Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Freddie Goodhart


It turns out that if you’re an out-of-towner in Lexington, VA, the first thing they ask you is where you are from. If your answer is Brooklyn, the second thing they ask you is why you came down here. If your answer is that it’s because you’re on your honeymoon, the third thing they ask you is why you would ever come to Lexington, VA for a honeymoon.

After going through the above line of questioning several times in the first few days, my new wife Annie and I came up with a quick answer: You honeymoon in Lexington because it’s the exact opposite of Brooklyn.

If New York is the epitome of everything a northern city can be, Lexington feels like what a southern town should be (at least in the mind of a northerner). It’s green, quiet, still, and filled with gothic graveyards and ancient homes of confederate heroes and local legends. Except for one Exxon station with a thinly-veiled wooden sign to hide its blatantly corporate name, there are no chains, no fast food joints, and apparently no drugstores.

The chipper lady at the welcome center told us that it was too bad that we were only staying for a week because she could give us a month of things to do, most of which seemed to involve Stonewall Jackson’s or Robert E. Lee’s home, church, or grave in some form or another. It was our mistake – we had gone in asking the location of a spa where wanted to get massages; for all of her knowledge of the area, the lady stared at us blankly. A fast-talking foreign man in an empty hamburger joint solved the mystery later that day – the place we were looking for had closed down over a year ago from lack of business.

As we staked out the town, Annie and I kept returning to one spot – a junk store with an old wooden sign out front that said “Antique Instruments.” Annie and I had originally met on the New York open mic scene and were both folk musicians and aficionados of what Greil Marcus has perfectly termed “The Old, Weird America.” An antique store and an instrument store inside of a junk store – this was like a wedding present unto itself.

The problem, then, was getting inside. On the first day, we missed our chance. We had discovered the place at 4:00 PM, only to find a small hand-written sign that said “11-3 weekdays or call.” On the second day we came back in the afternoon side of the promised 11 to 3 hours, but found that it was closed once again. By the last day, we got there promptly at 11:30 and were encouraged by the 1930s Pontiac parked outside right in front of the shop. “This must be his,” I said as I approached the front door.

It was locked. I took a long look through the dusty windows and didn’t see too many instruments, but did see other relics that were symptomatic of shops I loved – records, books, old license plates, and photographs. I called the number on the door, it went straight to electronic voicemail, and I left a message explaining our predicament. Annie and I drove away to get on with our planned daytrip to the lake, while I kept one hand on my phone in the hopes that my message would be returned.

We were beginning to think that the store would just have to exist in our imagination, when we happened to drive by it on our way to the lake, we saw that the front door was wide open. I jumped out and went inside while Annie found a parking space.
As I walked in, I became aware of a tall white-haired man at the counter.

“Hey,” I said. “I dunno if you got it, but I’m the guy that just left the message a little bit ago – my wife and I have been trying to come in here for days with no luck.” He seemed to have no idea about receiving any messages, from today or any other day. “Well, yeah,” he said slowly in a thick Southern accent as he tried to light a clove cigarette. “I just get the store open when I can get to it, which is almost never before noon.”

I thanked him for having it open today and he nodded somewhat standoffishly. By the time Annie arrived, I was already lost digging through his wares.

I immediately stumbled upon a stack of old 78 RPM records – not the foxtrots and operettas you find up North, but old country and bluegrass music that you can only find in the south. (I’ve come to learn that old records are almost always found in the places in which they had originally sold.) Lots of Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, and the like – not exactly what I was looking for, but close enough to the mark that I knew it was worth my while to continue digging.

Meanwhile, Annie called me to the back of the store where she had found a shiny mandolin. Annie had wanted one for a long time now and we had in fact made it a point to create an “alternative” wedding registry to encourage friends to get us creative and offbeat things, such as songs, paintings, and maybe, we secretly hoped, an old instrument like a mandolin. Myself, I had always wanted to splurge one day on a 12-string guitar; Annie, she always went for the mandolin.

By the time she was looking at it, the old man had made his way back to her, talking up the instrument.

“Just got that in yesterday,” he said. “About the best shape I’ve ever seen one of those come in. The guy who sold it to me hardly ever used it – looks brand new. He bought it at a store where he paid too much and it’s worth around $350, but I have it priced at $250.”

Meanwhile, I found next to it an old autoharp case. Inside was a shiny autoharp that played well and seemed to have a similar story.

“Just got that in this morning,” the old man said. “The girl who sold it hardly ever used it. She paid a lot more for it than she should of, but I have it priced at $175, which is much less than it is worth.”

He continued repeating various aspects of his sales pitch as we strummed and figured out the instruments, elaborating on some parts but leaving other parts blank. When I asked about whether another instrument’s parts were all original, he dodged the question by telling me that the tuning pegs were the original ones.

But in case we were worried about any chicanery on his part, he took the mandolin in his hands and started picking out a firey little tune. He used to play them all, he told us, going into a list of songs that sounded like songs I knew but weren’t (i.e., I know “Pretty Polly,” he talked about a song with a title like “Pretty Nellie”); most likely, we both knew different variations on the same song.

