Jordan Smith – My Grandmother’s Mandolin

Jordan Smith LE P&W March 2022

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My Grandmother’s Mandolin – Guest Editorial by Jordan Smith.

Gibson A Jr Model Junior A-Style Mandolin Sheraton Brown, 1924 Full Front View. Photograph courtesy
Gibson A Jr Model Junior A-Style Mandolin Sheraton Brown, 1924 Full Front View.
Photograph courtesy

I took out my grandmother’s mandolin last night to try out some tunes from John Clare and the Folk Tradition by George Deacon. Despite the academic title, the book is mostly lyrics and musical notation, a collection of songs and tunes that John Clare—peasant, self-taught poet, publishing prodigy and fiddler, then failure, madman—collected in and around his native Helpston. Some are familiar, with titles almost any fiddler would know, but others are more unexpected. I decided to take a crack at one I’d never heard, the idiosyncratically titled “Beef Stake Hornpipe.”

I am not much of a mandolinist; it isn’t my main instrument, and I don’t play this one often enough to develop any proficiency. The left hand—the noting hand—carries over from my fiddling, since the two instruments are tuned to the same intervals, but I’m much less dexterous with a pick than I am with the bow, and the mandolin’s tightly strung doubled courses require a tighter left-hand pressure and strong right-hand technique to bring out the fullness of tone that, for a skilled player, comes as a woody, percussive flow, but, for me, is mostly a plink. Unlike the bowed fiddle, the mandolin doesn’t sustain a note, so the attack with the plectrum is everything. I don’t know how good my maternal grandmother, Alida Rose Steinorth, was either.

By the time I became curious about the instrument, she hadn’t played it for decades. Along with an old portable typewriter, it was one of the treasures of her attic, and like any treasure, it was hard to reach. The attic had a folding staircase behind a trapdoor, and this had to be opened with a hook on the end of a pole that pulled the stairs down; they just managed to fit on the stairway landing by the exposed chimney. Since the hook could only be used by an adult, this meant, often, interrupting my grandfather, who preferred not to be interrupted.

The attic was uninsulated, so I only went up there in summer. I still remember the heat, the sun-bright view through the tiny window over the gravel turnaround and the little rose garden, the fur coats hanging in their heavy moth-proof bags, the touch of the typewriter keys, the fascinating but unsatisfactory sound of the mandolin.

When, a teenager, I asked if I could take it home, she didn’t offer to teach me anything, not even to get me started. She only said that I might be able to find a piano instructor who also taught mandolin, since that was how it was when she began. She played, my mother told me, in a mandolin orchestra when they were in fashion. And then she didn’t, and the mandolin went up to her attic.

Her mandolin was made in 1924 by Gibson, an A-Jr., their plainest, least expensive model. No surprise there; my grandfather worked as a foreman and tool and die maker at Bausch & Lomb, the optical company; they had three children, a small house in Point Pleasant near Irondequoit Bay in Rochester, New York, and they couldn’t have had much money to spare. There’s a flaw in the top, a sort of divot in the surface that never developed into a crack; one of the luthiers who looked at it for me suggested that it might have been a factory second, which makes sense for a frugal family that still valued culture. The original fiber-board case, long since disintegrated, had a sticker from Levis Music Store on East Avenue.

The store was still there when I was a kid, across the street but on the same block as the Eastman Theatre and Kilbourn Hall, where the students at the Eastman School of Music performed. I loved the shop, both rooms, the one with instruments for sale in glass display cases and the one with sheet music and scores. It was like a museum and library combined, and there were rarely many customers, and the one or two staff members were unobtrusive. A jazz aspirant, I coveted the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet they had for sale, the bell cocked upward, although I was too diffident to ever ask to take a closer look.

Covet is a dangerous word, betraying a lack of self-sufficiency, which is itself a betrayal of what might get you where you want to be, work or discipline or well-deployed attention. I coveted musical sophistication and virtuosity, but I blew off my theory class and rarely practiced my horn enough or the right way, getting by as an improviser on good luck and a decent ear.

John Clare coveted literary fame, and he achieved it for a time through talent, enterprise, and dogged work in the face of much discouragement, but he never forgot the effort it took or the grinding impossibility of becoming an equal in a system governed by class, which was happy enough to celebrate him as an oddity but would not tolerate him as an artist. Of all the things that commentators suggest might be responsible for his madness, this struggle with the givens of class is one that stays with me, although that might be sentiment, weighting the artist’s circumstances over a medical truth.

As salient to his failures as it was to the terms of his success as a “peasant poet,” as distracting as his pursuits of music or sex and his desperate and heartbroken love for an unenclosed England, the injustice of class and the humiliation of patronage joined with these to drive him away from his writing into other dissatisfactions.

