Author: Campbell, Bruce

The Last Mandolin

A long time ago in his work shop far away, a master luthier of mandolins and his wife stood over their workbench. It was late at night and this was a very special day. He had built many mandolins over the years and earned a reputation as the best of the best. Musicians from around the country respected his work as a true artist of the trade. Tonight was his finest hour. He had just finished building his last mandolin. The luthier and his wife admired their new born instrument in silence for what seemed like an eternity. It’s “birth” tonight was not only his proudest creation but marked the end of an era, his era. The glow from a single light bulb hanging over the workbench reflected back against the perfect finish of the wood. The new strings sparkled and with even the slightest touch yielded a bright cry of perfect tuning. This moment represented a lifetime of perfecting his art. The tone wood and his special wood working tools for this project spoke to him in a way only an artist could hear. He held the last mandolin later that night for hours by the fireplace as carefully as a father would hold a child.

Although his luthier skills were his primary talent, he had learned to play the mandolin with a touch and cadence as fine as anyone in the bluegrass community. He had the delight of showing his fine instruments at every possible opportunity and often joined bluegrass jams or sat in as a guest performer on stage. He never hesitated to hand over his instrument to anyone who wanted to play it. His reputation was legendary and had become his calling card.

The many years of his life had caught up with the luthier. It was time to hang up his tools and accept that he was no longer able to do what he loved so dearly. His eye sight had slowly failed these past few years making his work slow and tedious. His fingers had become curled in pain from old age and so many hours of work that he seldom played music any more. This last mandolin had taken much longer to build, partly because it was to be his finest creation but mostly because it was so difficult for him now. It had become his sole project over the last few years as he obsessed over every detail.

He took this last mandolin with him to a few jams and festivals but it was with mixed emotions. It was so hard for him to play now and although he could easily sell this last instrument he couldn’t part with it. It was after all the last mandolin.

One night later that year he passed away in his sleep. His wife had become too old to take care of herself alone and moved in with family. Many of their possessions were sold or went into storage. Her thoughts were often of the past but those memories began to fade with age. In her weak health and sorrow she somehow failed to tell the family how significant this mandolin was. No one in her new home played an instrument. The young family cared for her and had a busy “modern” life of city jobs and young children. Music just wasn’t part of their life. So the mandolin was simply tucked away in its’ case and there it stayed. A few years later the luthier’s wife passed quietly away. In her final years she had forgotten about the last mandolin. Her new family had focused on the present and rarely spoke of the past to avoid upsetting her. The mandolin case was occasionally seen in one room of the house or another but eventually ended up in the garage. Cold, wet winters and dry, hot summers attacked the case but the last mandolin remained safe and sound inside. Eventually the case belied its’ contents. The case had become faded and cracked. The case handle was frayed and the hinges were rusted but inside the case the last mandolin was pristine as if in a special time capsule.

The instrument remained completely unnoticed for some time. The family had no idea of its significance or value and eventually sold it during a garage sale. A young man who bought it played some guitar and thought it might be fun to learn the mandolin. He had never taken mandolin lessons or learned to flat pick so the mandolin didn’t get much play time. The treasure went back into its worn case and back into some corner of a room only to be forgotten until it was eventually sold again and again, passing from novice to novice. Not one of the transient owners ever suspected the significance of the instrument.

This last mandolin slept in quiet darkness for what seemed like an eternity. It was on an orphan journey. Everybody it met, seemed to be a rank stranger. No Mother or Dad, not a friend could it see. Was this its destiny? To be obscure? To be lost? To be silent? It was like a bird in such a small cage unable to spread its wings for so long that it stopped singing, no longer free.

Decades passed. The present owner almost never played the mandolin and decided to sell it. There was a local bluegrass festival occurring and he thought that might be a good place to find a buyer. If he could just get his few hundred dollar purchase price back he’d be happy. He placed the old case open next to his lawn chair at the festival. A small “for sale” sign was taped to the top of the case. A stranger passing by decided to look at it simply out of curiosity. The case was open. The closer he got to it the faster his heart began to beat. He knelt down next to the case as near as he could get and the entire world around him seemed to stop. He was speechless, lightheaded and gasped for air. This moment somehow went unnoticed by those around him. How was this possible? Couldn’t they hear his pounding heart? He didn’t remember running back to his family camp site but he was there now. They saw his expression but couldn’t understand him at first. He whispered into his daughters’ ear. She was right in the middle of playing a Bill Monroe song with friends in a jam. Although only eighteen years of age, she had become an accomplished bluegrass mandolin musician with the singing voice of an angel. Her great grandfather had been a legend in the bluegrass community. Playing the music he loved gave a connection to the great grandfather she had never known. The words her Dad had just spoken to her seemed so urgent. He had never interrupted her during a mandolin break before. “Please come with me now” he insisted. “Hurry”.

The minutes that followed were a blur. Money exchanged hands with hardly a word spoken. The tattered case and the precious contents were taken back to their camp. Everyone sat around them silently watching as the case opened and the perfect mandolin was lifted out. They all knew now that the legend was really true. Three generations of stories had been told for so long now. Stories of a great luthier in their family who’s final work had been lost many years ago. Tears of joy flowed down her cheeks. She sobbed as family and friends stood transfixed on the emotional scene. Fate or maybe destiny had brought her great grandfathers’ last work back to them. As the result of a chance discovery, the last mandolin was back with family.

A large crowd had begun to form as word passed from person to person, campsite to campsite. Soon the tears turned to laughter and joy. Someone began playing a classic bluegrass tune and others joined in. The circle of musicians grew larger and even with so many instruments playing there was one that stood out above all others. The mandolin notes seemed to burst forth with such clarity and power. Her mando breaks ran like a wild stallion in an open field. The air was charged with electricity. Everyone knew they were finally able to pay tribute to the craftsman whose final project was to build this masterpiece.

The last mandolin had come home.
Posted:  6/20/2011

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