There was laughter, toe tapping and joyful singing as soon as Washington Performing Arts Society’ (WPAS) visiting musician Bruce Hutton began to play his harmonica. He stopped playing just long enough to teach us the chorus of “Going Across the Mountain,” one of the many old time American folk songs he performs for us today.
Founded in 1989 by the WPAS Women’s Committee, Enriching Experiences brings local professional performing artists into nursing homes and senior centers throughout the community reaching thousands of senior citizens annually, many of whom are unable to attend main stage presentations.
A table covered in beautiful quilts and laden with more than two dozen instruments — from mouth bows, glass jugs and wash boards to ukulele, steel guitars, and even banjos made from unusual materials like giant gourds and groundhog skin — stretches out behind him. “I’m going to play them all,” he says “but I started with the harmonica because the common man could not afford a Piano but he could afford a harmonica, which he can put in his pocket and take wherever he goes,” shares Bruce. “Try putting a piano in your pocket,” he jokes. Laughter ensues.
Next up, Bruce demonstrates the mouth bow, a counterpart to a simple hunting bow — little more than a springy bough with a length of twine, leather, or gut strung between the two ends. I am still not sure how Bruce plays it, but its music causes Ada’s face to light-up and sporting a big grin she keeps saying, “Wow, that’s pretty good!” He plays “Oh Groundhog” an old “Blue Ridge favorite” – and an apparent favorite of Joe’s too as he can’t stop smiling or singing…
I dug down, but I didn’t dig deep,
There laid a whistle-pig fast asleep.
Now the meat’s in the cupboard and the butter’s on the shelf,
If that ain’t groundhog I’ll be derned.
Well you eat the meat and save the hide,
Make the best shoestring ever was tied.
We are surprised to learn that you can make more than shoestrings from hide, as Bruce’s next instrument turns out to be a banjo made from the hide of a groundhog. “These banjos run small,” he explains, “because the hides of a groundhog are all the same size – small. And yes, people do eat groundhogs.” He plays his groundhog banjo and sings another catchy tune from the Blue Ridge entitled, “I wish I Was A Mole In The Ground,” which apparently can go on forever as it has as many verses as you care to makeup.
I wish I was a mole in the ground
Yes, I wish I was a mole in the ground
If I’s a mole in the ground I’d root that mountain down
And I wish I was a mole in the ground
Oh, I wish I was a lizard in the spring
Yes, I wish I was a lizard in the spring
If I’s a lizard in the spring I’d hear my darlin’ sing
And I wish I was a lizard in the spring
Next up was the Jack Dancer or limberjack, a wooden jig doll on the end of a stick whose feet act like a drum, tap dancing. “This is one of the first toys designed to perform both as a toy and as a percussion instrument,” explains Bruce as he demonstrates. “Oh isn’t that what a kid would love to have?” exclaims Ada. When Bruce asks for a volunteer, Richard steps up to try it. He gets a quick lesson on how to hold the limberjack with its feet just resting on the end of a springboard, to rap his knuckles on the board to make it vibrate, which sets the loose-limbed doll to a percussive dance. The other Residents in attendance are entranced. In just a few minutes of practice, Richard has learned to play and he accompanies Bruce’s banjo playing and our singing of one of the United States’ most famous folk songs “This Land Is Your Land,” written by Woody Guthrie in the 1940s. Everyone knows the words.
Thirty minutes later, Bruce is still going strong and my work is calling so I must leave. Later, Residents let me know that Bruce continued playing until he’d demonstrated each instrument — everything from a lap dulcimer, autoharp, dulcimer and steel guitar to a ukulele that belonged to his mother in the 1920s. The rest of the performance was “brilliant,” full of stories, jokes and sing-a-longs. What a talented person, American Folk Artist and multi-instrumentalist! A big thank you to Bruce and to the WPAS Women’s Committee from our “little family” of Residents, Little Sisters and employees for this enriching and joyful musical experience.
Click here for a photo musical slideshow from this event!