McDowell Technical Community College

Let the Rabbits Run

By Timothy W. Tron

As they sat in the little out-building dimly lit by a single incandescent bulb overhead, J.W. leaned back in the old metal legged kitchen chair smiling broadly as the student before him began pulling the first few strains of sound from the instrument under his chin. It would be the first of nearly a dozen lessons. His now white hair protruded boldly from beneath the cap on his head. As he listened to the young man play, he talked to the elder sitting next to him on the upturned white 5-gallon bucket. Reno Sharpe had come along this evening with the young man, a friendly escort of sorts. They talked of old friends and days gone by while the student would painfully try to repeat what the master fiddler had just shown him. There were no music books, no sheets from which to read; no, this was learning as in the old days, by ear.

John Wesley Parsons was his full name, but everyone knew him simply as J.W. It was said that he could fix anything with strings on it; from fishing poles to rehairing a bow. The room around them that night doubled as a slaughterhouse. J.W. raised hogs on the side, along with a host of other jobs. In the summertime, he sold minnows and watermelon. There were butcher saws and knives gleaming in the shadowy room. It was appropriate for the beginner fiddler, so badly were the sounds coming from his bow, akin to killing a song if you will, and not in a good way, that J.W. would remark, “Boy, are you married?”

“Yes-sir,” he stopped making the painful sounds to look up from his violin to answer.

“You gotta out-building you can practice in?”

“No sir, but I’m starting to work on one now.”

“Well, you better gitter built if you wanna stayed married.”

To that, both he and Reno laughed heartily. The young man joined in knowing full well what they meant.

It was just one of many evenings the three would spend together over the course of several weeks that fall.

J.W. was quick to tell the two men that night that he literally taught Charlie Daniels how to play the fiddle. It was a true story, yet it is doubtful that Mr. Daniels would ever attest to it. To J.W., that was his claim to fame. In truth, his real legacy would come later, but not through a single entity such as Mr. Daniels. J.W.’s legacy would be a gift to many.

One evening, J.W. brought his guitar along. The student had now progressed enough that he was able to follow along to the rhythm of the guitar. The master fiddler was slowly working his prodigy into someone that would benefit from this experience for a lifetime. J.W.’s own background was from years of mastery learned through countless hours of sawing the bow across the strings. In wartime, he played with bands that would tour all over the Far East; Japan, Korea, and other Pacific Rim islands. J.W. would eventually come home to settle back down on the farm and raise a family. There he found like many old-time fiddlers, they could earn more money playing for Pea Pickin’s or Corn Shuckin’s on the weekend than they could at a regular paying job. That being the case, and money being tight, he became known far and wide for being a master fiddler.

As he set his fiddle down that evening, he said to the two men, now his tiny audience, as he picked up the old Martin guitar beside him, “You always want a good guitar player backing you up. And when you get one, make him stand right beside you. You got to have him right beside ya like he was’n a glued to your side. Otherwise, you won’t be able to hear em. If you get off, it makes the whole band get off, and that’s a bad, bad thang.”

The student would reflect back on the many things learned in that tiny studio. Not all of the things taught were just from the notes flowing through the wood and strings, but rather, from the knowledge of the elder passing onto the student the lessons of life and what it was to live in a time when the music of this sort was in much greater demand and appreciation. In today’s education, too often the human aspect of the interaction between student and teacher is overlooked. Sitting around the hearth on cold winter nights, the old-timer’s in the Appalachians would pass down not only the songs but the stories and traditions of the culture that made them distinct from others. It made the music they made all that more special.

On that memorable evening, J.W. sat down all four legs of his chair and began tuning his guitar. His large fingers adeptly turned the tuning pegs as he bent his head to listen. There was no tuner needed so well adapted were his ears to the sounds of the instruments in his hands. To try to watch his fingers position themselves on the tiny neck of the fiddle, it was sometimes impossible to discern which string he was actually playing. Because of his large working hands, the fingers were nearly always positioned to cover two strings, which made his double stops (purposely playing two strings at once) perfect. Even though the fiddle looked out of place in those rough, hewn hands, the beautiful strains of his waltzes were some of the sweetest melodies many had ever known.

That particular evening, his mood seemed different.

Before continuing, he told the two men in a solemn tone, “What I’m about to play you I don’t want you telling anyone about. I don’t normally sing in front of people,” he would go on to say.

Knowing or not, the young man had always brought along his video recorder in order to tape each lesson. From those he would practice the week, carrying the master with him as a manner of speaking. This night was no different. Instead of interrupting, he let J.W. continue so as not to stop what they were about to see. “If it was really something to be kept secret, he could always go back and erase it if necessary,” he thought to himself.

“This here’s a song about an old man and his dog. I call it the Rabbit Song.”

He began playing and singing like we had not seen before. His voice was as good as any country singer they had known on the radio. The song was from the heart. As he played and sang, J.W. closed his eyes as of if he was being transported to another place and time.

These hills have been my home, come eighty years next Monday,

Since sixty-five it’s just been this old dog and me.

My woman was called home to be with the Lord in Glory.

My life has been a good one but my journey’s end I see.

 

Seems like the rabbits run much faster than they used too.

Every year the hillsides get harder to climb.

Seems like the autumn turns too quickly into winter.

Won’t be long and me and this old dog will say goodbye.”

