Author: Karsemeyer, John

My Life as a Mandolin

(WARNING! Mandolin Geek Content).

“Timber!” The two giant trees were falling from grace at precisely the same time in different parts of the world. Neither one could know that they would eventually meet and become as one. A sudden chill in the noontime air accompanied the fragrance of freshly cut wood after the chain saws had done what they were created to do.

I can’t remember how old my parents were when they passed. I don’t have a clue. I do know that they were cut down in the prime of their lives. They were at least one hundred years old, maybe more. In any case their fall carved the way for my birth. Some people believe a cat has nine lives. I believe that it’s possible for a tree to have at least two lives; one life while anchored in the ground reaching toward the heavens, and another life after an earth shattering collision with the ground. If things come together in just the right way, a reincarnation occurs.

My father was a tall, handsome, proud maple tree. My mother was a beautiful, gentle spruce. It’s been said that opposites attract, and in this case it’s true. My parents got together in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1923. The ceremony was held in the Gibson Mandolin Chapel (at least that’s what I call it). I was born on July 9, 1923. I’m not sure how destiny works. I could have become a guitar, banjo, fiddle, or an acoustic bass. But I didn’t. I became a mandolin. Thank you destiny!

The first twenty years of my life are mostly a mystery to me. I have the feeling that I didn’t get out much, didn’t travel a lot, or even see the light of day on a regular basis. Oh I traveled some, but not as much as I wanted. You know how it is when you’re young and you want to go out and see the whole world for yourself. Don’t you? I harbor an instinct that I was in the dark much of the time, and that my life was generally tedious. Not all of the time mind you, but in the grand scheme of things; looking at the big musical picture back then.

Flashbacks! They invade my mind from time to time. I have visions of having been in a closet, under a bed, in an attic, or stored in a garage for long periods of time. Way longer than I would have liked. But that’s all behind me now. Even so, my memory intermittently entertains musical snippets of Bach and Beethoven, which gives me the idea that I may have had some classical training along the way. I really can’t remember. But why else would it linger in my mind? At my age it’s no surprise that I have some memory loss. So regarding that part of my past, the first twenty years, I like to think, “Case closed.”

But when I turned twenty my life exploded like a 4th of July fireworks that you humans have every year here in the USA. I remember it well. I was in a barber shop, and this guy named Bill Monroe walked in. Probably he was there for a hair cut, a shave, or just to chat with the other guys who were getting all gussied-up.

At the time I didn’t know it but I was for sale. There I am hanging on a wall in that barber shop in Miami, Florida in the year 1943. And for whatever reason or reasons pertaining to fate, destiny, chance, or just plain dumb luck, Bill Monroe bought me. I can still picture his eyes, as big as banjo heads, when he first spotted me. In fact I was the first thing he saw after he walked past the spinning red and white barber pole and went through the front door of the shop. His eyes became glued to the paper sign that I held between my strings, which in big red letters read, “For sale.” As he carefully took me off the wall and played me, he was somehow able to conceal his euphoria so that none of the other guys in the barber shop could detect his excitement. He didn’t want to give himself away to the point of having to pay an arm and a leg to buy me. Bill was always looking for a bargain. As he began plucking on my heart strings, my pulse suddenly began racing, faster and faster. My heart was thumping outside my body.

“Who is the owner of this mandolin?” Bill said. A guy getting his hair cut in the second barber chair said, “I am. Yep, that would be me.” “How much you want for it?” Bill asked. “Well I don’t know, now that you ask. I know they cost $250 when they were new. I got this one from a cousin who passed away last month. He lived in New York and was in a mandolin orchestra. Said he got it from somebody else. I play it a little now and then, but not much.” “How about seventy-five bucks?” Bill questioned. “Seventy-five bucks! Are you kidding me?” “No I’m not kidding you. I’ve got seventy-five dollars cash on the barrel head that I’m willin’ to give you right now!” The reluctant owner thought more about it and replied, “Let’s see now, seventy-five dollars cash money right now. Times are hard these days, but I don’t know. Well, let’s see, I’d have to think on that a bit. I sure could use the cash right now, but I don’t know. Not sure if my wife would be okay with that.” “Okay, how about one hundred and fifty bucks, right here and right now!” Bill said, his voice almost reaching a yell. “Boy howdy mister, you’ve got a deal. Let’s see your money up front!” Bill reached into his left shirt pocket, grabbed the money clip that held his personal stash, and completed the deal that made history in the world of bluegrass music.

