The End of an Era

Patsy Stoneman Murphy, daughter of autoharpist/singer-songwriter Ernest “Pop” Stoneman, passed away Thursday, July 23 at the age of 90, marking the end of an era in autoharp history.

Last night I pulled out an article I wrote in 2005 about what must be Pop Stoneman’s most famous song, “The Sinking of the Titanic.”  After clarifying the writing some, I neatly laid it out in my page-design software in order to attach the article here so that those who never knew Patsy, her dad, or “The Titanic” could learn about them, along with supplying a little history about how badly “The Titanic’s” melody had morphed away from Pop’s original tune.

Patsy lived and breathed within the autoharp community, attending several rounds of the Mountain Laurel Autoharp Gathering.  Every year she came to MLAG, she would take a workshop hour telling the attendees about growing up in a traveling musical family during a time when the radio was coming of age.  I found her stories engaging, although I just plain didn’t know what the big deal was about her family until I got that fateful “crash course in Stoneman Family 101” in December 2005.  Now is a good time to describe that “course” in detail.

Patsy sat me down in her TV room/”awards museum” at the back of the house (shotgun next to the back door, thank you) and popped a DVD in the player to teach me about the Stoneman Family in its heyday.  They were on TV a lot, it turned out.  Maybe I did see them perform on the “Hee Haw” television show I craved.  I don’t know because on that program I lived for my heroine, Minnie Pearl.  (What more can one expect from a young, metro-NYC teen in the mid-60s who had just bought her first stringed instrument, a ukulele, with about eight dollars’ worth of pennies?  I still have the uke, by the way.)

What did I see and hear?  In short, talent, Talent, TALENT.  The boys could fiddle like mad.  Donna was so into dancing while playing hot mandolin that her shoes wore through the linoleum floor.  (She was eventually given a board to dance on to preserve the flooring.)  And Patsy?  My, I have never seen such fast guitar strumming in my life, before or since!  Suddenly, I understood why the Stoneman Family was such a big deal!  (It was a little embarrassing to be in the presence of these two great musicians, not knowing this).  My jaw was on the floor.  I wondered if Pop knew what he had begat in all his children!

That evening, Patsy drove Donna and I to a small jam session about an hour away.  At the tender age of 80, Patsy played her guitar more slowly, but I didn’t mind, now keenly aware of the amazing musician inside.

The jam ended late enough that it was clear I would not be returning to Chattanooga that evening.  We stopped at a franchise drug store to outfit me with a toothbrush.  (I’d shown up with only an autoharp in hand, where the gals expected all along that I would spend the night with them.)

The next morning, I took in yet another round of videos from the Stonemans’ TV years.  This family was more than a group of fabulous pickers, by the way: they were terrific at exchanging slapstick jokes between numbers, too.  I laughed at every joke so heartily that Patsy and Donna proclaimed me an “Honorary Stoneman.”  (You know, we can use more innocent humor like that.)  Patsy sent me back to Chattanooga with a couple Stoneman Family music CDs to remember them by.

Now back in Chattanooga, I donned my church-resource musician’s hat once more, but oh, how much richer I felt for having spent 24 hours with Patsy and Donna Stoneman in their world of music.

Last night over home-made pizza, my husband and I held a “Stoneman Festival” to celebrate Patsy’s life by listening to the two CDs she sent me home with.  The music brought back many fond memories of a wonderful visit with a very special lady and her sister.  Patsy, rest in peace.

Be sure to read the article for “the rest of the story.”