Joanne Long grew up in a house where all the children played an instrument, but, she said, they weren’t very good.
“My sisters and I all learned to play the strings, cello, viola, violin,” she said. “But are parents weren’t very demanding and we felt like we were doing well if we all played the same song and ended at the same time.”
For years, her fiddle was little more than a decoration on the wall and a fond memory. Then, in 1975 while she lived in Springfield, a friend asked if she could still play. To her own amazement, she took down the display and found that she still knew the basics.
“I learned to play country fiddle from an old-style fiddle player, a man named Floras Lucas in Springfield,” she said. “He wouldn’t let me pay him, just wanted to pass on the appreciation of the music.”
While in Springfield, she became part of Lucas’ band, “Sangamon Valley Hoedowners”. The band was created specifically to play at the centennial celebrations in 1976 and played live square-dancing events, events at the Illinois State Fairgrounds and a number of other events. When the centennial celebrations were over, “we just kept playing,” Joanne said.
Lucas’ style was typical of old-style fiddler players, often adding a little something personal to the music. “Floras always added a beat when he played ‘Mississippi Sawyer’, so we got used to it and were ready for it. At one event, we were set up at the Illinois State Fairgrounds next to some jugglers. Every time he played that extra note, the jugglers would drop their balls,” she said.
In 1978, Joanne followed her husband and his job to Southern California, but this time took the love of the country fiddle with her. There she added bluegrass to the types of fiddle music she enjoyed and even competed a little. “I won a few events,” Joanne said.
She also got to meet one of her heroes, fiddle players Kenny Baker who played with Bill Munroe’s band for years, and a few nobody’s who would go on to be famous, like Vince Gill.
She returned to Illinois, where her husband is from originally, in 1992 when he retired. To keep herself busy, and to earn a little extra spending money, she did some writing for the Murphysboro American and worked with the Murphysboro School District for a few years, handling public relations. But budgets got tighter and she decided to propose something new to the Continuing Education program at John A. Logan College.
“I wrote up a proposal for the class and submitted it. The first night of the class last summer, this room was full,” she said, looking around one of the band rooms in the main building at the college.
There were more than 30 people there interested in the class and Joanne decided that was simply too many to have an effective class. “We split the people who had some experience into a Thursday night class for intermediates,” she said.
Most of the people who signed up for the continuing education class decided to keep coming and one fiddling class became two. When it got to be time to think about the class for the fall, Joanne decided to keep the two divisions and was surprised when she needed to add a third.
“The Monday night beginners’ class was so big that we decided to split it into two classes, one Monday nights and one Tuesday nights,” she said. Assuming that she has repeat students and the interest level remains high, Joanne is planning to have three classes again this semester, beginning January 22.
“The classes are scheduled for 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday for beginners. I had the mother of one of the students, who’s not quite 10 years old but has been begging to be allowed to take the class, call and say that the class might be too long. So, I’ll be there the entire time, but we’ll take a break about 7:30 p.m. and those who want to leave then will be able to,” she said.
The Thursday night class will be for those continuing students and those who already have a background in the music and instrument.
The classes will cover all the basics from tuning and scales to chords and harmony. Joanne has also pre-selected a list of traditional bluegrass and country songs for students to learnt o play over the course of the semester. Included in the selection this spring are bluegrass favorites “Buffalo Gals” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
In previous semesters, Joanne has taught familiar favorites like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Turkey in the Straw” as well as more modern, but beloved tunes like “Ashokan Farewell,” a song better known as the theme for the Public Broadcasting System’s “Civil War” series.
When she’s not busy teaching, Joanne also performs country and bluegrass fiddle with the band, “Roundup Gals.” The gals are Joanne, Barbara Vatovek who plays bass and Vernys Smith who plays the accordion. The group has played events such as the Cobden Peach Festival and the Williamson County Fair as well as playing for local nursing homes and retirement facilities.
“We also play for our own enjoyment,” Joanne said. “Playing music with someone is like an instant friendship.”
After the continuing education ended last fall, many of the students and the Roundup Gals got together in Carbondale at the Longbranch Coffeehouse and held a jam session, Joanne said. “We sounded pretty good,” she said, “and one of the students suggested we have a dance. We’re still considering that.”
Much of the music the band and the students play is especially suited to country line dancing and traditional square dancing. And, with Vernys’ accordion, there is a little polka thrown in for good measure.
Because the class is offered through the Continuing Education division of John A. Logan College, there is no requirement of skill level or experience to join the class, just a small fee depending on what county you live in.
“Our youngest students have been 10 or 11 and in the summer, we had a gentleman who was 84 in the class. After him, the oldest have been in their 70s,” Joanne said, pointing out how fun a class can be when the students span six or seven decades.
“This class is a lot of fun. It’s work too, you have to practice to be any good, but if people don’t really want to practice and just want to come to the class for the atmosphere, we’re okay with that too,” she said.
Joanne said the success of the class has surprised her. “There are three other people who also helped make this work. I asked people to bring a tape recorder during the first semester, so they could record the music and learn it, but very few people did. So, we made a cd of the tunes. Shirley Reimbold, one of the students and a great lady, helped me burn the first cd and Bill Schell at New Simpson Hill made copies of it for us very reasonably. Larry Dunn is recording the cd for the spring class,” she said.
And, the benefits of music as a form of continuing education are enormous. “They say learning something new makes you smarter. Some people do this out of a love of music. Some do it just for something to do and stay active. Either way, we have a lot of fun,” Joanne said.
An added bonus for some people has been the chance to help their spouses stay more active too. “My husband, Tom McClintock, has brought me to every class,” she said.
“I found out from some of the people in the class that their spouses come along too and use the time while they’re in class to exercise in the recreation center. If you’re a senior citizen, it only costs $35 a semester,” she said.