Mule Skinner Blues
By Bill Stork, DVM
We would never think to call any song with a guitar, bass and drums, "Beatles Music." It would be equally absurd to refer to every symphony as "Beethoven Music." However, put five musicians on stand-up bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar around one microphone, singing perfect pitch harmonies high and lonesome, and it is Bluegrass Music.
The players will be well-dressed, punctual and polite, all the while singing of desperation, drinking, and drought, or about God. It is so because collectively Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts, along with Bill Monroe, were The Original Bluegrass Boys. It is Bill Monroe who dictated what Bluegrass Music would be, and specifically what it would not.
Born in 1911 to a family of fiddlers and guitar players, Bill was relegated to the mandolin – the least desirable instrument. He was asked to remove half the strings, so as to "not make so much noise." Yet in the nearly 60 years of performing and recording to follow, he would make the instrument his own and define a genre; one that has survived intact and still growing today. Posthumously and kindly referred to as enigmatic, Mr. Monroe spoke very little off stage, but the complexity and prolificacy of his music could not belie the genius within.
One of the few to whom Bill opened up, and a master in his own right, Peter Rowan was an early protégé and a latter day Blue Grass Boy. He asked Bill how he could play "Mule Skinner Blues" 250 times a year.
"You don't," was his response.
After a pause, and satisfied with the depth and duration of the crease in the young guitar player's brow he explained, "Peter, you don't play the song, you further the music. Every time out, every man up, you look for a note, a word, a phrase that you can play or sing better than or differently than the night before. In doing so, you never play the same song twice, and the music is always alive."
William Smith Monroe is the indisputable Father of Bluegrass Music, but he's got nothing on William Ernest Stork. My dad was a heavy equipment operator. Not one of his inventions would ever bear a patent, but were born of necessity and fully functional. His body of work includes everything from libraries, gymnasiums and bridges to a nuclear power plant.
Every day on the job he showed up thirty minutes early, equipped and informed. When the workday was done, and he rested on his tailgate, there was a little more completed than what was expected.
"Keep the boss man eating steak and he will keep you eating hamburger," we heard once or twice.
"Son, it don't matter if you're loadin' dirt on a dump truck or settin', fuel rods, do it a little smoother, quicker and cleaner than last time."
At his retirement party, Dad introduced me to a circle of operators and iron workers. They joked at how Dad would use the first 15 minutes of lunch break to eat the sandwich Mom had packed, and the second half to rest. It could be the seat of a Cat D-12 with his feet on the dash, or on the tracks of a 500 ton Manitowoc crane, but you could hear "Red" snoring over a jackhammer.
When he walked away, they turned serious. "I tell you what about your dad, the boss man would tell him what to do, and you knew in his eyes he had a better way."
"As soon as things were about to fall apart, he'd stop and crawl down off the machine."
"You'd see him talk to the boss, who would nod his head; from then on, he'd ask your old man first."
After four decades on the job, when Dad finally hung up his hard hat, he did it with the respect of everyone he had ever worked with.
He is a self-proclaimed, "dumb old construction worker," yet rest assured that every weld, I-beam, brick and bolt still stands true some 50 years later. Thanks to 40 years of hard work, good health and the unconditional support and frugality of my mom, he retired with a good living. That said, Heavy Equipment Operator (and lifetime member of IUOE) only starts to define who he is.
On April 9, 1956 in St. Patrick's Catholic Church, he married Alma Ann Beasley. Before friends, family and God, he swore to love her in richer and poor, sickness and health, until death do they part. That is exactly what he did.
On March 3, 1965, I was born. From the first day I could remember, there would be nary a doubt that Mom and I were his first and only priority.
There could have been 35 taverns between the Clinton Nuclear Power Plant and 1195 Nickey Avenue, but if Dad was not at the dinner table, we knew exactly where he was. He worked tirelessly to provide for his family, yet if I were to receive an award for perfect attendance in 8th grade, or play a solo in the Jazz band, he never missed. If I needed someone to throw grounders or weld my mower, he was never too tired.
As parents, we sit on the sidelines and in the bleachers so we can share the joy of success, absorb some of the pain, and lend perspective to inevitable defeat. In doing so, we hope there is a thread of credibility when a kid might need a nudge in a different direction. (Dad called it a size 9 1/2 Red Wing in the butt.)
Father's Day is near. If we are so fortunate, our kids will make us cards and buy us books, fishing rods, grills and house slippers. Let's take the day to not only appreciate, but to ensure we are the examples they deserve.
As my father before me, help us build relationships and legacy from which our children can grow. At 16, I could recite every one of his sayings and sound bites, line and verse, yet it is actions that define my dad. At 48, with two kids of my own, I can only hope to live up to them.