If I lived without Clare’s clear disadvantages and in a country organized around a different myth of personal advancement, I still recognized the way these limits worked. My mother and her sister were the first of their family to attend college; their ancestors had been farmers in Germany and then livery stable operators in the Joseph Avenue neighborhood of Rochester when it was the home for their countrymen (as later it would be for Jews, then for African-Americans, then for Puerto Ricans). My father’s family was from the Catskills, and although he and his father graduated from Hamilton, and his dad worked as a public school teacher in Newburgh, most of them were farmers or railroad men. One was a trainmaster in Walton, a master telegrapher, entrusted with photographing wrecks. One ran the general store in Andes.

My father met my mother—under a lab table, they told me, without elaborating–when they were both doing war-related work at Bausch & Lomb, and then he got a test-engineering and sales job for a company that made sophisticated vacuum-coating equipment, but he was laid off, following his hospitalization for chronic depression, and never found another like it. When I was in high school, he was on the evening custodial crew in my school, going to work with a Radio Shack transistor radio so he could listen to the classical station while he cleaned. My English teacher, mother of a friend, told me that when a student asked her who the custodian was who listened to orchestral music, she said, “That’s no ordinary janitor.”

Caught between the enclosures of the common land he loved and the patronage that added insult to the injury of a class structure that erased everything about him except what it took to be freakish, his gift, John Clare was no ordinary day laborer. Poetry offered an idea of freedom, but the more he worked away at it with scavanged paper and stolen time, the more it defined the limits of what he could accomplish. He might go just so far, and no farther, or he would stop being a prodigy and require the impossible, acceptance as an artist, an equal.

Music, on the other hand, which he pursued with an amateur’s appetite, was a passport. Fiddlers speak a common language of tunes and and participate in the commonplace reciprocity of sharing them, and then, following the instructive advice of the late John Hartford, they play them to suit themselves and pass these variations along. There is no tragedy in this commons; it’s inexhaustible. The only hierarchy is competence, and sociability can go a long way if virtuosity is lacking.

Thomas Hardy, another unprivileged writer, but a luckier one, shared this language with Clare. Hardy, as a boy, fiddled at weddings with his father, and his remorseless story, “The Fiddler of the Reels,” shows the easy welcome a fiddler might find in a public house. Clare’s love of music took him to the Travelers from whom, he said, he learned to fiddle; it might have taken him off with them, out on the road and out of literary history, had he not found their lives even more uncomfortable than his own. It took him from village to village in search of tunes. It took him, or at least I hope so, out of that part of himself imprisoned by his circumstances and the grating difficulties of his ambitions.

There is another mandolin relic in the family, a photograph from my father’s side and from perhaps a generation before hers, of a group of ten women, five standing, five sitting. The clothing, mostly white high-necked blouses and long dark skirts, suggests the late 1800s or early 1900s.The seated women are holding bowl-back Italian-style mandolins. I don’t know who they are or where. That the photograph came from my father’s side suggests they are somewhere west of the Hudson and south of the Mohawk; my guess is Norwich, which, with its pharmaceutical company

(stock in them kept my father, my mother, and I afloat through his years of badly paid jobs) and its headquarters for the New York Ontario & Western Railroad’s Northern Division, was the only one of the family towns large and prosperous enough to host a women’s mandolin society. I don’t know which of them I’m related to either, although I think I see a family resemblance in one of the women in the back row, second from the left, whose expression, now that I study it, suggests a kind of reserve that might easily give way to humor. But, as I said, I don’t know, and the longer I look at it, the farther I am from certainty. No one wrote anything on the image, front or back; no names, no date, no location. And there is no one left to ask.

There is no one left to ask. Think of John Clare, escaped from his eminence at the North Beech Asylum where he imagined himself to be Lord Byron, traveling along the common road, eating grass to keep off hunger. His fiddling days, his song collecting days, his reputation as a prodigious barely-lettered poet, all gone. Gone too, Mary, the woman he had been too poor to marry, although he believes himself to be husband to both her and his real wife, Patty. He thinks of this escape as a kind of elopement with Mary who waits for him.

He does not know that she died in a fire three years before. He will stay with Patty for a time, and then it is back to the asylum for him:

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

My other grandmother, my father’s mother, Florita Chamberlain Smith, died in an asylum too, the old state hospital on Elmwood Avenue in Rochester that dated from around the time of Clare’s death. From the outside, it looked like a park, brick buildings, greens, paths, big trees that I sat under when I waited for my parents when they visited her. I wasn’t allowed in. My online search turned up photos of the dilapidated buildings, reports of inedible food and the inevitable harshness patients suffered, so I’m sure there were good reasons to keep me out. I hope there were unavoidable reasons to put her in, necessities so cruel that they justified that cruelty (as there were when my father spent some time as a patient in the terrifying, towering modern psychiatric building on the same campus), but the saddest thing is that I don’t know what these might have been.