The same young man sat in the cozy little barbershop behind Max’s house. It was Thursday night, and Max was open for business. Earlier in the week, Max had found the young man had an old fiddle on display in his house. It was one his wife had bought at an auction back when they were in college. It was merely intended for decoration since neither one of them could play it. That evening Max, curious as he was about most things couldn’t take it any longer when he paused clipping away with the scissors, and gently touching his customer’s shoulder, and leaning in to say, “I happened to see a fiddle sitting in your dining room at your house last week when I was doing that work for you. Do you play?”

“No sir, that was something my wife bought a long time ago at an auction when we were in college. It’s broken up on the neck and can’t be tuned unless it can be repaired,” he replied. Then the next few words he was about to speak would alter the course of the young man’s life, “But I’ve always wanted to learn how to play a stringed instrument.”

It was almost as if Max had been waiting to hear those exact words. Before he had barely got the words out of his mouth, Max had an answer. “I know a man that can repair your fiddle and teach you how to play it too.”

“Really,” the young man said in almost disbelief?

Grabbing the local phone directory, he opened it up to the ‘P’s, “Yep, sure do, his name is J.W. Parsons.”

Pointing to the J.W.’s name, they wrote down the number. Then the conversation turned to all the music that had been a part of Max’s life and how he and J.W. had made music so many times. Those were precious memories. The world began to spin seemingly out of control for the young man that night, as so many things that could have been began to become possibilities. It is sometimes said that truth is stranger than fiction. It seemed that night as if the young man had stepped back into time, hearing about lives from another century.

As J.W. played for the audience of two that night, his student and Reno, he sang to them a song that was nearly as prophetic as it was sad.

Instead of sleeping over in the corner by the fireplace,

That old dog would run and hunt all day.

Not too long ago, we were out amongst the corn rows,

Making the memories that are on my mind today.

 

Seems like the rabbits run much faster than they used too.

Every year the hillsides get harder to climb.

Seems like the autumn turns too quickly into winter.

Won’t be long and me and this old dog will say goodbye.”

He ended the song and solemnly sat down the guitar at his side as the two men cheered his beautiful rendition. His humbleness overwhelming them as he repeated, “Now don’t tell no one I ever sang that, you hear.” They shook their heads in disbelief and approved. It was the gentlemen’s agreement; they had given their word.

From there, J.W. would eventually introduce the young man to other venues and people, whereby eventually, those off-key notes would form melodies that would entertain crowds of enthusiastic onlookers, but never to the same level of the master’s hand. The style of which he had learned from the old Pea Pickin’ fiddler, J.W. Parson, was one of a kind; a mix of bluegrass with a hint of old-time mountain music. From that point forward, the legacy of J.W. Parsons would be passed down as that young man would go on to become the first Director of the Chatham County Junior Appalachian Musician’s Program (JAM). There, he and many others would teach young children from the ages of 8 to 16, how to play the songs and instruments of the old-time music. The method used in the program was exactly the same J.W. would use, sharing the sounds of the music along with the stories that made it special; and learning by ear.

Years would go by, and like pages on a well-worn book, the edges of recollection would begin to fade. Sadly, in his later years, J.W.’s memory would begin to slip. It was painful to watch the master fiddler slowly lose the precious gift he had known most of his life. Around him, especially his loved ones, people watched the man they loved and called Papa, slowly fade from them. His friends would fight back the tears as they would see him one more time and know this was only the shell of the man they had once known.

One might attribute the loss of his memory to the accident that took his loving wife, “Mara-Lou,” as he called her. They had been in a wreck and gone to the hospital afterward, but the doctors told her everything had checked out. They went home, even though she was still in pain. Sadly, she passed away during the night from her injuries. J.W. was never quite the same afterward.

The Bible tells us in Philippians, 3:13 “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,” One could say, God, moved J.W. past the painful loss of his beloved, comforting him in his final years with a sense of peace. Looking back, it was as if God knew the pain he suffered from losing his life-long partner. In taking away his memory, he might have lost his musical talent, but he was also afforded a few years of peaceful grace before he left this world. We often only comprehend what we can see. Beneath that placid façade of bleakness, we witnessed, who’s to say J.W. couldn’t already see the joy that would fill his soul on that beautiful reunion day when he and Mara-Lou would meet again on the far distant shore of Jordan?

The memory of the Rabbit Song would return to that young man J.W. taught so long ago every time he saw him in those final years.

That young man would be me, Timothy Tron.

As he had asked, I never mentioned the song or that it had been played. Reno passed long before J.W., so it was a memory only I carried with me.

Not many years after J.W.’s passing, I mentioned to Wendy about the song. It was the first time I had told anyone. She replied, “I’d like to get a copy of that from you someday.”

Someday will come. My walk in faith has buried so many things in storage. Unlike the things we carry, the memory of that special evening has not been lost.

As time goes by, the children from that JAM program are growing up and moving onto other parts of their own lives. Many of them had heard the story of the Rabbit Song, but few know the rest of the story. As they grow up and continue playing the music learned from the student of J.W., it is as if a part of J.W. Parsons continues on. His legacy still surviving into the next generation beyond our own. Those students are now becoming teachers as well, carrying on the tradition of learning by ear, playing in the old-time way.

 

Yes, the rabbits seem to run much faster than they used too. These Blueridge mountains seem harder to climb.

In the corner sits my fiddle, lovingly signed on the back by J.W. Parsons.

 

As the weather turns cooler, it takes me back to that little old shack behind J.W.’s home where we sat underneath the light of that autumn moon. It’s time to rosin up the bow and play that fiddle hard, cause J.W.’s memory will not be lost, his legacy will linger on.

Let the rabbit run.

Thanks be to God.