Pages From A Fiddler's Notebook
A Pennsylvania Tuneby Joel Shimberg
You go about 15 miles south from Binghamton, NY, and turn west at Montrose, PA. After 12 miles of hilly, wooded, wild country you come to Rush and Lawton. These are hamlets with a few houses and perhaps a store or two. If you had gone there before 1981, and if you had taken the correct dirt roads up the hill, you would have come to the old Greek-Revival house where Jehile Kirkhuff lived. Conditions were primitive ("They say we don't have running water. They're right! We have walking water."), but the door was open and anything there was was there to share, including Jehile's music, wit, and wisdom.
Born around the turn of the century, I think, Jehile's sight started to deteriorate in his teens, and he had been totally blind for many years when I knew him. He played the fiddle in much the same way as he spoke: very clearly and precisely, with a bookish vocabulary and a stately pace. This, along with his generosity, made him very easy to learn tunes from, and he had a seemingly endless list of tunes. Most of the many jigs, reels, and hornpipes that I heard him play were familiar to me from reading older books, such as M.M. Cole's reprint of most of Ryan's Mammoth Collection (1883) and O'Neill's Dance Music of Ireland (1907).
On one visit I pressed him to play local tunes, rather than the book tunes, and he played a long string of tunes from a separate repertoire. One of them was the "Westville Polka", and to the best of my knowledge it has not been published before. I should note that this tune was also played in Missouri by Joe Politte, who didn't give a name for it, and by Gene Goforth, who called it "Ragged Bill". They played it as a breakdown rather than as a polka.
Jehile made his living for years as an itinerant fiddler. I have spoken with square-dancers 50 miles north of Binghamton whose eyes lit up as they recalled having danced over the years to the music and calling of "the old blind fiddler". It seems that he had a circuit that he traveled regularly up that way, together with his blind wife, who accompanied him on the piano, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had other such circuits in other directions. Somehow he made his way to Crockett, TX, in the '40s or '50s, where he competed in one of the contests that were and are so common in Texas. This one billed itself as The World Championship, and Jehile was tremendously proud of having won. He spoke many times of "when I won the Big One".
Some of Jehile's unaccompanied playing is finally available to the public. "Jehile Stands Alone - Solo Fiddle" can be purchased from Old-Time Music, RR#4, Box 39, Montrose, PA 18801.
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