Reading next: "The Jaybird" by MacKinlay Kantor

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Claude Bauer

Jan 8, 2012
MacKinlay Kantor, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the infamous Andersonville prison, also wrote a novel about a Civil War fifer! "The Jaybird" describes, "the odyssey of Abner Feather, G.A. R. who once played the fife in the 148th Pennsylvania across the shell torn wheat fields of Gettysburg." Been out of print for a while, but I found a copy on ebay and I'm waiting for it to arrive, so it's next on my reading list.

Has anyone read it? Especially interested in hearing from any musicians who have read it. A drummer friend of mine told me that the fifer Abner played a fife equipped with a mouthpiece! (or "cheater" as they are commonly and inaccurately called). Since I make and sell mouthpieces for the fife, I found this particularly interesting. My friend also made a list of the tunes that Abner recalls playing while in the Union Army. These include:
  • Village Quickstep aka The Picnic
  • Jaybird
  • Wrecker’s Daughter
  • Jefferson ‘n Liberty aka Paul Revere’s Ride or Gobb-O
  • Buffalo Gals
  • Yankee Doodle
  • Marching Through Georgia
  • The Girl I Left Behind Me
  • Eighteen-Twelve
  • The Recruiting Sergeant
  • The Raw Recruit
  • Seventy-six
  • The Sweet Bye and Bye
  • Turkey in the Straw
  • On the Road to Boston
  • Kellog’s Quickstep
  • O Lassie Art Thou Sleepin’ Yet
  • Gary Owen
  • Hail to the Chief aka White Cockade or Highland Lassie
  • Black Watch
  • Flying Indian
  • Gilderoy
  • Tell My Mother
  • Hell on the Wabash
  • Tallewan
  • Bung Your Eye
  • Miss McLeod
I can play a lot of these and have heard of most of them--there are just a few I don't recognize. Curious about "Hail to the Chief aka White Cockade or Highland Lassie." I play both Hail to the Chief and White Cockade--they are very different tunes and don't sound anything like each other, so we'll see. Anyway, if you've read it, let me know what you think, and I'll post my thoughts here later!

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Claude Bauer

Jan 8, 2012
Well, "The Jaybird" arrived last week and I've already finished--it's a quick read. If you're a musician, especially if you've "twiddled a gobby-stick" (played a fife), it's obviously going to be more fun to read--each of the 3 major sections is named after a song: Part I is Village Quickstep, Part II is The Raw Recruit, and Part III is Jefferson and Liberty. In addition, there's a snippet from the score for each tune below each section title, so you can read the music and have the tune in your head when you start into the narrative.

Sadly, it turns out that the main character, "Abner Feather, G.A.R. who once played the fife in the 148th Pennsylvania across the shell torn wheat fields of Gettysburg," is by the time of the Mexican Border War (1910-1919), a broken down, elderly alcoholic and a major source of embarrassment to his pre-teen grandson Kenny and his mother. They’re all living on the edge, and share a bleak apartment in Clay City, Iowa. Life gets worse when the mother skips town with a salesman, deserting her son and leaving Kenny and his grandfather penniless and on their own. But rather than sink even deeper into alcoholic despair, Abner the Civil War veteran, who enlisted as a teenager and "got a minie ball through his shoulder," decides to hit the road and head West, taking his grandson Kenny, his fife, and only what they can carry.

The rest of the book describes their adventures on the road, where Abner quickly discovers that he can provide a source of income by playing for crowds in pubic, what musicians today call "busking." They move from town to town, the itinerant musician and his little grandson, meeting various colorful characters. Eventually, Abner buys Kenny a fife and a mouthpiece and begins to teach the lad how to play.

It's a light read, but I think it could have used a better ending--nothing seems to get resolved, and you end up wondering what finally happened to these two.

(Also, be aware that it was published in 1932 and like much historic literature contains a few words and expressions that would be considered highly offensive today. It's disconcerting to encounter them and they add nothing--it's a shame that a Pulitzer Prize winning author thought that using them would help tell the story.)