Spirit Of Old Savannah
I suppose all families have their curses, have their shameful secrets to hide if at all possible. My mother’s side of the family has a special curse, if curse indeed it is. Mother termed it the curse of having Rosin in the Blood, meaning the sound of a fiddle had a special influence on the lives of certain of her family members, but “just every other generation” according to her.
Her uncle--and my great uncle, Martin O’Toole--had been the last to experience the family curse, but now he was dead and the curse had fallen to me. I’ve just returned from visiting the attorney handling his last will and testament, scattering what possessions he had acquired over his long life to those he loved most.
I must say I was shocked to receive a letter informing me of a bequest in my favor from Uncle Martin. I’d only met him briefly a few years ago in Savannah, where I am now sitting in one of the city’s renowned squares, reading the letter my uncle had prepared for me shortly before dying. Among Martin’s things was his most prized possession, an ancient fiddle, carefully locked away in a battered case against any eyes since his death until I opened it today. His letter was inside the case, waiting for me to read it. The letter said:
To Paul Redding, my great-nephew,
Since you are reading this letter now it means I have finally ended my long and enjoyable share of the family curse. It is a curse I have no doubt, but a good curse in my experience and I avow it is only bad for those not afflicted with it. Those of us chosen to carry the family burden never consider it to be anything more than a blessing, as you will soon see.
I had almost given up finding a true recipient of the wonderful fiddle until I met you a few years ago. Until your mother brought you to Savannah to hear me play at the St. Paddy’s Day celebration, and I saw how the sound of the old girl affected you, I was afraid the curse would end with me, and It is too wonderful of a burden to let lapse, even if your mother might not understand such.
How I came into possession of the fiddle is the main point of this letter. You will discover the spell she exerts upon your musical soul shortly, as have many men before you for hundreds of years before our time. There’s nothing I can say about its power that you won’t learn for yourself when you play it. No, mere words will not suffice to tell you about such things.
The Family Curse
Of course, I was already under the influence of the family curse long before the fiddle came into my life, but after the former owner with the Irish surname left it to me in his will, my life was never the same again. The very first day I came into possession of the instrument the magic began. The very first sound I made with the bow upon the ancient fiddle’s soul told me everything I needed to know.
For months I had been plying my trade around the enchanted environs of Savannah. The city always seemed to be mired in mystique and revelry ever since ole "Jim" Oglethorpe first laid out its streets over two centuries ago. Something about the way it sits among the live oaks and Spanish moss makes it seem certain there are spirits lingering amongst the aged buildings and cobblestone streets. But I didn’t know this at the time, didn’t suspect such things at all.
Similar to your own present circumstances, I received a letter informing me of the bequest of the same fiddle you now have in your possession. After visiting a Mr. Morrow--an elderly attorney with an office in the seedier section of the city--I vaguely remembered hearing him mention the former owner’s name, as well as, a bit of his once great talent with a fiddle
But his time of fame was long before my days, was only a rumor among those in my circle in the year 1928. At the time I was simply thrilled with the gift and did not inquire very closely about the deceased man who'd left me the case containing the old instrument.
Old Masters And Mistresses
But the old musician had apparently heard of me. He knew I loved the old tunes of Ireland, the reels and ballads, along with many of the new songs created by the circumstances of this still relatively new country. My ability with the bow had made me popular among the city’s well-to-do families and respectable men of power. And to be sure, I liked a bit of the Irish whiskey and the occasional kiss from a beautiful lady as well. Yes, it’s quite a curse you have to live up to, nephew.
There was no letter from the previous owner accompanying the fiddle when I received it from the old fiddler’s lawyer. Seemingly the old musician had little time to make his plans, barely having his will completed before succumbing to pneumonia. There were other letters though, letters going back more than two centuries chronicling the many former owners of the "Lass” as she had become known. Or perhaps, those owned by the Lass would be a more apt way of putting it. Either way, it was a mutual honor.
It was late afternoon in one of Savannah's squares when I first opened the sturdy violin case containing the Lass. The strings seemed to hum in greeting as it lay there with the last rays of sunshine playing on its lacquered surface. The wood from which it was made was dark as the soul could imagine, was deep with ancient sounds still remembered by former giant trees which shaded enchanted environs in a country now thousands of miles and many centuries gone.
A Slave To Music
As the light dimmed, and the lamps around the empty square were fired by an almost silent lamplighter, I placed my chin into the fiddle’s rest and began my tenure into the life of a true minstrel. I played an old song, played it with a feeling and talent I’d never experienced before, floated the bow across strings of gold, made magic, in a word. My mind’s eye saw a green country and hills, blue skies and white clouds, red hair and blue eyes, music as magic, of course. I saw all of these things as the old Lass sang her memories to my heart and mind.
The fog had began to roll in as I finished the delightful tune so I quickly replaced the Lass in her protective lair. Only then did I notice the old negro man sitting on a bench to my right, sitting there with tears streaming down his weathered face. He smiled as he pulled a handkerchief out of the coat pocket of his very neat gray suit and wiped his eyes carefully before speaking. “It’s been quite a while since I’ve heard that old tune played so well, young man,” he said without a trace of the typical accent I’d long been accustomed to hearing from the local black Savannah residents.