Thinking on it more right now, luck was probably the reason Bill and I first got together. Especially if you consider that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Ah yes, luck reared its lovely head; luck for Bill, and luck for me.

Right now I’m having more weird thoughts about my life before Bill got me. I have a hunch that I was bought and sold a number of times. To be honest, back then I felt like a human slave much of the time. A slave, that is, in the sense of belonging to different owners; being bought and sold on different occasions in my life. I have to say that there wasn’t a hint of abuse to me that I could see on my body back then, as I occasionally looked at my reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall across from where I was hanging in that barber shop long ago. So my owners during that first twenty years of my life were obviously good to me. No sir, not a hint of abuse or neglect. But yes sir, even so, I felt like a slave who was never able to become what he or she truly could have been. But when Bill Monroe laid down his cash on a table in that barber shop I felt like I had been freed. Oh sure, I know what you’re thinking, that Bill bought me too. But I had a feeling of excitement that this time was going to be something way different.

Bill hurriedly walked out of that barber shop through the front door carrying me in my nice hard black case with the soft green interior. Getting his hair trimmed no longer interested him. As I was being carried along I was thinking, “I don’t know why, but I know my life is going to change.” And change it did. I didn’t know where I was going, but I was on my way!

Things began to get exciting. For one thing I got to travel. Not just travel, but really travel! Man oh man. I went to all kinds of different towns, cities, states, and countries. And those bluegrass festivals, concert halls, and other venues! There were so many of those musical shindigs that I lost count. And not only that, Mr. Bill gave me constant attention. For the first time in my life I was out of my mandolin case more than I was in it. Everyday! It’s like Bill’s musical spirit would get constipated if he didn’t play me as close to 24/7 as was humanly possible. I myself could have done that, but even Bill, as strong as he was, couldn’t have kept up with me on that one.
But the biggest “wow” I experienced was the music that came out of me after Bill Monroe worked his magic. It was something brand new; never knew I had it in me. Bluegrass love bit me hard. I think you know what I’m talkin’ about. Time became irrelevant.

As the years went by I got all kinds of attention from thousands of humans. Seems like everybody who played a mandolin or knew about mandolins gave me attention, and way more than just a few folks wanted to have a mandolin just like me. I have a hunch that many mandolin players wanted me for their own, but that was not going to happen.

The front of my body looked like a brilliant yellow sun bursting out of a chocolate Cremona brown sky. “Sunburst” is what mandolin makers call it. And my backside was also a visual feast for the eyes. “Mighty purty,” some folks described me back then. That was a long time ago, but even today I still have my fancy scroll on the Left side of my upper body where Bill attached one end of his mandolin strap. And I have two design “points” on the right side that stick out from my round, firm, and fully-packed musical body. You can use one of the points to anchor me to your leg if you’re sitting down playing. And even if you’re standing and playing and don’t need that point to rest on your leg, it still looks good. The other point, the second point, is also part of my design. It all just works together well. As one famous luthier put it, “Even though the design is asymmetrical, the scroll and two points give it a balance.” Even if I do say so myself, “I look good!”

“Florentine” design is what I’m talkin’ about. It has to do with a style of art in Florence, Italy a long time ago. I have it on good authority that this American guy by the name of Oroville Gibson designed my American ancestors. Don’t ask me why Oroville went for a design that came from Italy. Maybe he had a great love for pizza? And then later on this other guy named Lloyd Loar refined that design to make me into what I consider to be my beautiful body and incomparable “voice.” Lloyd added the number “5” to designate my body style. But instead of calling me a “Florentine Body Style 5,” I got the nickname of “F-5.” That’s okay with me, sort of. To be honest about it I would have preferred the nickname, “Flora.” But I didn’t have any control over it. It all turned out okay.

As I mentioned, Lloyd Loar was the guy in charge of making sure that I developed in the best way possible. Lloyd was an acoustical engineer. He made sure that all of the mandolin “doctors” (musical instrument pediatricians is what I call ‘em) did the correct procedures to insure that my birth would result in the ultimate musical outcome. And you know what? I was beyond happy with the results.

I mean it could have been way worse. Like the result of the creation by that Dr. Frankenstein, if ya get my drift. Anyhow, back to Bill Monroe.

