Author: Campbell, Bruce

A Halloween Story

Gather ‘round children! So you want to hear a Halloween story? OK, here’s one I know you’ll like: The Phantom of the Campout. You younger kids might want to skip this one…

The jammers huddled determinedly around the dim lantern. It was an unexpectedly cold night, but they soldiered on with grim determination. They loved bluegrass music, and were old friends – it was their intention to not let a little cold weather ruin their fun. Their breath rose in the frosty October night as they sang.

The weather was not the only thing working against this particular get together. The locale for this event was a new one for this group of people, and frankly, it was a new experience for many of the other campers in this particular campground. Many of the “regular” campers weren’t accustomed to dealing with the joyous noise of bluegrass pickers and many were open hostile once the 10:00 hour came and went. There was even a few heated exchanges and the strained vibes made many of the pickers nervous.

The jammers in this story, however, had positioned themselves in a corner of the campground that seemed to be adequately removed from the more common areas - they were abutted up against the hedgerow that separated the campground from the river. They heard of the ongoing strife, but didn’t hear it directly.

Truth be told, children, it would be a mighty mean camper indeed that could stay mad after meeting these folks. Despite the cold, they picked and sang with unrestrained joy – several times they had been joined by other jammers, or curious regulars, and they all left with a smile on their faces.

Deep in the night, these jammers were joined by an unexpected stranger, who lugged a very worn out banjo. He stepped out suddenly from the hedgerow, and was thin and seemed woefully underdressed – he had no coat, and his shirt and trousers were little more than rags.

“Mind if I sit in?”, the stranger inquired in a hoarse voice.

The jammers hesitated, but only for an instant – their visitor’s appearance took them by surprise.

“Why sure!”, they said. “Come on in! Why don’t you call a tune?”

The gaunt stranger settled into a spare lawn chair and the jammers got a look at his banjo. It looked like it had never seen the inside of instrument case. The wood was lacking finish in most places, and several frets on the banjo were missing. The top of the headstock had been snapped off in some past trauma, and the drumhead had some holes. The stranger cocked his head, plucked a few notes, adjusted the tuners a bit and seemed ready.

“You guys know Rawhide?” he asked. The jammers nodded.

The thin stranger launched into a ripping version of Rawhide. The jammers could barely keep up. The banjo playing was clean, precise and meter-perfect. He stepped up the tempo slightly for the final go-around and it ended in a triumph, with all the pickers whooping with delight.

As the jam continued, the stranger proved to be a truly gifted musician. When his turn came around again, he chose “Long Black Veil” and displayed a rich, expressive voice, as well as stellar banjo chops. Other folks drifted in and out of the jam, and no one failed to take note of the remarkable banjo player and his singular voice. The night wore on and on, until the sky began to change from black to a deep blue. The stranger stood up.

“I’ve enjoyed pickin’ with y’all, but I need to leave now.” And he abruptly turned and walked into the waning shadows of the hedgerow.

The next morning, one of the jammers was chatting with the camp host about the weekend. “It’s a shame there was so much friction with the non-picking campers”, he remarked as he sipped his coffee. “I guess it’s tough to find places where folks can pick bluegrass all night without bothering someone.”

The camp host sighed. “Oddly enough, this actually used to be a pretty popular place with bluegrass pickers. The fellow who was the camp host some years ago was a real good picker, I hear. Played the banjo like a maniac, and sang real good too.”

“Well, where did he go? I would think this place would have caught on as a great place for a bluegrass campout!”, the jammer exclaimed.

“Oh, it was the durndest thing”, said the camp host. “One night, during one of the big jams, this fella walked away from the jam, to, uh, answer the call of nature, as they say. But he still had his banjo on, and he lost his balance, and fell into the river. The other pickers heard the splash, and they ran to help, but they never found the poor fellow. Come to think of it, that was 13 years ago, last night! What do you think of that?”

And he laughed and laughed.

Posted:  10/27/2010

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