The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 11

Feature
Carthy Sisco’s Rugged Road: Fiddling through the Hard Times
By Jeanie Murphy
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Carthy at his 87th birthday party. Photo: Robin Wilson

In 1987 I met Carthy Sisco at a Washington Old Time Fiddlers’ Christmas party. A thin, small-framed man, somewhat reticent until I got to know him later, Carthy started in on his fiddle, and I found myself playing banjo behind a cascade of bouncing, shuffling notes that had a rhythmic economy, transforming familiar tunes in new and wonderful ways. Besides standards like “St. Anne’s Reel” and “Whiskey before Breakfast,” Carthy seemed to have an endless supply of tunes I’d never heard before—wild gallops in G that had me going up and down most of the banjo neck to find the notes, punchy rags in C, squirrelly little D tunes that seemed to fold in on themselves, including one that started in F and then went to D (Ron Hughey’s “F and D”), others entirely in F, others in B flat. I couldn’t make anything of his waltzes at that time, some lugubrious, others with (for me) bewildering shifts of key.

Local fiddler, guitarist, and proponent of West Virginia tunes (originally from that state) Jim Ketterman had been playing with Carthy for some time. I began playing pretty regularly with Jim and Carthy, driving over to the small house in the woods of Gig Harbor, where Carthy and his wife, Mary Beth, had moved in 1974. It’s old Craftsman style, painted a bright yellow, surrounded by lush forest but with a broad expanse of lawn, which Carthy always keeps trimmed. Mary Beth passed away in 2005.

We would always go into the music room, where fiddle contest trophies, stacks of tapes, Mary Lou’s considerable science fiction collection, and instruments, some made by Carthy, all jostled up against one another. A wall was dedicated to a huge bank of music appliances, including a reel-to-reel tape player and turntable for an astounding collection of LPs, 78s, and tapes. (CDs are now creeping in as well.) Carthy is always learning new tunes, mostly from this extensive library.

 

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