The woman I remembered, small-boned, in a house dress, baking molasses cookies in her small kitchen in her small house on West Church Street in Fairport hadn’t seemed anything but kind. She had an attic too, with an old typewriter with milk-green keys that I found almost as fascinating as the mandolin, and she had a piano in the parlor, although I never heard her play.

Her attic was easier to reach than my maternal grandmother’s, just a regular set of stairs opposite the front door, and it held relics that would find their way into our basement, sets of wooden and stone blocks for building, a cast-iron toy passenger train, a cane that tradition said had been carved on one of the British prison hulks in New York harbor during the revolution, Masonic dress swords, boxes of diaries and photographs, including that group portrait with mandolins. I remember the day we packed up all of her stuff, but I don’t think I was ever told the reason. And there’s no one to ask, and so she remains strange, stranger than the rest.

My online source for information about the Rochester Psychiatric Center was a page by a pseudonymous contributor, “Snoop Junkie,” to the site; Snoop Junkie’s specialty is trespassing with a camera into abandoned properties, and he went into considerable detail in his explorations of the Elmwood Avenue buildings as well as providing quotations from local newspaper accounts of the scandals and also the hopes that went along with these buildings. More surprising, if only because of their familiarity, were the comments.

Several people had grandparents who died there; one, who was allowed to visit, recalled her shock that the patients ranged from “a young woman tied to a chair” to “a white-haired lady wringing her hands while walking and talking” and remembered the cot-filled dormitory. Another hoped that someone could tell her about her grandmother, of whose last name she wasn’t quite certain.

A former staff member wrote of the good-heartedness of the people she worked with who, she believed, succeeded in at least protecting the patients from what they might have suffered outside the hospital and sometimes were able to do even more to help them, despite the often ineffective treatments; she reminded the other posters that an asylum was meant to be a safe-haven and that this had been the goal of her colleagues. Reading through these, after the grim ironies of Snoop Junkie’s narrative and the sad documents from the newspapers I felt less desolate, certainly less alone. And then there was this, from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s 1931 report on the hospital’s field day: “Under the rustic roof of the bandstand or summer house, the hospital’s orchestra, all patients, played.”

What did they play, my maternal grandmother in her little house above the bay, the ladies in the Norwich Mandolin Society, the patients on the asylum bandstand? Probably popular favorites, marches, light classics, probably in arrangements that allowed less accomplished, certainly not professional players to show off a little bit and to make an audience feel good. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, hardly an amateur group, has issued a recording, All the Rage, that suggests what this repertoire might have been like.

Marches, yes, and rags, and pieces focused on the slight exoticism of the mandolin (the mandolin craze in America was sparked by a touring company of Spanish musicians, The Celebrated Spanish Students, playing what was, in fact, a relative of the mandolin, the bandurria; they were so popular, that they were followed by a wave of Italian musicians, playing the real instrument, but masquerading as Spanish.) It’s the sort of music that my father enjoyed, along with more serious classical compositions, a mixture that I always think of as being as American as William Carlos Williams’ opening, “the pure products of America go crazy.”

My dad liked Charles Ives, too, especially the second symphony in which fragments of patriotic tunes and hymns and old songs are whirls that collide, and he told me how Ives’ father, a band leader, liked to set two bands marching towards each other playing different marches so he could revel in the cacophony when they drew near and then passed. What would be the sound of two bands of patients playing from adjacent bandstands, I wonder? Crazy, yes, and purified of easy sentiment, and very American.

As is my A-style mandolin itself, the creation, along with the fancier and elegantly shaped F-style, of Orville Gibson, who applied the techniques of violin-making in order to create an instrument that was sturdier, easier to hold, and had more projection than the traditional bowl-backed model. The Gibsons were hardy enough so that many of them are still around in good playing condition.

On my grandmother’s instrument, the back plate has shrunken, leaving a few millimeters of the side piece exposed. This is a common problem—the different woods contract or expand at different rates—although mine was exacerbated when it fell from a wall peg. I’ve had that seam repaired three times now, and the question is whether I should try again. “Play the hell out of it,” said the luthier, a mandolin- maker himself, who did the last job; he improved it, glued the opening, but he wasn’t willing to try what he said would be major surgery to get the pieces perfectly aligned.

A local professional mandolinist suggested a luthier in the Berkshires who, this guy said, should be able to do it right, and no big deal. People with similar instruments with similar issues ask about this often online, and the consensus ranges from, “of course, get it fixed” to “if it plays ok, leave it alone.”

