McCLURG, Mo. — In an deserted basic retailer alongside an almost abandoned nation street, Alvie Dooms, 90, and Gordon McCann, 89, performed rhythm guitar. Nearly a dozen extra musicians, a lot of them additionally older adults, joined in on fiddle, mandolin, banjo and upright bass. Their tunes had names like “Last Train Home,” “Pig Ankle Rag” and “Arkansas Traveler.”
The old-time dance music — merry and candy, or slower and wistful — evoked the vigorous jigs and reels of the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in these rugged hills generations in the past. A precursor to bluegrass, their sound was distinctive to this explicit nook of Missouri.
The McClurg jam, because the Monday night time music and potluck fest was identified, endured for many years, the final gathering of its variety within the rural Ozarks. But the coronavirus pandemic has silenced the devices, not less than briefly. And the suspension has led to fret: What will turn into of this singular musical custom?
“Because it’s ear music, it’s a little bit fragile,” mentioned Howard Marshall, 76, a retired professor on the University of Missouri and a fiddler himself. “I’m not playing it exactly like the next chap will play it.”
In different phrases, the McClurg old-time fiddlers and banjo gamers have largely discovered the tunes by listening to at least one one other moderately than studying from sheet music, passing the custom from one technology to the subsequent. Many of the musicians who know the songs greatest are rising outdated and, for now not less than, have been sidelined.
“I’m one of the younger ones, and I’m 74,” mentioned Steve Assenmacher, a bass participant who lives simply up the hill from the McClurg Store and acts as its caretaker.
In regular years, the shop, nonetheless filled with light containers of bras and ladies’s pumps left from a technology in the past when the enterprise shut down, is revived as soon as per week for the jam. Musicians stream into McClurg, about 240 miles southwest of St. Louis, on Monday nights, performing for mates and spouses. They play sitting in a circle, stealing glances at Mr. Dooms’s callused fingers to gauge the place his rhythm guitar may go subsequent.
Behind them, wives of the largely male musicians and a handful of regulars snack on pot roast, quiche and pies. Occasionally, somebody rises to their ft to bop.
Sometimes known as “mountain music,” the old-time style has survived tons of of years due to gatherings just like the one in McClurg. Here, sheet music is known as “chicken scratches,” and formally skilled musicians are at grave danger of being reviewed as “stiff.” Children with a flair for music have, for generations, picked up a household instrument and performed alongside, moderately than taking formal classes.
Mr. Dooms can nonetheless recall shivering at the back of a wagon as a boy, as his mother and father drove by the Ozark hills after dance events, a fiddler’s music reverberating by his head to the rhythm of a horse’s ft hanging filth.
“That was back when they had dances in people’s houses,” Mr. Dooms mentioned. “You know, they’d move the furniture all out in a couple of rooms. The musician would sit in the doorway between them and they could dance in both rooms.”
McClurg, a crossroads greater than a city, is dwelling to a specific pressure of old-time music that’s not performed in exactly the identical method wherever else. Just 100 miles away, in central Missouri, old-time music circles produce extra waltzes and “schottisches,” dances that resemble a sluggish polka, due to the German immigrants who settled nearer to the Missouri River.
So when the pandemic led Missouri officers to restrict in-person gatherings final spring, the musicians who collect in McClurg pledged to discover a approach to preserve the periods going. Last May, Mr. Assenmacher swept out a barn adjoining to the shop and strung some lights. They canceled the potluck and centered simply on the music, seating guests on the barn’s entrance, within the open air.
The music periods continued for many of the 12 months. But lastly, in mid-November, as alarmed hospital officers warned that their services had been nearing capability and the frigid temperatures turned disagreeable, the jam session was known as off indefinitely.
David Scrivner, a youthful fiddler at 38, mentioned the choice got here with some anguish. The McClurg jam featured variations of songs that might not be heard elsewhere, he mentioned. But the security of the elder musicians, whom he describes as “treasures,” was paramount, he mentioned.
Mr. Scrivner has received awards for his fiddling. But he doesn’t learn music, and neither did his mentor, the legendary Ozarks fiddler Bob Holt, who died in 2004, at 73.
The McClurg jam was the classroom the place Mr. Scrivner soaked within the tales and methods of the older musicians, particularly Mr. Holt.
He recalled one notably sensible lesson: when and how one can faucet his foot to maintain the beat. “I didn’t have it,” Mr. Scrivner mentioned. “And he stopped in the middle of a tune and let me know that I needed to either tap my foot right or not at all.”
That classroom has ceased to exist, not less than in the meanwhile.
Even earlier than the pandemic, youthful residents had failed to point out a lot curiosity in old-time music circles, main Mr. Scrivner to fret that the music may not survive one other couple of generations. Now, he fears that timeline could also be shortened.
Mr. McCann, the rhythm guitar participant, give up making the hourlong trek from his dwelling in Springfield, Mo., to the McClurg jam in October as a result of he acquired “spooked” by the virus.
“My wife said, ‘Don’t bring it home to me,’” Mr. McCann mentioned. “We’ve been married 68 years, so I do what she tells me.” He famous that his spouse had stopped attending years in the past, the night time she discovered a household of snakes had taken up residence outdoors the outdated retailer’s outhouse.
Mr. McCann has donated tons of of hours of recordings to a neighborhood college, the place the audio has been uploaded to YouTube.
Dr. Marshall, who taught artwork historical past on the University of Missouri, mentioned the web had assured that lots of the songs would endure. It is the tales behind the songs and institutional information that can disappear if jams like McClurg stop to exist.
He has seen latest movies of different selecting circles or music events which have continued, regardless of the coronavirus.
“I think that’s something that their families might regret one day, but you can’t explain that to people,” Dr. Marshall mentioned. “A lot of the folks who play old folk music are, shall we say, independent-minded.”
He understands the angst behind the McClurg determination to cease taking part in. Even if the musicians are usually not stricken with Covid-19, he mentioned, an prolonged pause is valuable time — as a result of they’ll “get rickety” with age.
And that’s precisely what is going on with the McClurg elders as they wait out the pandemic.
Mr. McCann suffered a second stroke in November. He is attempting to maintain his calluses by taking part in guitar alone in his basement.
And Mr. Dooms, who has survived three main coronary heart assaults in his life, mentioned that his “lungs ain’t no good.”
Once the winter has handed, Mr. Assenmacher hopes to welcome musicians again to the open-air barn. But, he mentioned, till the musicians have been vaccinated and public well being officers declare widespread immunity, the outdated basic retailer in McClurg will stay closed.