|I saw Howard play only one time. I had no idea who he was-and I thought I knew music. How sad. I had gone to Mountain Stage, the variety music show in Charleston, West Virginia, at the beginning of an eight year project to document the last of the old time mountain people. This was in 1996. The man I had gone to see, Nat Reese, was playing and Howard was there playing with him. It turns out they had played together many times and were old friends. It was like watching Burns and Allen, vaudeville and the best living culture and music you could ever want. I thought, "who is that gorgeous man on the fiddle and violin?" Little did I know that he was 87. He was all decked out in stunning colors and fabrics and an African hat. At the end I was determined to meet and talk and maybe interview him as well but an exotic and imposing (aka remarkable) woman whisked him off and I didn't get near him. This turned out to be his wife, Barbara who was my age.
A few years later I heard this man was to play at the Iron Horse in Northampton, Ma. but a snow storm hit and I couldn't make the 90 minute drive. Turns out Howard did!
Nat has become a good friend and we've talked about Howard many times. He and Howard were to make one last world tour, through Europe and around but it just didn't happen. I guess Howard was working on the documentary and tying things up, heading for a peace in his older years. But he and Nat had many stories, of life and music in West Virginia, where Howard spent time in Huntington. When they played together they had a running dialogue of humor and teasing and it was a kind of fun that classical life from the old days, so strongly exhibited in rural and musical people possessed. It drove my passion for my project to find as many old time people as I could. And still does.
They're dying now and with them is going that life. Nat is still alive, 80 years strong and despite the great loss of Howard's passing, Nat lives on, pretty much the last of the southern coal field blues players whose history, as well as that of his family's, is almost as remarkable as Howard's. I feel grief that this life is passing but such joy that I was bleesed enough to hear Howard and know Nat. Wit, brillance and the kind of autonomy coupled with community relationalism and authenticity that's almost impossible to create in this day of widespread media. What amazing creatures!