I’m leaning toward the play-the-hell-out-of-it option, at least now that it is summer, and the old wood has swelled so the overlap is hardly visible unless I’m looking for it. Imperfections nag at me, but so do useful things that go unused, protected and preserved, but to what end? Memory inheres in the dings and scratches, the worn place a thumb has left in first position on the neck, those signs of human connection.

The saddest thing about the images on the website The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from an Asylum Attic is that you can almost taste the dust on what were once well-loved, well-used objects belonging to the next-to-nameless patients whose never-unpacked suitcases and trunks were found stored upstairs in the Willard Asylum (later the Willard Psychiatric Center), another state hospital in the Finger Lakes. Here are the things they thought they might use again. Mr Hermann (#20884) brought his elegant wooden viewfinder cameras, their plates and lenses, photography manuals in German.

Miss Margaret (#25682) brought fine, carefully wrapped china cups. Mr. Dymytro (#32643) saved a photograph of the house he built for his family in 1952, the same year in which he was admitted. It’s a bungalow, as small and inconsequential as my grandmother’s home on West Church Street. Mr. Lawrence (#14956) stashed braces and black boots, although his relics also include a handwritten note requesting that he be released, that his trunk be returned (“It is my own I bought it in Dusseldorf.”), and that he be given pay for his years of heavy labor as a hospital gardener and a gravedigger.

Perhaps he found his vocation in the hospital. His letter says that he dug over five hundred graves. Almost half of the 50,000 patients who entered Willard died there. And those that didn’t? It’s hard to believe, given the inadequacy and sometimes harshness of the treatments and the desperation that must have brought them there, that they might ever have picked up their suitcases and unpacked them into anything like the lives their contents promised.

Of course, it is too easy to blame the institutions or the families for not solving the unsolvable or to locate the vagaries of the poet’s mind squarely in the difficulties of his circumstances. In the asylum, the John Clare you met might have been Lord Byron or the champion prize fighter, Jack Randall, depending on who the poet thought he was when you came calling. If I had been allowed in to see my grandmother, would she have been that poor lady, pacing, speaking to no one, wringing her hands?

If fixed identity is the marker of sanity, what good, I found myself thinking, are memories in the absence of the narrative that strings them together. But again, this seemed too easy. Clare’s collection of tunes and lyrics might have been a simple discipline of recovery and preservation, except that scholars say that he often altered the words to suit himself, creating versions rather than transcriptions. Like the kid in the attic, trying on the antique clothes or pecking at the obsolete typewriter or picking a non-tune on the untuned mandolin, the rewriter of the tradition or the fantasist of the self experiences memory as a possibility as much as a given.

Photograph courtesy
Photograph courtesy

When I try out a new tune, the muscle memory from learning a half-a-hundred others gives me an idea of where to go, but I can feel my fretting fingers trip or my pick stumble when I run into a new pattern of notes and start without thinking to substitute my own. “The Beef Stake Hornpipe,” it turns out, is tricky and not much fun to play badly. I can’t fake it with a shuffle rhythm or good intentions. It has its quirks, and it would take attention and precision and even affection to bring these out, and without them the tune won’t wake up.

But tonight I am out of temper with all eccentricities and with myself, a child sulking at being left out of the adult conversation about something critical, but too complicated and too shameful to explain. I put down my grandmother’s instrument. How did John Clare learn this hornpipe—at a pub or in a parlor, among the Travelers, at a dance where some Mary or Patty turned down one suitor, waited for or flirted with another? Did he alter it to suit his mood when his bow hand took up the pen to set the notes down, remembering the night he first heard it and thought it worth learning, worth making his own? Did his habits of mind—depression at what he could not change, the confusion and resentment of rejection, the self-aggrandizement that made parodies of his greatest satisfactions—shape how he transformed it, or was the act of transcription and invention a relief from all that? Were the changes merely artifacts of that failure of memory we call ‘the folk process,’ filling in the gaps? I don’t know.

There is no one left to ask, and when I put the Gibson back in its case, I am still a boy near an attic window, picking through the relics.

Works consulted:

John Clare: A Biography, by Jonathan Bate (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
John Clare and the Folk Tradition by George Deacon (Francis Boutle Publishers, 2002)
The Mandolin in America, by Walter Carter (Backbeat Books, 2017)
“Inside Rochester’s Abandoned Walters Psychiatric Building” by Snoop Junkie.
“The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a Hospital Attic”

© Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith is the author of eight full-length books of poems, most recently Little Black Train, winner of the Three Mile Harbor Press Prize, Clare’s Empire, a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare from The Hydroelectric Press, and The Light in the Film from the University of Tampa Press. He has also worked on several collaborations with artist, Walter Hatke, including What Came Home and Hat & Key. The recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, he lives with his wife, Malie, in upstate New York, where he plays fiddle and is the Edward Everett Hale Jr., Professor of English at Union College.

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