“Have you heard this old fiddle before?” I asked him. “Of course,” he said with a smile “Both the Lass and I were once owned by the same master a long, long, time ago.” Beneath the matching gray fedora his wrinkled time-worn countenance was the color of coffee with cream. To think he had once been the property of another human being was hard to believe. “You were once a slave?” I heard myself ask aloud.
Sounds From The Old Country
“Unless one has had one’s life wagered upon the turn of a card, one has not lived,” he replied with a slight smile of dry humor. “I was lost by my former master on a pair of deuces, but then, I was also won by my new master with a full house. I was only ten years of age at the time and I tried to look on the bright side of things if at all possible. This attitude has been a boon to me I believe, especially in my later years.”
“Before the card game it was my job to follow my old master--a big cotton grower and businessman from near New Orleans--around and wait on him hand and foot. And yes, compared to those who had to pick cotton or do other work in the hot fields it was an easy job. But my new master was a man of my own heart, a man who loved to laugh and enjoy life."
"An Irishman by the name of Patrick O’ Donnell he was, with not too many years in this country to boast of, and with his own ideas of freedom and justice. I never got the sense I belonged to him and would have insulted him if I had mentioned such. I never did, of course.”
“That old fiddle you just played was his pride and joy, as it has been for many men long before he ever laid eyes upon it. When he played it folks were entranced by the sound, were in awe of the visions the music conjured up in their minds, but perhaps enchanted would be a more appropriate word to describe the effect the Lass had on those exposed to her voice.”
“My new master said the fiddle was once owned by an Irish king, was created with magic by a leprechaun which the king once captured. But we all know how legends get started by such wild talk. Still, sometimes I wonder.” The old man said this with a straight face and I too wondered if there was any truth in the fascinating tale.
“Toby"--that’s what my new master called me--"the Lass will brook no competition from other women in her present owner’s life. Sure, she’ll allow a bit of playful indulgence with the ladies, but nothing of any length or seriousness.” At this Toby shook his head from side to side while quietly chuckling to himself.
“Paddy taught me how to speak well and how to dress in a distinguished manner befitting my new station in life. I traveled everywhere with him as he was highly sought after to play for weddings and other festive occasions around the south. We always came home to Savannah though, always needed to sit in the square for a bit late in the evening, just like we’re doing now.”
“One thing though, I wish he had taught me to read and write better.” Toby frowned a bit when he said this. “Yes, I could mingle with the best of folks with no problem, but I still worried about their finding out how illiterate I really was.” The fog seemed to be a bit thicker in the square now as I couldn’t see Toby quite as well as at first. He was silent for a few minutes before finally saying: “How about one more tune from the old girl before I go? The fog won’t bother her none as she’s grown accustomed to it long ago.”
So I unleashed the vixen from her confines and painted a scene of sadness and heartache in the form of mere vibrations in the misty air. The music was so sad I found myself almost sobbing as I finished, not noticing the absence of Toby until I’d put the Lass away for the night. The next day I returned to the attorney’s office where I’d first laid eyes on the wonderful old instrument.
“Hello again Mr. O’Toole” the old barrister greeted me smiling. “Is there a problem I can assist you with today?” I didn’t quite know how to broach the subject, so I merely asked him about the man who’d left me the Lass.
“Just a few questions about the person who left me the old fiddle, Mr. Morrow, then I’ll be on my way. I remember you said his name was O’Donnell, but I couldn’t remember his first name. I suppose him being an Irishman had something to do with him bequeathing me the fiddle?” I inquired.
Mr. Morrow began to chuckle when I asked this. He began to get even louder, trying not to wheeze as he slapped himself on the knee, struggling to regain control of his emotions. “Yes, I suppose you could say he was a "black" Irishman if you wish. Mr. Tobias O’Donnell was his legal name from when he was once a slave before the war decided his fate. What’s wrong Mr. O’Toole? You look a bit pale, perhaps you'd better sit down for a moment.”
Betrayal Of The Lass
So this ends my last letter, Paul. I told you the old girl was magic. Toby’s master had fallen in love with a Savannah belle, had fallen so deeply the Lass had withdrawn her magic from him in punishment for his betrayal of her charms. So Toby became her new suitor in the Irishman’s stead, had suited her charms, had made wonderful music with her until he died.
I suppose he appeared to me that foggy day because of his inability to put the tale in writing, as had so many before him. So now there is a letter to relate his romance with the Lass too. Read the other letters in the Lass’s case when you get the chance . I think you will enjoy learning the history of your present mistress as I did. And choose her new suitor well when you have to. She deserves the very best of mates to be happy in her songs.
Wishing you all the best,
The First Song?
So here I sit this late Savannah evening, in the very same square where my great-uncle Martin met Toby almost 65 years ago. If I play the old girl will the fog creep in? Will Toby or Uncle Martin slip close and listen as their once temptress and mistress does croon to their soul? I will soon know for sure as I long to hear the voice of The Lass for the first time. I will play a happy tune at first.....or perhaps a love song is in order in honor of her. Ah well.....I will play all of the memories at last.