Some years back, my friend Harp died during heart surgery. He was only dead for a while because the doctors miraculously brought the old Cracker back to life, but not before he was visited by three men in long white robes who came out of the mist and said it wasn’t his time. They told him to go back and do two things: 1) Be as kind to people as you possibly can be. 2) Put all the fiddles in the right hands.
This might make more sense if you know that Harp loved Bluegrass music and liked to trade and collect fiddles of every kind.
I always knew Harp to be a gentle soul, although it was clear that he must have lost some capacity, sometimes showing up with his sneakers on the wrong feet. Still, I never knew anyone who was as kind to people as Harp was long before meeting those three men in the mist.
Harp drove an old wide-bodied pick-up truck with a topper that he kept locked. That’s because the back of the truck was full of fiddles. He traveled far and wide, making deals and trades. I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. He spoke of those three men often and took what they had said very seriously. But I couldn’t help wondering if Harp had bought into some kind of fantasy about the whole thing.
One day, I was having lunch with a friend who mentioned that her daughter was considering signing up for the violin class at school. The girl would have to get her own instrument and since she didn’t yet know how to play, my friend was hesitant about how much to invest in a violin. It occurred to me that Harp might be willing to rent her one of his.
When I spoke to him, he quickly agreed but insisted on not taking a penny for it. So, he handed me a case and I gave it to my friend, whose daughter brought it to violin class. About a week later, my friend called with great concern in her voice. Her daughter’s teacher, having noticed the unusual tone and timber of the instrument, had wondered where she got the violin. The girl told the teacher she had borrowed it. He was skeptical.
“Someone lent it to you?’ the teacher asked.
“It’s a Stradivarius,” he said.
My friend was more than a little surprised and so was I. Harp had a Stradivarius? I was suddenly concerned about whether Harp realized what it was. I called him.
“Why, shoot, Miss Mary, I know it’s a Stradivarius.”
“Aren’t you concerned?”
“Why should I be concerned? I’m putting all the fiddles in the right hands?”
My friend’s daughter used the violin until the end of the school year when she graduated, then returned it, and Harp put it back in the old truck. A few months later, he was off again on one of his Nashville runs. There was a man he had to see there. Turns out that the man he had to see was a headliner, a legend in the world of Bluegrass. Harp showed up at the theater where this music star was appearing and asked to see him after the show.
“Sorry,” said one of the handlers, “we don’t let people come back. He doesn’t see anyone.”
“He’ll want to see me,” said Harp with a lilt in his voice. “I have something here that he needs.”
The man eyed Harp curiously, then told him to wait. He returned a few minutes later and walked Harp back to the dressing room.
“I’ve got something for you,” Harp told the musician.
“Sorry, I’m not buying anything.”
“That’s good,” said Harp, “because this isn’t for sale.” He opened the case and showed him the valuable antique fiddle he’d brought with him from Florida. “I want to let you have this to play for a while.”
The musician picked up the fiddle and played, dazzled by the tone of the instrument.
“I had a feeling you’d like it,” said Harp. The musician played that fiddle on tour for more than two years before Harp returned to Nashville to pick it up.
“I’d like to buy it from you,” said the musician.
“Oh, no,” said Harp. “I got to keep passing my fiddles on.” And that’s what Harp did. He passed his fiddles on and on, legendary instruments like the Man Claudiu, which he once let a Philharmonic First Violinist use for over a year. Harp had to be one heck of a trader because we all knew him to be a person of modest means, not the kind you’d need for this particular enterprise.
People often chided Harp, having no idea what he carried around locked up in the back of that old beat up truck of his. Even his family humored him. I can only imagine how surprised they all were after those three men in the mist finally beckoned Harp to come along with them.