Slowing down to hear the music

Thursday, October 3, 2002

It was one of those hot Saturday afternoons in the August of 1970. I had been tagging along with Grandpa while he drove to and from an auction in Harrison. On the return trip, as he slowed the old pickup truck to make the drive through the town of St. Joe, Arkansas, I noticed something you didn't see every day back then. At least not in northern Arkansas.

An old black gentleman sat, legs crossed, on the ledge of the big window of the aging sandstone post office in the dusty little town. His broken and stained straw hat covered what was left of his white hair, and in his lap he held an ancient beat up Silvertone flat-top guitar - the smaller style with the painted-on pick guard and dark brown stain.

We were moving slow enough through town that I could hear he was singing - I believe it was a Hank Williams tune, but after all these years I might be mistaken. Beside him sat a coffee can, which I imagined was meant either as a depository for coins from the pockets of passersby, or as a spittoon for the tobacco chewing minstrel himself.

When I asked if we could stop and listen, grandpa said we didn't really have time.

"Have to get home before supper," he said as he shifted the Chevy back into third gear and headed past the old Squirrel Trading Post and on south toward the Buffalo River bridge.

That sight - the entire experience - has floated through my mind quite often over the past three decades. I wonder what became of that old fellow. I wonder if he was, like me, just passing through. Was he a resident of St. Joe, or would he even have been welcome as a resident there in the summer of 1970? Was Grandpa not really in a hurry to get back to the farm, or was he just not interested in hearing the old gentleman strum and sing? If I had been driving, would I have stopped? Would I have thrown a quarter or two into that Folgers can?

Of course, there are no answers for these questions.

More than 20 years later, I visited the famous Pike Street Market in Seattle. I quickly noticed the street performers which are a mainstay of what has become a "must see" for tourists to the city on Puget Sound. In fact, the city issues licenses - I'm sure at a nominal fee - to these performers. During my visit, I saw violinists, guitar players, singers and a harmonica virtuoso. Predominantly displayed at each one's corner was the round "Street Performer" license.

I also noted that there wasn't an old coffee can anywhere to be seen. And the money tossed into the open guitar and violin cases consisted mainly of green bills instead of the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters which probably made up the day's take so many years ago for the old black gentleman in St. Joe.

My how things change.

"If you loved me half as much as I love you,

You wouldn't worry me half as much as you do.

I know that I would never be so blue,

If you only loved me half as much as I love you."