The Ute Indian tribe, living now mostly in Utah and Colorado, are a people who have made a significant contribution to the USA, at least to one of its states, the state of Utah. That’s because the state of Utah’s name is derived from the word Ute. There’s a story there, but I don’t know what it is. It’s not really important regarding the following story.
What isn’t recorded in history is that some of this tribe’s members migrated into the Ozark mountains of Missouri. They were banished from the tribe for committing two felonies (Indian felonies that is). One was being left-handed. The second was being fiddle players (something to do with the “devil’s box” or “devil’s instrument,” so labeled by a now defunct cult of snake handlers from Sonora, Kentucky who equated fiddle symphonies with sin; this perception having somehow made its way to the Ute Tribe in Utah). Most of the main tribe members didn’t want this sub-tribe banishment to happen (because some of them were clandestine fiddlers), but the power structure was such that a minority out-ruled the majority, and the consequence was what it was.
So they were fiddlers, unique in that they were “lefties” (played left-handed, fingered the strings with right hand, bowed with the left). Banishment was negative, at first, but then it turned into something positive. Sometimes you have to lose it all to find your way.
In their newly found home, deep in the forest of the Ozarks Mountains, these “Other Utes” discovered a silent, natural, non-polluted pure water spring that had healing properties, way beyond your “average bear” expectations. Supernatural, one would have have to admit. They discovered that the immersion of their physical being into the water could actually regrow body parts. Not all parts, but just fingers. Turns out it was a mind-body musical connection of a mysterious kind.
Some of you may think that this phenomenon is an amazing thing, but it’s not that mind boggling in the grand scheme of things. It just regrows fingers. It doesn’t make you young. It’s not the “Fountain of Youth.” The Missouri Utes would agree, but their spring, or their fountain (if you will), is important to them (even though a well kept secret). As one of the Ozark tribe members says, it’s their “Fountain of Ute.”
Coincidence is a strange thing. Some folks don’t believe in it at all. Destiny, fate, predestination, that’s what’s going on in the prefrontal cortex of their brains (that part of the brain that gleans information from all sorts of valid and invalid resources, and then forms its own conclusions). The ubiquitous debate rages on.
Anyway, there is this guy in California (who is a prominent figure in The California Bluegrass Association) that ended up visiting this very same forest, searching for special woods to build picture frames. California is a long way from Missouri, too long just to go in search of wood for picture frames. But a Map Quest error led him to the wrong destination (he loved to drive, so didn’t really notice the extra miles). To preserve confidentiality and for any other reasons, known or unknown, we’ll give him the nickname of “Slick.”
As coincidence, or destiny, or whatever would have it, he happens to be a fiddler. He takes that fiddle with him, wherever he goes (“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” was the label he got from a psychiatrist, pro bono). A fiddler who unfortunately has recently severed the tip of his right index finger. It got cut clean off before Slick even realized what had happened, flew through the air, and landed right next to a mouse-hole in the wall where it meets the floor. In a diminutive state of shock, Slick sprinted to the emancipated finger tip and retrieved it (a close race between man and mouse).
Creating picture frames from interesting wood is a good idea, but the saw that cut the wood, that cut off the tip of the finger, that stopped the fiddle player from playing was more of a “devil’s instrument” than a fiddle could ever be. Slick happens to be left-handed, so his right index finger is beyond important regarding the finger board of the fiddle. You know, intonation, dexterity, and everything that translates to a good sound. It is true that fiddlers never fret, but in this particular random event that punctuated time and space, Slick did fret, more than a little (psychologically speaking).
Destiny of this “Lefty Fiddler” and these “Lefty Indians” collided at the crossroads, not just regarding the propinquity of both being in the forest at the same time, but this white man fiddler had also been banished, sort of. In the beginning stages of learning the fiddle, the wife had intermittently sent (banished) him from the living room in their house to the out-of-harms-way barn, seventy seven yards beyond the house, thereby eliminating the sounds being transmitted from fiddle to ear. The sounds that closely resembled the shrieks of a cat getting its tail caught in a swift closing screen door.
But back to the fiddler in the woods. He and the Indians made friends quickly (that universal language music thing, in this case when fiddles unite). Once they got to know him, they gave him free reign of the woods. One day, while walking along seeking select, exotic wood for picture frames, with saw (non-power type) in hand, Slick stumbled (predestination and fate notwithstanding) onto this very same spring. Actually he stumbled directly into this watery mass when his foot caught a rock, and he went flying through the air and landed head first, tip-less right finger second, into the pond.
The pond was not deep, about four feet. So stand up in it he did, walked right out of it, shook off the water, and didn’t think anything more about it. Unaware of the aforementioned healing properties (Indian secret, you remember) he didn’t think anything more about it until a few hours later. He was obsessively focusing on his shorter-than-in-the-past finger (an intermittent hobby since the accident), and a strange sensation occurred at the newly defined tip of the digit.
The thing appeared to actually have grown a little. Not only that, as his gazed was locked onto the thing he could now see it growing, slowly. As visions of Pinocchio danced in his head (he mentally reviewed his past deeds with lightning-like speed) he couldn’t believe his eyes. And then, and then, the diminutive digit reached what was once its full length, kept going, and actually added one-quarter of an inch to the original length. There was only one thing left to do now.
The newborn (sort of) finger came to rest on the finger board of his fiddle. A slow waltz first, “Better start elementarily, key of D to be safe,” he thought out loud. It didn’t work well. Actually it worked better than well! The now prodigious pointer functioned effortlessly, perfect intonation with no hint of pain. Now for the real test.
“New Camptown Races” in the key of B flat. The result? Mere words cannot describe the outcome. Well, maybe one. “Bionic,” as pertains to the finger that paved the way to an effortless, flawless performance of that tune as the music was released into the piney woods. Can a person in the “Over 60 Club” play non-stop for 100 hours? With food, drink, and bodily functions notwithstanding? Yes. At least one can. This one did. And not only that, somehow the new finger of the right hand affected the rest of the fingers so that they could all play in astounding coordination, perfect intonation, lighting speed, and an alien-like muscle memory with no hint of dementia. A memory that could learn a new tune heard only once. “No one will believe this,” he said out loud. “Why should they, I don’t believe it myself.” It was truly a mysterious thing that had happened, but a mystery to be embraced and not to be questioned.
Eventually Slick made his way back to Sonora, California (a connection with Sonora, Kentucky is open to discovery) along with his partly new finger and a pick-up truck full of Ozark wood that would eventually give birth to fifty picture frames. Frames that would soon surround a plethora of originals, prints, and photographs pertaining to the bluegrass persuasion (however you define it). The most positive result of the whole experience is that his wife now lets him play his fiddle anywhere inside their house instead of out in the barn. Addictive qualities have appeared and persist, because he can’t seem to put his fiddle down, plays it all the time, and his fingers never hurt. He and the fiddle have become one.
There is a rumor that Slick now is able to musically surpass the likes of Scotty Stoneman, Vassar Clements, Mark O’Connor, Stewart Duncan, Andy Leftwich, or any other “Nashville-Cats” fiddler who ever was (either in a downtown studio or a gas station on the out skirts of that town).
You’ll have to judge for yourself whether or not this is true. Be at the next CBA Father’s Day Festival in June at Grass Valley, California, and find out for yourself. You can find this guy furiously fiddling at jams throughout the woods, probably wearing a tank top, pants-less from the knees down, “speed shoes”, and a sculpted beard. And from time to time he’ll be driving a golf cart, semi oblivious to pedestrians, steering wheel in one hand, fiddle in the other, with musical passion as his passenger.