The Fifth Instrument

Ora Watson, the fiddle player, was 81 years old and obviously the senior member of the four-piece string band from the North Carolina Mountains. She sat on the edge of a hard, straight-back chair, facing the audience. Her left-hand fingers clasped the strings with practiced certainty while she bowed furiously with her right arm and wrist. Her legs moved in a rhythmic, staccato groove.

The group leader and raconteur was Mary: fortyish, amiable, and obviously in her element whether singing, strumming the guitar, or chatting with the audience in her laconic drawl. Two youngish men playing mandolin and guitar completed the ensemble.

All four were credible musicians, but it was Ora who fascinated me. Whenever a new tune started her knees would rise simultaneously—pulling her heels upward as she remained seated—and her legs would pivot on her toes, which never left the floor. When the legs then dropped, her heels struck the stage floor with a sharp, resounding clatter. Ora continued this movement throughout each song, providing the driving beat that held the musicians together.

Drummers usually provide the beat, but very few actually drive it. Drive marks the beat with an up-tempo feel without actually changing the tempo. It makes a performance viscerally exciting and can transform a group of musicians into a force that arouses spontaneous, kinesthetic responses from an audience.

Gene Krupa famously drove the beat with Benny Goodman’s band in the 1930s. More recently, I heard Bernard Purdie’s driving drums at Jimmie Mack’s jazz club in Portland, Oregon.

Sometimes a string bass player or other instrumentalist drives the beat. But, this night, it was Ora, the 81-year-old fiddler. She had already achieved a notoriety of sorts for her habit of getting up in the midst of a piece, setting her fiddle down on her chair and proceeding to perform what she called a “buck” dance: arms flailing wildly, body bent forward, slightly stooped, her gangly legs jerking and stabbing in a series of irregular, personalized thrusts into space. However erratic, her heels always met the floor precisely on the beat. This, and her leg movements while fiddling, authoritatively defined the musical pulse. She was not the designated leader, but once the playing began she was in command—and had me sitting on the edge of my chair.

After the performance I asked Mary if she was aware of how Ora’s legs were the ensemble’s essential, fifth instrument. Mary praised her musicality, but her response focused on Ora’s personal qualities and friendship: Ora was a revered elder who also happened to be a musician.

Curious, I put the same question to Ora but found little interest in discussing her musical prowess. Ora seemed tired. Tired of life, I wondered? No, not that. She said she coveted her close friends and looked forward to each dependable daily sunrise and sunset. She enjoyed the predictable weather changes and myriad routine tasks that sustained her health and comfort.

Ora was, I concluded, tired of performing for others. She understood that her gift of rhythm was on display in her “buck” dance and when her heels drove the band’s performance. But at her mature age, she had no need for recognition. Ironically, it was the recognition of her unchallenged dominance that now turned her off. What she valued now was her privacy.

Someday, Ora will probably lay her fiddle down for good, knowing she’s earned the right to privacy and perhaps to a low-profile seat in the audience, along with the rest of us. But on this night, I was glad she was still doing the buck dance and driving the beat with her heels.


© Gene Landriau, 2010

Interesting Links:
Gene Krupa playing with Benny Goodman
Bernard Purdie

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