I took up the Irish tin whistle late in life but why not—better than taking it up early, as I probably would have driven away most of my friends by now. However, they are accustomed to anything by now, and would not stop dropping in merely because of attempts at “Shibeg and Shemoor” or “The Fool’s Jig,” the shrieking noises from the window.
I was raised in a very musical family. I’m from the Ozarks. My mother and her sisters sang and played guitar, my sister and I sang with them, my grandfather played banjo and could sing well, and he taught me to dance the schottische. This was in the kitchen near a woodstove and across a linoleum floor in a pattern of squares I can see now quite plainly and I remember the splendid feeling of having him all to myself, mine mine! I was the center of attention and the Queen of Dance, Polly of All the Highlands. So that lasted about thirty minutes until all the others came blundering in, laughing and talking, and my schottische is faulty to this day. My mother taught me a reel step, which is different from a jig step, and not many people know this. One who does is Tom, the fiddler in the group I play with. At one performance somebody in the group asked me to step-dance to a certain piece and I said it was a jig and I couldn’t do it. That what I knew was a reel step and it was different and Tom said, “Exactly, exactly.”
Writing is without any inherent reward other than what might be called solely intellectual; there is no sensual input whatever except in the imagination, nor is there an immediate reward of applause or approval. Writing is unique in this sense. Even with the visual or graphic arts there is color or form as the artist works, even though the labor is solitary. And of course theater, film, music, and all the collaborative arts are immediately rewarding; a good rehearsal, a long practice over a certain piece of music, being with other people, technical challenges, and then finally a performance and the delighted faces in the audience, is a gold piece laid in the hand. With writing it is all in your head, and the response from readers or an editor is far in the future—so it demands, much more than the other arts, that it be its own reward. There is very little that is technical. Shakespeare wrote his plays with a quill pen and a candle and if necessary writers could do it again. Like playing a pennywhistle, it is a low-tech occupation. People are often concerned that I am alone so much.
Yes, but I am living with 25 characters, and the fall of empires, and battles, and intimate scenes of love and betray and longing, all by myself.
And if you interrupt me I will kill you.
So I took up the Irish tin whistle because I love producing music (not just consuming it), making music, learning about music, and being with other people who have set about doing something. I step out of solitude. I was lucky that my ear was trained at a very early age, and although I am not half as good as the others in my little bluegrass gospel band (we are called Pickin’ On The Porch) it doesn’t matter. I will get better. I sing alto when there’s no call for the whistle. At rehearsal our leader, Chuck, will come up with something and say, “Paulette, can you tootle your tootler on this one?” Well, maybe, let’s go through it. If it is in a minor key, no, if it has too many flats and sharps, the whistle doesn’t have them. Can we do it in C? Tom the fiddler says, yes, let’s try it in C, Diane, can you transpose this? And if the whistle won’t work, then I can work out the alto with Kim, who has a brilliant voice and a faultless ear. I have a D whistle and a C whistle but often I can pick up other keys. It is a joy to be at a rehearsal when people start creeping note by note through something like A Long Time Traveling by the Wailin’ Jennies, staring at each other, groping around for the harmony, and finally, after an hour, coming up with something performable. We could do Amazing Grace standing on our heads, and besides, there’s a score.
Producing music is good for you. Being part of a little local group that produces it is what you might call my social life, that and the horses. I refuse to complain about the present generation which only consumes high-tech music; does not produce it, doesn’t know how, is not interested.
It is wonderful to make an audience laugh and forget their troubles for a while. When Tom and Chuck start ripping on the mandolin and fiddle the rest of us just stand back and watch. Certain areas of the brain are ignited that have lain long dormant and ignored like a redheaded stepchild, synapses spark, fire-balloons rise, people are taken out of themselves. No need to bring up the dismal failures and barely audible groans; we will leave that aside. I will not mention snoring noises from the last row. The audience is briefly without distinctions and have become elements in song, and they have escaped from the everyday and so have we.
And so my whistles reside in their stone jar, the C whistle and the high D and the big low D which I have not yet mastered. They shine like silent soprano melodies, waiting to be picked up. In them reside countless songs from many ages, maybe back as far as the Paleolithic, songs I have not yet learned. And I have even begun to think of them as characters in a story. A lone player wandering in a dystopian world, among the ruins, spinning out melodies like temple bells to call people back to their true hearts, their true songs.
Paulette Jiles is the New York Times bestselling author of Enemy Women and The Color of Lightening. Her latest novel, News of the World went on sale October 4, and is a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives on a small ranch outside San Antonio, Texas.