It’s my opinion that Bill Monroe and I really were partners. For me it was a symbiotic relationship of sorts; he got something out of it and so did I. He created a ton of new songs and tunes, and made a pretty good living. I got to “sing” my heart out, travel, and had medical benefits (so to speak). You know, like adjustments and regular check-ups as the years went by.

Bill was good to me; most of the time. Intermittently he would “whip me like a mule.” This is in the musical sense of that term, and it just means he played me really hard. Bill’s strong hands played me so hard that sometimes my best friends, the mandolin stings, would break. Sometimes two or three of them would break during just one performance. It didn’t hurt me, but I felt sorry for my string buddies who didn’t make it.

I found out in the long run that being “whipped” like that really was in my best interest. That’s because it made my wooden body vibrate in a big way, made me really “open up” and be the best that I could be regarding how I sounded. And not only that, some folks would swear on the Holy Bible that I was the best sounding Gibson F-5 mandolin that they ever heard. Guess that’s why I often referred to Bill as, “Father.” He knew what he was doing to help me develop and bring me along. It helped Bill too because big things were in store for him in the world of bluegrass music; even if he didn’t know it at the time when he first rescued me from being a wall flower in that barber shop.

‘Course now people are humans. And humans make mistakes. They sometimes do things they shouldn’t do, right along with the good things. All I’ve got to say is that Bill was definitely human.

I remember one time when Bill got especially mad at me. Well I shouldn’t say mad at me personally, but mad at someone else for doing something to me that he didn’t like. But he took it out on me anyhow. I don’t understand it, but he did. It was when he sent me to some of those Gibson Company “musical doctors” I told you about for a check-up. They did some stuff to me that Bill didn’t ask them to do and he didn’t like it. In fact it made him so mad his blood boiled! So he took a sharp object and scratched out the name of those doctors’ private practice where they created me. That wouldn’t have been so bad in itself; but that name, “The Gibson,” was on my head (humans call it a peg head on a mandolin). It left a big scar. And I’ll be the first to tell ya that it really hurt! One thing you just gotta keep reminding yourself is that given the wrong circumstances a good man can go bad.

In the end I forgave Bill. I know he just did it in a fit of rage. Some humans are more prone to anger than others. That’s just the way it is. But there’s one thing that was done to me that was way, way, way, worse than what Bill did. It was definitely the worst part of my life.

“Whack, whack, whack!” That’s the sound I heard as I felt the ice cold metal hitting and puncturing my body again and again, breaking me apart. “Stop, stop, please stop!” I screamed. But I could not be heard.

You see, one time Bill was away from his farm house without me. This was in the year 1985 in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. This is mighty strange in itself because Bill was known far and wide for taking me everywhere he went all of the time (except for the outhouse). The door of history was open for this terrible thing to happen, and happen it did. Somebody broke into Bill’s house while nobody was there, got hold of a fireplace poker, and tried to kill me. I was split wide open, and was left to die. 500 pieces of me were scattered all over the floor! “This is the end of my life,” is what I was thinkin’. “I’ll never make music again. I am now firewood!”

Nowadays If you ask the right people, and you read the right books, you may know that there are some theories about who did that horrible deed, and why. There is a rumor floating around that it was a woman who felt Bill had done her wrong. But the truth never came out. Even if you’d have asked Mr. Monroe about it when he was alive, he would have said something like, “Well sir, I just really don’t know who done it. No sir, I don’t know how somebody would get such a crazy idea in their head to do a terrible thing like that. That mandolin never hurt nobody!”

‘Course I know who done it cause I was there. The thing is I’m not revealing nothin’ either ‘cause sometimes it’s best to let certain mysteries be. What I will say about the person who done it is, “The devil never had a better friend.” As I told ya, after I got pokered I thought I was a goner.

But there was this wonderful man by the name of Charlie Derrington who was my savior. He provided my earthly salvation. He worked for the Gibson Company. And as hard as it might be for you to believe, he put me back together again. Lots of humans said it couldn’t be done. Why one person said, “Might as well use the thing for toothpicks”. But Mr. Derrington worked his wizardry and I was as sound (pardon my pun) as before. ‘Course I wasn’t as purty. You wouldn’t be either if somebody busted you up into hundreds of pieces.

