Gathering places in rural communities have always fascinated me. I can recall a few when I was growing up in Virginia, one of which was the general store where my great uncle Rolie would gather regularly with his pals over coffee, and more than likely, exaggerated conversation.
I liked the general store not for the coffee, but for the ice cream that was stored in old-fashioned slide top coolers, seeming to stretch the entire length of the building. Having the arm length that I lacked, my uncle Rolie would often snag ice cream bars for me that were out of my reach.
While the ice cream of my childhood surely wasn’t a requirement, I was curious when I moved here to the Deer Isle-Stonington area whether the island had any similar gathering places. I was pleased to learn that several places did exist, and being a musician, that I was invited to the gathering, which encouraged bringing instruments.
I arrived carrying my fiddle, entering the front doorway to a crowded room of musicians and on-lookers. Sitting on Main Street in downtown Stonington, the gathering spot doubled as a fisherman’s shop. It was this particular fisherman who greeted me from across the room as I entered the tightly occupied space.
“Where have you been?” he asked through the noise of tuning instruments and Sunday morning conversation. “Well, there he is,” someone else confirmed.
Scouting the room for an empty space, I weaved my way through the crowd, greeting the regulars until I found enough room to get out my fiddle and join in the music. There were several guitars, a bass, mandolin, banjo and an accordion. I was not only a new face, but also the only fiddler present.
Shortly after I had my fiddle tuned, someone launched into the Jimmie Rodgers classic, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas)”, the vocals adding in a signature Downeast accent. Playing in the key of D, this was a perfect first tune, and I promptly jumped in to take a lead after the second verse. After the song came to a close, the crowd of musicians and on-lookers gave me nods and smiles of approval, making me feel very welcome at this their standard Sunday morning gathering.
While growing up, I was used to playing music being very much a standard at such gatherings. It’s been something I’ve missed quite a bit on the island, so naturally I was thrilled to be invited and welcomed by this gregarious group of musicians and watermen. Their wit and spirit reminded me of the musical enthusiasm I so often identify with the South, and I dare say it reminded me of home.
Ian Watkins is an Island Fellow through AmeriCorps and the Island Institute, working at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.