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Notes from the Field

Uncle Charles and the Root Beer

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
I knew him as Uncle Charles. He wasn’t my uncle. He had no nieces or nephews. Everyone just always called him Uncle Charles. He was in his mid 80s when I knew him, and he lived with his wife Elizabeth, in an earth bermed house that you couldn’t see from the road. You just had to know where to turn. The easiest way was to drive to the T intersection at the end of the road, turn around and drive back exactly 1.8 miles. Exactly.

had to take this long unpaved driveway down and around the hill. The house looked like it was pushing itself from the side of the hill, or maybe that the hill was slowly swallowing the house. In front was a wooden deck; really a low porch without railings, and it provided the only level spot in the entire yard.

I pulled the car around to the side of the deck, and as I was getting out Elizabeth opened the front door.

“Hey you”, she yelled with a big smile.

“Can Uncle Charles come out and play?” I asked.

She came out dragging a folding chair and a small folding tray table, what I grew up calling a TV tray. She set it up on the deck and put the chair next to it.

“He’ll be right out,” she said, “he’s been excited to see you all day.”

As Elizabeth went back in, Uncle Charles came out dragging another folding chair in one hand, and his fiddle case in the other. Elizabeth came out again with the root beer.

Uncle Charles and I had been getting together to play music for a couple or three years, at this point, probably twice a month or so. Years back Uncle Charles used to play a lot, in fiddle competitions, with a group sometimes for picnics and parties, and with friends. These days he pretty much played by himself, and with me. We’d sit on either side of the tray table, Uncle Charles with his fiddle and me with my mandolin, and on the table, four bottles of root beer.

Uncle Charles and his wife brewed their own root beer. It was less sweet than commercial, and of course, unlike commercial root beer, it had some alcoholic content. Not a lot, but some.

Uncle Charles played in a fiddle style long gone from the region. Oh there were, and still are, plenty of fiddlers, and banjo players and guitar players and the like, but the success of the general fiddle music culture kind of extinguished the local flavor. The youngsters of a generation ago, those hungry for the music, latched on to recordings and published tune books, and played a more “generic” style. By the late 80s, if a fiddle tune was heard it was as likely to be a contra dance tune from New England as a mountain tune from the valley. Uncle Charles was probably not the last fiddler to play the indigenous tunes, but he was the one of the last, and the only one I ever knew.

Uncle Charles put the fiddlecase on the ground in front of the tray table, and opened it. His fiddle case was this long black rectangular affair that held two fiddles, head to tail. One was tuned to standard violin tuning, and was a dark blonde color, while the other was tuned to deedad tuning, or D-D-A-D, and was very dark almost black. Darker than my mandolin, which was Sheraton brown.

Uncle Charles took out the deedad and checked the tuning, and we started playing. As always, we just started in. We rarely called out tunes by name, but just played tunes together, meandering through our shared repertory; shared now that he had taught me so many tunes. If I didn’t know a tune I would do a gentle chord backup, until I “got it”. If I offered a tune he didn’t know he would politely put down his fiddle, smile, and if I hesitated to continue on my own he would say “no, go on, go on” and reach for a bottle.

While Uncle Charles knew my name very well, he would sometimes get exercised about a tune and while playing he might blurt out “hey mand’lin, hey mand’lin, you know this one, play it this way.”

After playing through five or six tunes, we stopped, sipped some root beer, and then started in again. We went on like this for an hour and a half, playing, drinking, and barely talking, when Elizabeth came out with more root beer, and took away the empties. And we would usually continue for another hour or so, till the root beer ran out.

In those days I played with many others in and around town; there was always a jam or a party, and several fiddlers and banjos, and guitars too. In a jam session I would occasionally bring out an Uncle Charles tune, and the older jammers would play along maybe, and smile, and the newer jammers would sit the tune out or do backup.

“You still see Uncle Charles from time to time? How’s he doing these days? I haven’t seen him in, well it has to be years, now.”

It has been a lot more years now, and Uncle Charles and Elizabeth have long since passed on. I think Uncle Charles took some comfort in the fact that his music did not die with him.

There is a way I feel helpless in the grip of a great tune, and one of Uncle Charles’s tunes will kind of take me over and demand that I play it. Folks I play with are sometimes receptive, and there are more than a few who have learned an Uncle Charles tune or two.

I sometimes think the tunes themselves are alive. And being almost wiped out by the stronger “generic” culture, they found through Uncle Charles and me a vector through which to infect new generations, and live on. The process enabled, I suppose, by that root beer. I have never tasted any like it. That wonderful root beer.

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Updated Apr-20-2021 at 1:01pm by JeffD



  1. Harpua19's Avatar
    This might be my favorite thing I've ever read.
  2. Bertram Henze's Avatar
    You should write books. It feels like I was there.
  3. JeffD's Avatar
    Expect more of these stories. I have a ton of them.
  4. Richard J's Avatar
    Beautiful memories... thanks for sharing.
  5. JeffD's Avatar
    Its all "creative non-fiction" meaning I made it up. From bits and pieces of things I have experienced, people I have known, or friends have told me, you know, the mental stuff you store up just being alive.

    It doesn't mean it isn't true, or that it doesn't have a truth to it.

    Any resemblance to any person alive or dead is purely coincidence, and the result of a lot of work.
    Updated Apr-21-2016 at 2:01pm by JeffD
  6. Bertram Henze's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD
    Any resemblance to any person alive or dead is purely coincidence, and the result of a lot of work.
    I guess that's what every fiction writer could say. But now I know for sure that you should be one.
    That is, if you are not a figment of your own imagination...

    That Uncle Charles story is the stuff for a country song, with a video featuring Morgan Freeman.
  7. JeffD's Avatar
    I saw Morgan Freeman in something the other day, and I thought of my story and you are right.