It had been awhile since I’d visited the Pickens Flea Market. I had visited once since returning from the west coast, and at that time I didn’t play with the musicians circle. I figured Halloween would be as good a day as any to pay another visit, and this time I was loaded with guitar, banjo, melodica, and tin whistles.
I didn’t get as early a start as I might a few weeks ago. This week before the time changes it is quite dark in the morning, so I took my time. When I did arrive, things were in full swing, but I found a place to park with no problem. I headed in, leaving the instruments in the car for the time being.
I stopped by the musicians circle first. There I found a macabre memorial to the late Robert Perry, fit for Halloween. It was a 2-foot tall skeleton wearing Robert’s iconic hat and and overalls, playing a miniature washtub bass. I tried to get a photo, but as I was getting in position for the picture Sharon came over to chat, so I missed the shot. I told Sharon that I had my banjo and would be back after shopping a bit.
I wandered through the tables seeing pretty much the same things I’d seen on my many previous visits. I did spot an oblong tune book entitled “The Temple Star.” It was a shaped note book from 1886 with some old folk tunes, and not the same hymns from Sacred Harp and Christian Harmony. Of course I added it to my collection, but more on that in a later post.
There are always folks of differing religious and political persuasions at the market. Some I find quite offensive, but I keep moving. However, I spotted one and I just had to get more information.
Among other off-beat ideas, including something about an “Anti-Holocaust Children’s Museum”…
…the vendor claimed to have actual DNA from Jesus.
You could buy a $20, $50, or $75 bottle of the “DNA”, really just a bit of dirt.
It even comes with a certificate of authenticity.
I had to know more, so, with my audio recording running, I asked the guy about the DNA Dirt. He leaned in closely and told me that it was all a scam. He said that the dirt was purchased from Home Depot, but since God is omnipresent, Jesus’s DNA must be in there somewhere.
I asked him if he’d had any takers, and he claimed it a matter of client confidentiality. He claimed at the entire outrageous display was just a Halloween joke. It seemed quite elaborate (and fairly permanent) for a joke.
His intent was to stir things up. And that he did. I got a sample of that just as I was about to walk away. A man walked up and said, “It says here that Arabs are the descendants of Jacob, not the freaking Jews. I know around here they love the Jews….They’re going to destroy this world.”
The guy’s point seemed to be that since Jesus’s DNA was from Palestine, then Jesus couldn’t be a Jew, and that all Jews were evil and out to destroy the world. Faulty logic at its worst, based on a scam.
Given recent news this was particularly egregious. Just the night before I’d attended a memorial vigil for victims of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh.
As for the vendor, I think he got more than he bargained for. The racist rant continued, “Don’t tell me YOU’RE a Jew!…” He then took offense that the whole setup was meant as a joke.
I do have audio, but I’m not going to post it here. Had this guy unloaded on an unwitting victim, I might have been tempted to get involved by recording the idiot and making a bigger deal about exposing him. Since the vendor was trying to stir up trouble, I didn’t stick around any longer. I wasn’t interested in the outcome of that particular dispute. I’d had enough of both of them.
By this time I’d had enough of the junk tables, as well. I decided it was time to play some music. As I headed back across the market I also encountered a couple of cool vehicles.
Not far from the musicians circle is a vendor that usually has one or two interesting instruments. I decided to stop by there on my way. Today he had a banjo that was cobbled together from parts of a 1940s era Gibson, or perhaps several Gibsons. It wasn’t entirely clear. Despite the unclear provenance, he wanted nearly $1000 for it. Even so, I thought it might be fun to play. However, before I could even give it a try, a somewhat drunk dude grabbed it and started playing…very poorly. I didn’t get to play it, but at least I got an interesting photo.
Eventually I made it back to the circle, but just stood on the fringe. A guitar player who is one of the regulars turned to me and said, “I thought you were coming back with your banjo!” I was surprise, because I’d only mentioned it to Sharon. I had no choice now. I headed back to the car and got not just the banjo but all of the instruments I’d brought with me.
I started with banjo since there were already so many guitars. Apparently my playing has improved significantly while I was out west. Either that, or I’ve just gained more confidence. To me, these old songs were super simple, and I even knocked out a few melodies in clawhammer. It used to be that I could only manage in the key of G, but now I was switching keys without needing a capo. I felt pretty good about it. Every now and then I’d pick up the melodica to fill in melody on an old hymn.
The music continued like this for about an hour, then the other players started to then out. Since I’d gotten here late, I wasn’t quite done. A guy who had been playing banjo earlier switched to guitar, and soon it was just the two of us. He introduced himself as Phil Cheney, not only a musician but also an independent write-in candidate for Governor of South Carolina. It turns out that we had quite a bit in common. He sings in a men’s chorus and also enjoys shape-note singing. We played several duets of old shape-note hymns standing under the shed, including “How Firm a Foundation” and “Holy Manna.” I played the melody on clawhammer and he strummed the rhythm.
Another guitarist joined us. Phil introduced him as Jack Ellenburg, a name I recognized from Facebook through mutual friends. Turns out that Jack isn’t just a well-known musician in the region, but also a distant relative. One branch of our Ellenberg family moved to Pickens County and changed the “e” to “u”. Jack and I trace our ancestry back to William Watson Ellenberg of Greenwood County.
I should have known Jack and I were related, just from his choice of footwear. He was wearing Merrells without socks, which is what I usually wear.
Jack joined Phil and me and the three of us played several old tunes, including some blues. We sat back down and Jack took my banjo from me and started playing. He also gave me some good advice on tightening up the head and improving tuning. I tried out Phil’s six-string banjo, which baffled me a bit. I pulled out my guitar and played along with Jack.
The day could have been a real disappointment given the displays of hatred I’d witnessed earlier. The anti-Semitic rant was just the most egregious, but there were others. Fortunately, the music served as a balm, bringing us back together. I also made two new musical friends with whom I’m hoping to continue playing. It was a great Halloween at the flea market, and I’m already making plans to head back next week.