My poor little Mama had had enough to adjust to, with being uprooted from her home turf in rural Georgia to start a new life and a new family in the Pennsylvania Dutch city of York, Pa. Now, with two young children and one on the way (that would be me), she had the anxiety of dealing with having a Gypsy encampment right on the other side of the fence at the back of their small yard. She’d seen the horse drawn wagons of Gypsy caravans pass by Baxley, Georgia when she was a child, had heard from her mother that, as a people, they endorsed thievery as a life strategy. So she spent anxious hours watching to assure they didn’t steal her kids’ toys from the backyard, or worse still, steal her kids. I heard this story several times when I was growing up, though recently when I asked her about it, at the age of 90, it doesn’t seem to be one of the stories that stuck with her. It makes me wonder which stories that I’ve told my kids about my life will be the defining ones for them in spite of their being relatively insignificant stories in my own narrative.
But the gypsy stories intrigued me, partly because we as a people are always fascinated with gypsies, and because at those times when kids imagine running away from home, I had the alternative fantasy of wondering what my life might have been if those gypsies had kidnapped me (not that I think for a minute at this point in my life that those gypsies were looking for another mouth to feed).
Being a well-stirred genetic product of 250 years in the melting pot of America is a point of pride for me, but there have been times when I felt envious of others’ ethnicity. I have longed. at times, for the sense of identity and belonging to an intractable and distinct subculture that ethnicity allows and sometimes mandates, and no ethnicity embodies that sense of belonging, and the accompanying sense of estrangement from the surrounding culture, more than Gypsies. Nobody knows exactly how long gypsies have roamed Europe, and later America, but we do know now that their origins are in India, not Egypt as was first assumed, the assumption from which they got their collective name, and it’s a sign of their separation from the larger culture that they never felt the need to correct that assumption.
So there was a fantasy in mind as I worked on this mando. This is a mandolin sized version of the Bohemian mandocello that I made in the spring. It has a similar back carved from padauk and maple, a one piece neck with violin type scroll of big leaf maple, a maple fretboad (13 7/8″ scale) bound with bloodwood/ebony/holly/ebony, with green abalone markers, canted top of Alaskan Sitka, tortoise celluloid bindings with wood purflings, mahogany sides, padauk headstock overlay (of course!).
I called it Gypsy because it doesn’t strictly follow any tradition, but that all its elements are traditional ones conjured the thought that this could be a gypsy mandolin, unique and indifferent to popular culture, a mandolin that, on the night before a new migration, and the wagons were packed, Aunt Zora might bring out from its special place, tucked into a trunk full of colorful silk scarves, to play by the campfire while her daughters sang songs in whatever language that gypsies sing in, songs of their trials and triumphs.
Or, it could be plugged into a stack of Marshalls, and played with the great Gypsy-Punk band, Gogol Bordello.