John Wesley Summers: A Historical Sketch of My Father

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By Rev. John K. Summers

How do you go about writing about a “master” of his profession? My father was not only a perfect farmer, but without a doubt, the finest interpreter of Irish jigs and reels and old Scottish schottisches via the violin. He was self-trained, having started when he was just 2 years old. His father, my grandfather, Simon Summers, took this small toddler on his lap, put a violin under his chin and held his hand as he pulled the bow across the strings. That lad was to grow up loving the violin and the music of yesterday.

My father was the youngest of 5 brothers and a sister. Much like the Biblical Joseph, he was attached to his father and mother and paid them high regard and respect. I have faint recollections of my grandfather, and the fact that we made daily trips to their home which was just a mile away, mother taking home baked things, and preparing meals for them. The brothers, who lived only a short distance apart, never were involved in helping care for granddad and granny, so jealousy arose between them and my father. After granddad’s death, my grandmother, who was half Cherokee Indiana, and also blind, came to live with us. There was a big division between my father, and his brothers, who wanted to put grandmother in the county home. My grandfather knew this might happen and made my father promise that he would never allow this to happen. This division grew and separated the family completely. At grannies death, none of the brothers attended her funeral or came to call. She lived many years with us and was a stately lady to say the least.

She loved my father’s music and when they played “Blue Dress,” up granny came and did an Irish jig for the crowds who gathered. My mother was her favorite person in the family.

From my earliest years, I can remember my dad practicing for long hours of time every single day, usually after long hours in the work of farming, all with horses in those times. While waiting for supper, or after the meal, he headed for what was designated as the “South room” where the piano, an old “victrola,” a musical saw, and his violins were kept. Then the music started.

Both my sister, (my senior) and I were taught to chord and accompany dad on his violin as he practiced and played. She tells of often trying to make excuses or hide at the time of his practicing so she could avoid what often turned into hours of “fiddling.” She became a master accompanist to all the tunes, and later, an accomplished pianist, winning special honors, composing her own work at Indiana State Teachers College in Terra Haute, Indiana. I later took her place. My dad would shout out the chords we were to play for each tune until we got them by heart. If I grew a bit drowsy at the piano, he would tap me on the head with the violin bow.

Dad later played in scores of the “Old Fiddling Contests” at fairs and events all over the Midwest, winning first places at almost every single event. He took me along to accompany him at many of those contests. I recall carrying a fiddle box in at each of these as a part of the act. As a lad of just 10, that seemed like a great honor.

He learned hundreds of old folk songs, committing them to memory. He once listed them and wrote out over 1500 titles to these songs. He could play each one with absolute accuracy. Having perfect pitch recognition was a great help to him, so the fiddle, as well as the piano had to be tuned exactly. For years he tuned the pianos at Ball State University, and even at Indiana University music department.

During the summer months, when it was warm, there would often be big gatherings of neighbors at first one home and then another. Everyone brought side dishes and enjoy a meal together. Afterward, the music started, and the square dancing began. It was always a happy and exciting time. At times there were big gatherings in large barns, which they called “Barn Dances,” when there was a lot of laughter, food, and dancing. I loved those times, and can remember feeling I was important because it was ‘my dad’ who was the featured artist.

Numbers of people, learning of my father’s music, trekked their way to our farm home near Greentown, Indiana, usually on Saturday evening, and on Sunday. Some of them were musicians of a sort on the banjo, guitar, mandolin etc. One, a beloved friend, Judge Dan V. White, probate judge of Indianapolis for many years, often played along with my father, “seconding” as he called it. My father often made the trips to Indianapolis to the Courthouse. When dad appeared, Judge White would declare court dismissed, and he and my dad would go to the judge’s chambers and play music for hours.

