During the 1870s, William Murphy of Greenville, S. C., wandered through these mountains making music every day. He, like Stephen Foster, was regarded as a half-vagabond, but he was tolerated for the pleasure his enchanted violin gave whenever he drew his magic bow across its strings.
There can be little doubt that men of his genius feel the indifference and neglect of their contemporaries; and it may be that, from their Calvaries of poverty, they, too, realize that we know not what we do. For to them the making of music is their sole mission here upon earth, and come poverty, obscurity or death, ay, come even disgrace and obloquy, they, like Martin Luther at Worms, “can do no otherwise, God helping them.”
Indeed, it is the highest form of worship, and David’s Psalms still live while all the Ptolemies of the past have been forgotten. Foster’s songs are linking earth to heaven more and more as time goes on, and will be sung for eons and for eons. There can be no higher destiny than that a man should pour out his full soul in strains of haunting melody; and though Stephen Foster be dead and “the lark become a sightless song,” the legacy he has left behind him is more priceless and more bountiful than those of the builders of the pyramids or the conquests of Napoleon and Alexander.
Murphy, too, is dead, but while he lived, like the grasshopper “beating his tiny cymbals in the sun,” he poured forth those matchless orisons that none who ever heard them can soon forget. For, while he was not a creator, he was the slave and seneschal of the masters who have left their melodies behind them for the ravishment of a money-mad and sordid world.
And when he drew his magic bow across his violin’s sentient strings, his genius thence evoked sweet strains formed with soul to all who had the heart to comprehend their message and their meaning.
Was it a jig or waltz or stately minuet? One’s feet moved rhythmically to the “sweet melodic phrase.” Was it dirge, lament or lovelorn lilt? One saw again the hearse-plumes nod, sobbed out his heart with pallid Jeane, or caught the note of bonny bird Blythe fluting by the Doon. Was it martial air or battle-hymn? Then, once again, came forth the bagpipe’s skirl, the pibroch’s wail, “what time the plaided clans came down to battle with Montrose.” Again, with change of air, there dawned once more that “reddest day in history, when Pickett’s legions, undismayed, leapt forth to ruin’s red embrace.”
But best, ah, far, far best of all, was that wonder-woven race his fine dramatic instinct had translated into song, in which the section-riven days of ‘Sixty-One were conjured back again from out their graves and ghostly cerements, and masqueraded full of life and hate and jealousy. For then we saw, as if by magic, the mighty racer, Black Hawk, typifying the North, and his unconquerable rival, Gray Eagle, the steel-sinewed champion of the South, start once again on that matchless contest on the turf at Louisville.
We heard again the wild, divided concourse cheer its favorite steed along the track, and saw the straining stallions, foam-flecked with sweat—now neck and neck, then one ahead, but soon overtaken, and both flying side by side again, their flame-shot nostrils dripping blood—till Gray Hawk, spent, but in the lead, dropped dead an inch without the goal, his great heart broken, as the South’s was doomed to be a few years thence, when
Men saw a gray gigantic ghost
Receding through the battle-cloud
And head across the tempest loud
The death-cry of a nation lost!
‘A Wandering Minstrel He’ from “Western North Carolina: A History, 1730- 1913,” by John Preston Arthur, 1914, Raleigh, N.C., Edwards & Broughton Printing Co.