Music Made at Home


Where do our musical tastes come from? Are they something we pick up from family and peers or do they reflect, somehow, a personal philosophy or mindset?

Well, of course, I’m sure it’s some of each. I know, for me, my tastes cannot be explained simply by pointing to what I was exposed to as a youngster. The musical stew I grew up on had three main ingredients—a heavy broth of songs from the Wesleyan Methodist hymnal, large dollops of opera stirred in by my mother, and everything spiced with the recordings of comic genius Tom Lehrer. And then when I was a little older, we can add in a healthy serving of camp songs from riding the bus to YMCA day camp.

It was a strange stew. “Bringing in the Sheaves” (or “Bringing in Chinese,” since it was a fervently evangelical crowd!) meets “Nessun Dorma.” Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag” sung in quick succession with “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” It’s a wonder I still like music at all!

Weirdly, the music that I am drawn to has little to do with anything I was exposed to early, except for one faint memory. The music I love best is folk music and the memory is of a man playing the fiddle in our living room at the farm.

The man was Vic Parrotte (or Parrott); he was an occasional hired hand on the farm when I was very young. As I recall, he would work for a while then take his pay and go on a “toot,” as my grandfather called it; he’d go off and get drunk. Then he wouldn’t show up for chores for a few days and my grandmother would urge my grandfather never to let him come back.

Then Vic would come back and my grandfather would hire him and the whole cycle would begin again.

But Vic could play the fiddle. I wasn’t allowed to stay downstairs and watch him play much—this wasn’t really considered appropriate music for a good girl to hear. But I would lie in bed, upstairs above the parlor, and listen to that incredible sound coming out of his instrument. As I recall, he put the end of the fiddle on his knee, instead of under his chin, and, boy, could he play!

And, it turns out, we weren’t the only people who knew about Vic’s fiddle. Vic was always a sort of tragic-comic character at our house, a rambler who couldn’t hold his drink and played wild music. But years later I mentioned his name to an expert in Adirondack roots music who responded, first with stunned silence and then said, “Vic Parrotte was your hired hand?! He played the fiddle for you?!” Vic was famous in some circles—imagine my surprise!

But I wonder if Vic had anything to do with forming my musical tastes. He made his own music and it was spell-binding music. It didn’t sound anything like the piano I was supposed to practice, or the organ at church, or the orchestras backing up the opera singers. Vic’s music was raw and elemental and individual. I doubt he ever had a lesson and certainly couldn’t read music.

And ever since, I’ve been drawn to the music of the folk—untrained musicians and untrained voices, singing songs that speak of the trials and joys of everyday life. And as I’ve been thinking about this “hands at home” theme, it’s clear that my musical tastes are consistent with my interests in art and crafts. It’s been pretty neat to become more aware of the connections among the things that speak to me.

What do you think? Can you trace your tastes back to your formative years and experiences? Are your tastes across different art forms consistent in style? Do they reflect a key element of your personality or philosophy? Or do you simply think that I am REALLY over-thinking things?! I’d love to hear!