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Turkey in the Straw
Turkey in the Straw
Oil on Canvas
70" x 84"

As a kid, I knew the ice cream truck was just around the bend when I heard this melody a playin'! While watching Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings, this tune played as the cartoon characters' slapstick antics had me in stitches. Such are my fond memories associated with this tune!

Like so many of the Old Time tunes that I loved as a child and I depict in my Old Time paintings, I did not know anything about Old Time music as a kid growing up in New England, being far removed from the sources of this music. It wasn't until years after I moved to North Carolina that I encountered this tune as an Old Time piece. Upon further investigation, I learned that it has a long history that is mysterious and mixed. I don't think anyone really can say for certain where this melody originated, but one possible source is from the melody of a minstrel song, pejoratively titled--pardon me!--"Zip Coon." Another comes from Alan Jabbour, a fantastic fiddler, field recorder, and researcher of Old Time music. He suggests that its melody bears a strong resemblance to an English/Scottish/Irish ballad known as "The Old Rose Tree." All kinds of lyrics for this melody have evolved since those early days, further muddying the waters.

I based my painting on a great story recorded by Alan Jabbour, as told by the late Burl Hammons, a West Virginia fiddler and banjoist. He said that he had a vision as a child that a "skeleton of a man" entered his bedroom with a fiddle, and for a while just stood there, before playing the best version of "Turkey in the Straw" that he had ever heard. After telling his story, Burl played this version of "Turkey in the Straw" for the recording.

There are also other references in my painting: one from Holbein's "Dance of Death," particularly the image of a young maiden meeting a skeleton--the personification of death throughout the series, and a second from negative associations of fiddling as evil. Fiddling provoked people to dance. Devout Western Europeans and Americans thought dancing very evil because they saw it as lascivious and as encouraging drinking and idleness. I also refer to "Vanitas" and "Memento Mori" themes of still life painting and figurative paintings such as Bocklin's self-portrait with a skeleton standing behind him fiddling.

I didn't want to dismiss Burl Hammon's vision as a fictive dream, but on the other hand it might have been; I try to communicate my ambivalence by animating the skeleton and then denying its animation. It appears to be standing and playing the fiddle, but upon closer inspection, the viewer sees the stand that holds it up.