Entertainment. Billboard reported last year that by 2016 the entertainment industry would top two trillion dollars. Entertainment is pivotal to our modern lives – we think about it, we plan for it, we pay for it. But how often do we work for it?
Can you imagine the day when if you wanted to hear music, you played it or sang it? Such was the world for the Hixson family at the turn of the twentieth century. T.E. Hixson fathered ten children, his brother Steve had six. They entertained themselves, their families and neighbors with homemade instruments and God-given talent. None had ever had formal lessons but they filled every venue they played – of course they played in living-rooms and front porches. It was a weekly event and they had the reputation of being incredible musicians.
The music was native to the mountains. A mixture of Scottish, Irish, and African influences the lyrics praised God, mourned lost love and celebrated family. They sang about the struggles they faced and the joys they celebrated. Today we call this mountain music Bluegrass and Kentuckian Bill Monroe is known as the father of the genre. But long before Mr. Monroe’s 1911 birth and far from his birthplace in Rosine, Kentucky, the Hixson family were enjoying the same music in Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley.
Steve and Elbert (as T.E. was commonly called) grew up on the banks of the Sequatchie River where they farmed the rich bottom land, trapped and fished to churn out a subsistence living. They were not accustomed to a lot of ‘store bought’ goods and at a young age each learned to make what he needed. The boys talked little of their father in later years; he would pass down to his sons the farm and farming skills as well as a love of music and rich talent. The talent they passed to their own children who played alongside them. Outside of large orchestras, we are accustomed to bands of three to five members. Of course the whole bunch wouldn’t have played at the same time when the Hixson families met, but it would surely have been closer to orchestra numbers than the Country and Western bands we know today.
Bluegrass music is known for its improvisation. These brothers and sisters who played alongside each other day after day could surely have anticipated the chord changes, the added notes and when each instrument would insert a quick run of notes instead of holding a single, long note. They might have thought the word belonged to another language, but they improvised naturally.
In that secluded valley, there were no music stores and no one importing finely crafted instruments from European master-craftsmen. The Hixsons scarcely knew they were missing anything for they made their own instruments. Whatever their Mountain Music required, the men made from the resources available to them. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins and guitars were crafted for each member of the family. When Elbert’s oldest daughter gave him his first grandchild, he declared she would be a fiddle-player and he made a child-sized instrument for her. Over the next four years, four more grand-daughters were born and for each a small instrument was built.
Elbert Hixson became so adept at and accustomed to building musical instruments that in his later years he sought new challenges. He built a fiddle made entirely of matchsticks which was photographed and documented by numerous periodicals. That one was a novelty and could never produce the sound he’d sought from earlier instruments – instruments that were played for years and in fact some of which are still around and in very playable condition after a hundred years of musical service.
That beautiful valley still seems secluded despite modern roads, power lines and internet service. It isn’t hard to imagine I can still hear a lingering hum of a dozen instruments celebrating the beauty of the harvest season and foretelling the gloom of winter. I find myself inspired by these men who created music out of raw materials that valley produced and then passed the beauty of it to their children.