He played his songs on the oddest musical instrument of all: the anvil. The Traveler’s Story.
June 21, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Spruce Pine nestles within the timbered ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains that cut through the heart of North Carolina’s Appalachian country. The Blue Ridge contains the highest mountains in eastern North America with a hundred and twenty-five peaks climbing taller than five thousand feet.
The Sights: The highest in North Carolina is Mount Mitchell, reaching up for 6,684 feet, and the region can be viewed with a leisurely drive along the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, often regarded as America’s favorite highway. The road winds along the rooftop of the region, easing past mountain meadows with split rail fences surrounding old farmsteads and weaving together two national parks: Shenandoah in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains, which links Tennessee to North Carolina.
The Setting: Gillespie Gap, hidden away in the distant shadows of the Blue Ridge, nestles among such communities as Bald Creek, Rabbit Hop, and Hoot Owl Hollow. It is a land rich with artisans, its ridge lines settled in another century by a rare breed of independent, practical, and stubborn people who never asked for anything more than the Good Lord had given them. From corn shucks they wove dolls, rugs, scrub mops, and braided harnesses for mules. From river cane and split oak came baskets. And leather was used to make their own shoes, vests, hats, rawhide chair bottoms, and even hinges for wooden doors. The creative mind of the artisan remains.
The Story: The fire was already burning hot in the furnace, the bellows working overtime, and the strips of metal glowing somewhere between red and a bitter orange when the caravan of musicologists, looking as though they had just fled the ivy-covered walls of academia, came knocking on his door. The men were straight-backed, ashen-faced, mostly balding, and spoke in soft, melodious tones. They had spent most of the morning making their way down the backroads and lost roads and forgotten roads that wound their way out of Spruce Pine and into Gillespie Gap.
One chanced a slight smile and said, “We’re from the Smithsonian.”
Bea Hensley nodded.
“It’s in Washington, D.C.”
Bea Hensley nodded again.
“We’re doctors of music,” the distinguished gentleman said.
“Out here, we don’t get a lot of music,” Bea Hensley said, “and none of it that’s particularly sick.”
The musicologist couldn’t decide whether to chuckle or frown. He did not know whether the blacksmith was serious or not. He moved on. “We want to study your anvil,” he said.
“There’s plenty more out there,” Bea Hensley told him.
“I’m sure there are,” the gentleman said. “But none of them is quite like yours.”
“How do you know?”
“Word gets around.”
Bea Hensley smiled. A lot of good folks came to see his anvil. It had been back in 1938 when the self-styled blacksmith from the mountains stumbled across an old anvil in a New York junkyard. It was old then: battered, scarred, blurred with rust, worn down, and thrown away amongst the weeds and scrap metal of broken down automobiles. It was where things of the past, no longer wanted or needed, were sent to die. He bought the anvil with the last two dollars and fifty cents he had lodged in his pocket. Bea Hensley knew the anvil was different. He had no idea the anvil was magical.
It had never been his intention to become an artist. Being a blacksmith was good enough for him. But that was before Bea Hensley picked up hammer and tongs and began to beat out odd little rhythms on the anvil. After awhile, it seemed to just about everyone who dropped by that the rhythms sounded like some faint melody tucked away within the recesses of their minds. At three o’clock in the morning, while Gillespie Gap lay sleeping and no one was around to disrupt his one-sided conversation, Bea Hensley learned to turn those haunting melodies into art.
“What songs do you play on the anvil?” one of the musicologists asked.
“Do you create your own songs?”
“I can’t carry a tune.”
The gentleman thought about chuckling, then frowned again. He still did not know whether Bea Hensley was serious or not.
The caravan of musicologists folded their arms, stood back in the dark corner of the blacksmith shop, wiped the sweat from their faces as the furnace roared behind them, and listened intently as Hensley turned molten metal into the shape of leaves falling from the hardwood trees outside. He ran the hammer from one end of the anvil to the other. High tones. Low tones. Soft tones. Tones right out of the 1812 Overture. Bea Hensley had it all. The volley of cannon fire, the ringing of the chimes. Tchaikovsky would have been proud.
For two weeks, the high brow musical team examined the battered old anvil that sat on a stump in the middle of a blacksmith shop in the middle of the woodlands in the middle of the mountains. They handled it as though the anvil was a rare gem taken from the rock bottom of an ancient sea bed. They pounded on it. They asked Bea Hensley to pound on it. They tapped the anvil with high-dollar strips of cold steel from one end to the other. They recorded the high pitches and the low. They scientifically measured the range of tones with learned ears and complex equipment. They captured it all: the timbre, the wavelengths, the sound waves, and the duration of the vibrations. Among themselves, they talked about auriel illusion, tritone paradoxes, and the harmonic frequency spectra that came pouring out of the anvil.
The musicologists ran old tests. They made up new tests. On their final day, the learned doctors of music all gathered together and came to one dead solid, unmistakable, and undeniable conclusion. There was no doubt about it.
The distinguished gentleman with the ashen face glanced at the anvil one last time. He had never seen anything quite like it in his life. It should never be condemned to bear the brunt of molten metal and a blacksmith’s hammer. It wasn’t an anvil, not this one. It was a musical instrument with a pitch as pure as any ever heard within the revered confines of Carnegie Hall.
Bea Hensley’s old anvil, the derelict from a New York junkyard that made the only sounds heard along the early morning streets of Gillespie Gap, was tuned perfectly to the key of F. It was an accident of nature, they said.
Bea Hensley smiled. Accidents of nature were not uncommon at all for men who crawled out of bed at three o’clock every morning for a one-sided conversation with God.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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