My beloved mother, a saintly woman, and a master provider and cook, always fixed a big dinner for everyone who came to our place. At one time, she prepared a meal for over 50 people from Indianapolis. There were judges and attorneys in the group. My mother once asked them why they enjoyed coming to the old farm house so much, and they always told her it was for the wonderful music and the informal atmosphere of the home there. Mother’s grocery store was in the old cellar beneath the big old house. She never lacked the needed things to make up a big hearty meal. Her special recipe which she called her “Five Minute Cake” came in handy every time.

By the time I reached age 12, my dad’s fame had spread and he was asked to play for all sorts of events. Square and round dancing were famous in those times, and he found this a way to earn added cash by hiring himself out to these events. A couple of guitars, strumming away, and a neighbor, Glen Burkett on banjo added to the group. For some time we played regular Friday and Saturday nights at the “Sugar Bowl” in Kokomo, Indiana. A self trained piano player named Juggie Colvin accompanied the group. When Juggie drank a bit too much, I would take his place at the piano, chording to the music. These things became a big hindrance to him however, and a thorn that was to prick all of the family before it ended. Rubbing shoulders with them, he began to follow their often immoral ways. Drinking was always a part of these gatherings, and as the hours drew on toward midnight, the crowds often became rowdy and unmanageable. As a young lad, I grew to hate the things that took place in front of my eyes. We would often arrive back home after midnight and into the early morning hours on Saturday nights. Riding home in the old Model-A Ford, with only a manifold heater and no way to clear the windshield of frost was a chore. Dad always gave me a small cloth bag filled with some salt which I used to clear the windshield of frost so he could see. At times, he would have the side windows down and we had to look out the open window to help keep him on the road.

One thing I can always brag on my father was the fact that he never allowed himself to be a person addicted to alcohol. He always prided himself on knowing when enough was enough. My father was never even close to being drunk in my presence; however, because of the nature of many of the people at the gathering places, I grew to hate the smell of beer and the vomit that often came from those who overindulged.

During the war he took a job at Delco in Kokomo, which began a whole new set of relationships in his life. He was a very fine looking, trim, man, and very outgoing. These events led my father into relationships with women who had an eye for him, and eventually lead him down a wrong path. When I was 18 years old, my father called a family conference and announced to my mother that he was going to seek a divorce so he could sow his wild oats. That event is marked in my mind in ways you could never imagine. I decided to join the Naval Air Force and get away from him. This began a separation that would last for nearly 30 years, during which time I never saw my father or had any contact with him. He divorced himself from his entire family. My mother was devastated over the separation, but managed to live through it.

In 1971, I was deeply moved by a Scripture portion in I John 2:9 “He who hates his brother is in darkness.” I made the decision to try to locate my dad. What a day that proved to be. I drove to his home in Marion, Indiana and knocked on his door. His wife, whom I did not know, greeted me at the door. I asked “is my dad here.” She called across the living room, “Dick, it’s your son.” He told me to come in. I knew my dad would never make any kind of confession of wrong. It would have to be me. I said these words, “Dad, I came to talk to you today. You may not hear me, but I have hated you all these years, and have never loved you as a father.” He leaped out of his chair at the opposite side of the living room, and ran to me, falling in my open arms and said, “O God, I never let you love me.”

That ended the stand off from that moment on. All hatred was gone, and I found I could love my father in a new way. We became best friends. He expressed great love for me in the years that followed. I even took up the violin and played “second” with him on some songs. He wept tears and rejoiced in my musical ability. One crowning moment was standing with me at my mother’s casket and hearing him say, “Johnny, she paid a great price didn’t she.”

I learned that my father had one time had a call to the ministry and had turned away from it. He wept as he said he felt that God had laid his call on his son. I believe he was deeply sorry for his wrongs against his family, and probably did his best to make recompense.

In later years, following a small stroke, I found myself caring for my dad, finally diapering and cleaning his bottom three times every day. My sis, whose husband had died, provided meals and kept the home. We cared for him in a loving manner, and laid him to rest at the ripe old age of 86. What a triumphal day it was.

His music never left my heart and mind. As I replay his taped music, I visualize him playing with all his inner soul, the music he loved so much.

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