Thursday, February 16, 2012

Editor’s Note: Sharon Mescher of Halbur submitted the following review of a doctoral thesis titled “The Mescher Bones Playing Tradition: Syncopations on the American Landscape,” written by Dr. Mel Mercier, music department head at the University of Cork City, Cork, Ireland. Sharon is the wife of Jerry Mescher, who along with his dad and other family are subjects of the piece.

In 2001, Sharon and Jerry Mescher attended a bones fest in Chattanooga, Tenn. At that fest, they met Mel Mercier, a professor of music at the University of Cork, Cork, Ireland. He was a one-handed bones player and became enthralled with Jerry’s two-handed style of bones playing. He listened at length to Jerry’s stories about life on the farm and his music.

After returning to Ireland, Mel decided that the focus of his doctoral dissertation would be Jerry Mescher’s story and his style of bones-playing.

In January of 2006, Mel and Maura Mercier traveled to the U.S. One of the purposes of this trip was to spend one week taping and interviewing Jerry Mescher. For that week the Meschers and Merciers visited and entertained one another with many stories. When the Mercier’s left the U.S, they not only had a wealth of information for a doctoral dissertation; they had formed a close friendship with the Meschers.

The culmination of this 10-year story is Dr. Mel Mercier’s doctoral dissertation … and a friendship to last a lifetime.

———

In 2001, Sharon and Jerry Mescher attended a bones fest in Chattanooga, Tenn. At that fest, they met Mel Mercier, a professor of music at the University of Cork, Cork, Ireland. He was a one-handed bones player and became enthralled with Jerry’s two-handed style of bones playing. He listened at length to Jerry’s stories about life on the farm and his music.

After returning to Ireland, Mel decided that the focus of his doctoral dissertation would be Jerry Mescher’s story and his style of bones-playing.

In January of 2006, Mel and Maura Mercier traveled to the U.S. One of the purposes of this trip was to spend one week taping and interviewing Jerry Mescher. For that week the Meschers and Merciers visited and entertained one another with many stories. When the Mercier’s left the U.S, they not only had a wealth of information for a doctoral dissertation; they had formed a close friendship with the Meschers.

The culmination of this 10-year story is Dr. Mel Mercier’s doctoral dissertation … and a friendship to last a lifetime.

———

A 394-page doctoral thesis about the bones? Aren’t the bones just a percussion instrument? What could be said or written about this ancient instrument? Are not the bones simply four pieces of wood which are held between the fingers and used to keep time with music? Dr. Mel Mercier, head of the University of Cork City music department in Cork, Ireland, would probably respond with a resounding, “Oh, no! There is so much more!”

In August of 2011, Sharon and Jerry Mescher traveled to Ireland and attended Mel Mercier’s doctoral graduation. The trip was a dream-come-true. The core emphasis of Mercier’s doctoral thesis revolves around Jerry Mescher of Halbur, Iowa, and his particular and infectious style of playing bones. The thesis also delves into the Mescher family history.

To understand the breadth of Mercier’s thesis, here are five of the subjects highlighted within this masterpiece:

— Surveying and mapping the American colonies.

— Settling of the West.

— History of German immigrants settling Carroll County, Iowa.

— Importance of the parlor, the room in which families socialized and made their own entertainment.

— Interweaving of America’s history with the Meschers’ story.

At the heart of this thesis is a comparison of two intersecting topics: the ethics of hard work on the Mescher farm and the making of music in the parlor.

An author that Mercier quoted in his thesis wrote that while “well-read men who understood the theories of geography” may have directed the colonial project, “people much less literate and far more traditional actually shaped the land.” One group of people who shaped the American landscape was the German immigrants. They were dedicated to “precision and orderliness, well-maintained machinery and buildings” and kept their farms clean and tidy. To the German immigrants, clutter would most certainly “spoil the farmscape.”

One German family who immigrated to America was the Meschers. At age 12, Jerry’s grandfather, Fred Mescher, immigrated to America with his family in 1892. After marrying, Fred settled in Carroll County, Iowa, and began farming and raising a family. He passed on his perfectionist, meticulous, hard-working ethics to his son Albert. In turn, Albert passed on these same work ethics to his son Jerry.

According to Jerry, Albert was extremely particular in his work. For example, every row of corn had to be straight. It had to be so straight that it looked “like you shot a bullet over every stalk.”  Jerry also remembers that when they raised hogs, “not only did they clean every hog pen every night,” they also wiped each and every pig’s butt from the day they were born until the very day they were shipped off to market.

When Jerry and Albert worked together outside, there was no question that Albert was in control of all the farming decisions. Jerry learned early that Albert believed no one else could do the work as well as he could.

“Outdoors, on the land, the relationship was more dissonant, and father and son found it hard to pull together.”

Jerry’s ideas on how to make the farm more efficient fell on deaf ears. Nonetheless, Jerry admits today that “I am built like my father.”

Albert’s perfectionist farm ethics carried over into his musical life. In the family home there was a parlor.

“The parlor was common in rural homes by the end of the 19th century. It was often furnished with plush furniture, oil paintings and heavy curtains, all of which served to construct the parlor as a sanctuary.”

This special room shielded the family “from the miseries of the work.”   

As a young boy, the parlor became Albert’s haven from the strenuous and ever-present farm work. In that room he taught himself to play the mouth harp, the accordion, and the bones — all accompanied by the player piano.

It was at this piano that Albert created his first bones arrangements. He did not have a teacher; he was not only the student; he was the teacher. As he played the piano rolls and listened to the music, he would keep time with his bones. Listening to the music on the player piano, he created different rhythm patterns that fit each measure of each piece of music.

As a child, Jerry sat in the parlor and watched his father play the bones along with the player piano. Albert would sit trance-like while holding his ebony bones out to the sides.

Jerry was inspired by his father’s bones-playing and took every opportunity to practice on his own. Initially, as Jerry practiced and practiced, he received very little encouragement from his father. This did not deter Jerry. He contends that once Albert realized he was serious about being a bones player Albert “invited his son into the parlor and began to share with him his relationship with music.”

The discordant relationship of working on the farm disappeared between the father and son once they entered the “sacred space that was the Mescher parlor.” In the parlor, they “were transported to another world.” They were now a team and had the opportunity to play together for about 12 years.

After Albert passed away, Jerry purchased the family farm. He had watched and learned from his father and strived toward perfection and exact detailing in his work. Before adding any new building to the property, Jerry would fly his plane over the farm and decide on the best building site. As Jerry describes it, the buildings “are all aligned due north and south and look square with the world.”

One might think that Albert’s legacy of playing the bones stopped when he passed away. No, it did not. Jerry continued to carry on by himself, always wishing that he could pass this talent on to others. Eventually, his sister, Bernie Worrell began to play and teamed up with Jerry. Then, Jerry’s wife, Sharon, learned to play the bones and teamed up with them. Now, whenever logistically possible, the three play for several music festivals. Jerry and Sharon enjoy traveling and playing for service and civic organizations. As the Meschers know, without Jerry there would be no story.

Fortunately, the story does not end with the Meschers or Mericier’s dissertation.

Jerry’s desire to pass his talent on to younger people was realized in 2010. At the Le Mars Country Music Festival, a young boy named Joseph Kooi attended the Meschers’ bones workshop. Joseph took home a set of bones. At the 2011 festival this extremely talented young musician performed. The Meschers were shocked, amazed and thrilled to witness his accomplishments in one year. Indeed, the legacy of the Mescher bones-playing style had been passed on to another generation.

Thank you, Dr. Mel Mercier of Ireland for bringing such life and vibrancy to one American story born in a parlor in Iowa.