It turned out the man’s name was Freddie Goodhart, a boogie-woogie pianist, banjo player, and mandolin picker who seems to have played with virtually every major bluegrass musician in the last 50 years (such as Ralph Stanley) and many others whose names rang only distant bells. He was a junkyard-er (which I didn’t know was a verb until I spoke with him) who fixed up old cars like his Pontiac out front, and had run at least two different junkyards in two different states (I was also unaware that one could create a junkyard, let alone make it profitable).

Freddie then settled himself behind the counter, trying to light his clove cigarette for what must have been a half hour while he went into what seemed like a continuing tale of folk festivals, good luck, bad chances, and ex-wives. It was less a story with a beginning and an end as it was a seeming ongoing narrative that we had walked into the middle of and would never end even if we had stayed in the store for a hundred years.

As he spoke, Annie and I took turns listening and digging through the store. It was completely cluttered, with the old instruments in the back, records and books in the front, framed black and white photographs on the sides, and an old Coca-Cola refrigerator in the middle by his old glass counter. What struck me was that, although his sign promised antique instruments, there wasn’t a majority of them or anything else in the store. 

Explaining his goods, he spoke in the words of one man’s version of the American land: “I don’t sell one thing specifically, I just find things I like and bring that in.” It was less an antique or instrument store as it was a beautiful, dusty sprawl of one man’s life and interests, set up like a dime museum but run like a garage sale.

And tellingly, we quickly learned that there were seemingly many more items that weren’t for sale than ones that were.

I slyly picked through some old 78s on his counter while he told Annie a story – about a folk festival in which Freddie got ditched by his friends only to stumble upon and be invited in by the granddaughter of the man who ran the festival, which led to a three-day party of good southern cooking and jamming with the headlining acts – and stumbled upon a copy of the Carter Family’s “East Virginia Blues.” After his tale wound down, I inquired about the record.

“Yeah, that’s an original one there. Don’t know if I could part with it though, but it’s one of the classics.”

He then led me to a couple of dusty albums of 78 records I had somehow missed and found one that was labeled on the front “Carter Family.” Inside, were about a dozen original Carter Family records from the late-’20s and early ’30s, including the one I had most been interested in finding: “Worried Man Blues,” a verse of which was used as the basis of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” which many believe is his finest recording.

I inquired about price right away – for one of them, for all of them. The previous day I had shelled out $50.00 for a Sun Records 78 copy of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Break Up,” so I was up for anything. My mind raced doing the number-crunching. I owned one Carter Family 78 – “Rambling Boy” – and had found other records online from that era between $20 and $40, based on artist and condition. These weren’t in mint shape, but they looked pretty good – I tried to set a mental limit of what I would spend on them based on the feedback the man told me. No more than $30 per disc, no wait, maybe $40? Or perhaps strike a deal for the whole book?

“Well, I don’t know if I can part with those right now, those are pretty special,” he told me, walking around the answer without quite giving it. “A man came in a little while and offered me $100.00 for it, but I said no.”

In my calculations, $100.00 would have been a steal for this, but he spoke his words in a straightforward manner, as though he found this offer to be about as good as any other.

“I am getting on in years though, so I should part with them soon, I suppose, but I can’t just yet,” he reasoned aloud. “But I’ll keep you in mind if I do ever decide to sell them.

Meanwhile, Annie had found an old photograph on the wall, not of one of the many celebrity musicians, but of a girl running in a field. It didn’t seem to be anyone famous, and if he said who it was, I don’t remember it. But this too came with a story (most of which I missed because I was digging where the Carter Family records were to discover the first Jimmie Rodgers 78 I had ever seen in person – also not for sale), and, of course, something that made the photograph too special for him to sell.

I couldn’t complain though, we ended up with those beautiful instruments at a very fair price and we literally strummed outside our cabin door that evening, as well as a small stack of Elvis EPs for ten bucks.

I took his card, shook hands, and left him my info for the book of Carter Family 78s, but I’m not holding my breath. Whatever monetary value I would give for their sale is clearly nothing compared to whatever meaning and value they conjure in the mind of Freddie Goodhart.

3 comments:

  1. I just found this blog post - Freddie Goodhart is my grandfather. This is such a beautifully- and well-written article of him. I was literally laughing out loud reading some things because I can just picture it in my head. Thank you so much for writing this!

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  2. Thank you so much for your kind reply! I actually still think about your grandfather often, & hope he's doing well. Please send along our regards, even though I highly doubt he'd remember the likes of us now. But then again, it is pretty amazing what he does remember.

    & if he ever decides he can part with that collection of Carter Family 78s — & you or anyone else in your family don't want it — I am still definitely interested in making him an offer.

    Thanks again!

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  3. Mr. Goodheart has a grandson, Cyrus James, whose debut record 'Molly and the Devil' I am in the process of reviewing for www.outlawmagazine.tv. We're picky about who we cover; we look for souls poured out on six-strings and care not one whit for the posers who craft slick tunes for target demographics.

    In the process of researching the review, and Cyrus' history, I ran across this blog. I'm linking to it in the piece. Terrific story, terrifically well told.

    And if you want music fresh and new while bursting at the seams with tradition and what came before, give Cyrus James a long listen. He learned well from Freddie, and from a host of others along the way, to boot.

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