Yes sir, after that I made bluegrass music just as good as before my attempted murder. And you know what? Some humans said I sounded better than ever! I won’t presume to be the judge of that, but I do know one thing. My operation turned out a whole heck of a lot better than that Humpdy Dumpty guy who was sittin’ on a wall and fell off.

But that was then and this is now. Thanks to all you readers who have stuck with my ramblin’ about myself during these many words. And right now I know what many of you readers are thinking, “Anthropomorphism.” You know, attributing human characteristics to something that isn’t human. And anybody in his or her right mind would say, “A mandolin can’t talk. It’s just an inanimate object without the ability to think or feel. Everybody knows that it’s just not possible.” Or is it? Haven’t you ever seen the TV show, “The Twilight Zone,” or the movie, “Toy Story?” Anyhow, if you have the time to keep reading, there’s one more thing.

After Bill passed away in 1996 I got an anxiety attack. Most likely it came from the fear of the unknown. What was going to happen to me now? Would I end up on another wall someplace for sale? Fear held me close.

I didn’t have to worry long because I found a home with Bill’s son, James Monroe. “Boy, that was scary,” I thought. “I’m not with Bill anymore, but I am with James. And I’m safe!”

But as many of you know, often it’s the nature of nature that when your life is going just great and you’re feeling that all is right with the world, that’s the time when disaster strikes and jolts you like you’ve been struck by a bolt of lightening. That’s what happened to me when James Monroe did something that I like to think Bill never would have done. James sold me!

Like I told ya before, humans are human, and they do what they do. I don’t fault James for selling me. He didn’t make a whole lot of money or gain fame standing in Bill’s shadow all those years. And I guess he can’t play the mandolin.

Sold! I was sold at the price of over one million dollars! My body isn’t as nice as it used to be. Now I have scars and scratches, and big areas where my skin (you humans call it varnish) is completely rubbed off. “Mighty purty,” is something no one says anymore.

Be that as it may I was still in high demand. I was sold to the highest bidder, who in this case turned out to be a most generous person. Why? Well because after the purchase my new owner donated me to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, where I now reside. And right now some of you readers just might be thinkin’, “Isn’t that wonderful. It’s a marvelous thing. Thousands of people get to see what is considered the most famous mandolin in the world!” But regarding that I have one last thing to tell ya.

My new home is a very nice place. It’s bigger, prettier, and a lot warmer than in that old barber shop a long time ago when the customers and the two barbers would go home at night. And these days famous people come by to see me all the time. Once in a while a lucky human gets to play me for a couple of tunes. ‘Course he or she has to be a famous musician or a famous somebody, and then get permission from the person who is in charge of the museum. I have to admit that my head just swells with pride when I think about my latest selling price of over a million bucks, compared to the $150 that Bill Monroe paid for me way back when. But for me it’s not enough.

You see I want to get out. Now! I want to play more. I want to be free to go to all the different places and bluegrass festivals that are happening all over the world these days; just like when I belonged to Bill. You can think it selfish, but I feel like a slave again. I wish I belonged to Ricky Skaggs. He still plays bluegrass music on the mandolin everywhere. If you’re still reading this, I know that you know who Ricky is. He owns some of my sisters. Why if Mr. Skaggs brought me to his home it would be my family reunion. In fact he owns my twin sister who was born on the same day and year as I was. I say “sister” because Bill Monroe used me to create bluegrass music. And in this old world you all know it takes a female to give birth. You may have a different opinion as to whether you should call a mandolin a “him” or a “her,” and that’s okay with me.

And not only that, regarding Ricky Skaggs, I remember back when one night Bill and I were at a prayer meeting at Ricky’s home. Bill said a prayer over Ricky, and Bill asked God to help Ricky carry on bluegrass music. Ricky is definitely doing that now, but I sure wish I was along to help him out!

Right now I’m a bird in a cage. A fish out of water. A train without a track. A Flatt without a Scruggs. I’ll stop comparing now before I’m accused of torturing the metaphors. You get my drift, don’t ya? I am old. I’m now ninety years old. But I still have “it.”

I need to be on a bluegrass bus out on the highway that’s heading to a bluegrass festival, and then another, and then another. I want to be on stage at the Grand Old Opry again. I want to keep movin’. I want thousands of people to say, “Would you listen to that mandolin!” I’ll stop now and let you readers get back to more important things in your lives. But there are just four last words I’m going to say.

“Somebody please help me!”

Posted:  2/8/2014

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email