A Fabulous Fable of Flutes
What It's All About Blog by Tony Forder
I was a young 18-year-old when I first tried to play a flute. A proper, silver flute that is. A friend of mine had previously turned me on to a Clarke’s tin whistle which seemed easy enough to get a passable noise out of.
It was 1973 and I was at Glastonbury, UK with a hippy bunch for the Summer Solstice; I had actually managed to graduate from high school that year before dropping out. I was to travel – hitchhiking the States shortly. We were living on a big bag of muesli that I had brought. That stuff sure makes you regular.
Anyways there was a gal – a big, broad gal, I seem to recall and she played a flute. A silver flute. We all tried it at some time or another amongst all the guitars, tambourines and other campfire instruments. I got a sound out of it right away and she was encouraging. “That’s pretty good. Not many people can do that first time. You should play.”
Well, I remembered what she said, and five years later when I had some $ – in the spirit of Vincent Van Gogh who said "I am always doing what I cannot do yet in order to learn how to do it" – I bought a flute. And ain't that What It's All About!
The reason I had some $ was that I had just finished the tobacco harvest in southern Ontario. The reason I bought the flute was that I was with my brother and he wanted to buy a guitar. We bought the instruments in a pawn shop in Toronto. I bought a camera too.
We hitchhiked the trans-Canadian with those instruments, and we played most nights under the stars – yes, the Northern Lights we saw, north of North Bay. In a Winnipeg city park we built an illegal fire and were busted by the cops. After they left, we burned the No Fires sign. And hitchhiking into Calgary we got a ride from a family in a Winnebago returning from a wedding. We played a soft song for them, something that came to be known to us as the Calgary Blues. They said we could sleep in the ‘Bago that night; after everyone was situated the son, the driver, came out and smoked some weed with us.
I didn’t know I had a bum flute – not until I got to California….which was the other side of winter. Hadn’t meant to happen that way, but somehow I got stranded in Calgary for the winter. Long story. Brother went home to England.
Spring I was moving again, heading south. Friends in the Bay Area. I guess I knew something was wrong with that flute ‘cuz I couldn’t seem to get to the next level or whatever. I didn’t really know about flutes; maybe it had been broken on my watch, I don’t know, but someone pointed out a flaw and I started looking to fix it. I heard of a guy named Dana Morgan who had a music shop in Palo Alto. Turned out, Jerry Garcia had worked there – cool! Now, this flute was not the best in the world, Dana knew that, and it was broken in one place pretty bad. But for Dana it was a challenge – to see if he could fix it. He did it by basically redesigning the piece, or at least the placement of the springs.
I don’t remember what happened to that flute. I played it a lot, even took a music class in community college, learning some basic keys, although I never did learn how to read music. I used to take the flute backpacking – until I got tired of carrying the weight, then I switched to a penny whistle. I liked to play in nature – so quiet, the notes would go out forever...over a mountain lake, or bouncing off a rock wall.
The best place I ever played was Lake Powell, nothing but water and rock canyons. There were some amazing echoes to be had. I could play a note and bounce it off the canyon wall which would be bounced to the opposite wall and back again – the original note plus two echoes. It was like jamming with other flutes, nature. For a few years there in the 1980s Lake Powell became a regular gathering for our circle of friends – well, at least three or four times anyway – before the water dropped so far becoming less fresh, more murky and the traffic increased, with jet skis, the bane of the Lake.
It was quite a discovery – after September the best time. Nothing to do but drift around on the houseboat grokking the beautiful sculpted walls – an observer in nature’s own workshop.
I took a saxophone one time – I was looking after it for friend. Talk about echoes – it was louder than the flute, but I was even less proficient. One time we found ourselves in a dead end, a natural amphitheater. Somebody said, get the sax. We cut the engines. I went topside, everyone waited expectantly, but the note I produced sounded more like a wet fart than alto sax. Everyone cracked up – one of those acid moments.
Anyways, I eventually inherited another flute, actually before the first was retired from its banged up existence. It had originally been a bit of a peace offering to my wife, for certain transgressions. I had managed to talk my father back in England into giving me some bucks for my studies. I had reasoned that he had contributed to my brother’s university education, why should he not do the same for me – even if I had spent 10 years since high school “gadding about,” his words – I called it life education.
So I bought the wife the flute a real sliver one – a Gemeinhardt, not a nickel one – at a garage sale for $150. She was going to take some music classes, but she never really played it that consistently and eventually, by osmosis, it became mine. I played it here and there, mostly at outdoor gatherings, chiming in with a few notes among guitars. Sometimes I played solo, away from the group, wafting notes in on the wind. I’ve been on stage a few times, with either the penny whistle or the flute. I recently played with a Didgeridoo player which was pretty cool. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but people seem to like it sometimes.
The Gemeinhardt kind of fell into disrepair too – falling off a dresser kind of sent it over the edge. Now, it definitely needed work. I was living now on the East Coast and I found a craftsman in Union City, NJ – Renaldo who took care of it for less than $100, and I had new incentive to play. He fixed up a friend of mine's flute too.
Bye and bye another flute appeared, this one sent to me by friend Woody. He said he found it at a garage sale in Seattle. He wouldn't accept money for it. It sounded better than the Gemeinhardt. I started to play more. At the Mondial de la biere festival in Montreal, I gave a workshop interpreting beer with flute and haiku poetry. I jumped on stage a few more places – Rio for one. Started going to Open Mike nights with my friend Al. Around the campfire, even my friends said I had gotten better.
Flutes need maintenance, and eventually I was back at Renaldo's, or I should say Pastore Music in Union City. I became even more impressed with his work. I had thought he was Spanish or Portuguese, but actually he was Italian. Sometimes it would take him a while to get to my flutes. Touring musicians – professionals – if they had a problem, they would go to him for emergency repairs. I was curious what a microphone and amp would set me back, so I played around with a setup in the shop. It sounded pretty good. The sales kid videoed me playing through a Street Cube portable amp. Posted it on Instagram. It was a pretty good sales tactic. I put a deposit down there and then.
I joked that this could come in handy as pretty soon I may be playing on the street. So far that hasn't come to fruition, but the flute journey continues. And ain't that What It's All About!