I am an undiluted fan of porch noise, not to misuse here the word music. Once the porch was considered a major home appliance the same as the washing machine. The porch predated the radio and was probably killed off by the television. As also killed off porch music, music that wasn’t canned and processed, that people could do for themselves, and even more so, do with others.
I never met the man known in the town of Buena Vista as “the fiddler,” he died long before I was born. His farm just up the road from the house where my mama was raised on the underside of that hump as County EE climbs over the enclosing ridge. As a farmer Eddie Wanty didn’t amount to much but as a porch fiddler he kept the community alive. Any summer evening music was heard from his porch, also spring and early fall, sometimes on a cold winter night when Grandpa Wanty decided to cut loose his fiddle.
By way of definition fiddle music isn’t the same as what comes of a violin, if you can saw wood to any advantage you can probably play a fiddle while the violin takes more delicacy. The first chair violin of the Chicago Symphony probably never played his instrument using knitting needles, or fishing line, nor the back side of a hacksaw blade. Porch music was like that, which is to say homemade, with a milk can pressed to serve as a French horn, a washtub provided a decidedly good bass, pie pans and even plowshares could chime in with orchestration. Only to add a scrub board, a vagrant guitar and derelict banjo and porch music was approaching symphonic quantity if not necessarily quality.
Was as a college kid I came across Gary Benson who later went on to a career as a theater professional. I knew him as that low-order animal called a banjo player. We set up on Friday afternoons on the porch of Newman House where like-minded souls congealed; guitars, banjos, mandolins, the occasional flute, to remember one insistent tuba. It was basically popcorn and banjos. Wasn’t so much that we played music as the music played us. The time period was that Vietnam thing, itself ripe with folk music, the plugged-in plywood guitar was still a few years and amplifier away. Not that garage music is any less homemade than porch music if maybe more angry, for porch music the words mattered because there was an insistent war on and you had to fit either with it or against it and pay the price. Porch music was for those who liked to sing, where the chance to harmonize was a practical humanity, to feel in that an earnest moment, an almost physical bond as voices blended and fit together. It wasn’t unusual for a porch session to sing the same song six times in a row just to see how some variation went. J.S. Bach did this all the time and pretty much got away with it.
I never heard Grandpa Wanty play his fiddle from his Sunday morning porch but I did hear Gary Benson play his banjo from the porch of Newman House across from Old Main. Banjos have a crystalline nature, a pie pan ring that can’t happen from a loud speaker or ear-buds. I’m not saying Bruce Springsteen can’t stir my blood or Pachelbel calm my nerves but making music on a porch is a different kind of nourishment.
I have attempted playing the banjo and mandolin on numerous occasions. Someday when I get auto-steer for my tractor I will equip the tractor with one of those porch ingredients, guitar, banjo, mandolin. Between headlands I will learn to play tablature, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen via banjo is my first ambition; until then I will attempt porch noise. Since we live on a lonely gravel road as meanders the Buena Vista, it doesn’t hurt anyone when I sit on my porch and attempt the banjo. Whether it damages the potato crop or stunts the corn I don’t know, Hancock has yet to research this. My dad believed singing to the cows aided lactation, singing calmed the kickers, shut-up the bawling calves. The tractors on whose cast iron spine I learned to drive didn’t have cabs, no power steering, no power brakes, no hydro, no radio. Mowing 40 acres of hay between dew-off and even-tide was one long miserable chore unless you sang. At this juncture I learned the benefit of Wesleyan brand Christianity. Those hymns from the old black book weren’t about my soul’s salvation, they were the long and sufficient verses to mow hay by. Those Sunday morning hymns I knew by heart to sing out loud to my field, the hay was gonna die anyway so it didn’t matter how well you sang. If I have mostly bailed out on Christianity, I still pleasure in singing those war-making hymns. Singing calms the field, raises the tilth, speeds the plough, confuses potato beetles. And it might work for weed control.
Justin Isherwood is an award-winning writer, a Wisconsin farmer, humorist, author and contributor to numerous collections and publications including: Badger CommonTater, Isthmus, and Newsday. He is an essayist for the radio program, BookMarks & Art, airing on a CBS affiliate in central Wisconsin. His books include: Christmas Stones & the Story Chair, Book of Plough, Farm Kid, and most recently, Pulse.