favorite with us for a few weeks and let me give it a good test run. The following weekend, as I was carrying the fiddle across a cement floor, I tripped and fell right on top of it. I sat on the floor staring at the bruises and cracks in that beautiful wood and sobbed, "What will Dick and Lisa say?"
Turns out Dick had had his own accidents with fiddles, and when I called to tell him about my mishap he told me the story of a time when he'd left his fiddle on the ground behind his car and backed over it.
You better believe I bought that fiddle.
After that first week of lessons at their house, Dick and Lisa treated my brother and me like lifelong students, always chipping in suggestions and encouragement, tweaking things here and there, guiding us through the contest nerves and pressure and giving us a sense of belonging in the fiddling community. Every time we drove anywhere close to their house (which wasn't often, since Rapelje isn't on the way to anything) we'd swing by for a visit, and it was never long before we found ourselves getting out our fiddles and learning something new. Every summer I looked forward to seeing Dick and Lisa at the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest in Weiser, Idaho, where Lisa accompanied me on the guitar many times. As I headed out of the noisy practice room to compete, Dick would wink at me and growl, "Give em hell."
Would you believe contest fiddling is subject to fads? Well, it is. I mean, I know people probably think of old time fiddlers as a bunch of old guys wearing netback hats and overalls with envelopes of chewing tobacco in the front pocket, playing tunes like "Liza Jane" and "Billy in the Lowground". Mostly, they're right. That's exactly how the real ones are. But the upstart young kids have to find ways to reinvent the wheel, so every now and again a certain tune comes into fashion, or a certain rhythm or style. When I was about 16, kids were trying to get away from the smooth as glass sound of the late 80's and get back to playing with lots of drive - real aggressive, ballsy rhythm that sort of attacked those tunes and showed em who was boss. I was really working on that whole idea, trying to shake some of my early influences and play with a lot of confidence and guts. As I was warming up for a contest in Louisiana or Oklahoma or somewhere, Dick listened and nodded his head. Then, when no one was looking, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, "That was good. Just don't forget to be nice to your fiddle."
The last time I competed at Weiser, in 1998, I took second place in the Junior division. I don't even know how many times I finished second, but this particular time I was a little discouraged about it. Silly, really, since in general the competitive spirit at fiddle contests is not fierce; it's incredibly friendly and supportive in fact. But this was my last year in the Junior division, so it was really my last shot to win that title. Anyway, I will never forget Dick's sympathy when he told me that he'd never won the Championship title, but that he held the record for the most second-place finishes. Suddenly second place didn't look so bad.
Last week, at the age of 93, Dick passed away. I can't help but feel as if an era has ended - an era of authenticity, of organic artistry born out of desperate, stubborn hope. I played waltzes pretty and slow, with as much feeling as a sheltered kid who's been pretty well taken care of can muster. Dick played waltzes quick and to the purpose, because he learned to play those tunes in dance halls, and folks paid him a nickel if he played their special requests. I learned tunes like Grey Eagle because they were great tunes that showcased my skills as a fiddler. Dick played those tunes because, when his family lost everything in the crash of 1929 and took to the cotton fields to try to make ends meet, music gave them all some relief and hope. In his own words, "After I found out what it was like to pull a cotton sack up and down a row all day, music was a warm healing balm to the soul."
Back when I took lessons from him, I didn't know very much about who Dick was to the world. I didn't know that at the end of the Depression, when he'd been playing outfield for a AAA baseball team, he was drafted into the Combat Engineers and became a sniper. I didn't know he played with Tex Ritter or the Sons of the Pioneers, or that he came to be referred to as the "Elder Statesman of Contest Fiddling". I didn't know when he taught me those tunes, insisting I play the simple, straightforward melodies, that he was giving me a piece of his history and sharing part of his soul. I just knew he believed in me enough to tell me the truth. I knew that he made his fiddle sing in a way I'd never heard. I knew who he was to me.
I was honored to call him my teacher, and privileged to call him my friend.
Thanks for everything, Dick. Happy trails and love to you.