Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My great grandfather's 120th birthday

Today (September 18th) is my great grandfather Claude Sax Wells’ 121st birthday.

My great grandfather Claude with a bowl back or ’tater bug’ mandolin, circa 1910.

Claude was a gifted musician and photographer. My cousin Jerry Wells wrote to me this morning to get my address for the updated version of his impressive family history photographic tome. Thanks to good ‘ol Jerry, I have access to all of these great old photos in digital form. Tonight, near sundown on Jerusalem Ridge, I started to write the story of Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen’s difficult entrance to the world in 1870, and the research I did today. Then this came out.

What makes a man decide to play music?
What makes a man learn to learn a difficult instrument as fiddle?

My great-great-great-grandparents, Fiddlin’ Ned, granddaughter Nancy B. and wife Nancy, circa 1910

In the mid to late 1800’s, stringed instruments as we know them with expert build quality and exceptional playability were not available. Advances in both guitar and guitar string construction allowed steel stringed guitars to emerge and begin to match performance volumes of the mighty fiddle and banjo.


On February 2, 1838, a boy named after his grandfather, Edmund, was born to David C. Wells and Nancy Howerton Wells in the relatively new Morgan County, Kentucky. The county was formed in 1822 from a part of Floyd county and the boy’s grandfather played a prominent role as builder and politician. Grandfather Edmund B. is known for his many contributions to West Libery and Morgan County. Edmund Wells Day was declared on my 24th birthday, quite unknown to me in 1997 just a month prior to graduation from Chico State. I know much less about his wife Sarah and son David C. As for the boy, the 5th of 8 children, Edmund Baxter Wells, was known as Fiddlin’ Ned and with his wife Nancy Fugett Wells, raised fourteen children.Ned and Nancy’s son Edward G. was the 5th of 14 children, born July 25, 1865. Edward learned to play the banjo by his twenties. In his 22nd year, his wife Arzelda Keeton, in her 23rd year, gave birth to their first of four children. Claude Sax Wells was born on September the 18th, 1887. Claude learned to play the guitar and mandolin by his teens. By his 20’s, Claude had begun to learn the fiddle. At the turn of the century, the Edward G. Wells clan was without doubt very musical.

Claude, father Edward, brother Lynn B., brother James Keeton, and mother Arzelda (seated), circa 1906.

When Claude’s Grandpa, "Fiddlin" Ned died on May 9, 1907 at 69 years old, Claude was young man of 20. He had begun to fiddle, perhaps to honor his grandfather, perhaps that’s the sound he wanted to hear. Maybe it was the loss of a favorite relative that inspired a love of music in him. We will see what the journey uncovers and I’m on the road to find out. Claude inspired many of his children to pick up instruments. A wonderful mother, Will Edith Johnston Wells gave birth to my grandfather, James Kenneth Wells on March 5, 1917, the fifth of seven children. A baby, Edward died as an infant, so it could be said sixth of eight children.

I met my grandfather in 1988 when I was 15 at my sister Heidy’s wedding. There was a previous meeting as a baby in 1974. I didn’t seem again until I was 20 when I got to know him. My mom’s westward migration to California with my dad in 1967, coupled with us kids growing up poor so far from her folks is part of the story. My father, from a long line of prominent Texan farmers inherited a love for making music from his musician father Arlin. Much for me coalesced in about 1992 and continues here.

My mother Susan, the only child of Beth Scammon and James Kenneth, taught herself to play guitar in about 1980. A guitar in a pawnshop spoke to her and she found that she posessed the music. Watching my mom learn at home and weave stories from Kentucky of her granddaddy Claude and father, and quite seperately, seeing my father play on stage during kindergarten inspired me to become a musician by 10 years old. After thoroughly cementing this notion in my teens, from the far east of New Hampshire arrives the unlikely pair of grandparents to the city where I was born and returned to attend college. Gramma and Grandpa brought more stories of Kentucky and Claude, and wonderful photos showing our shared musical heritage.Uncle Kenneth (my grandpa) and his niece Harriet, in Kentucky about 1977

My father, though a knowledgeable and talented performing musician, was a difficult understudy. My mom’s dad (the Kentuckian), by significant contrast, was a pure delight to play guitar and sing with. He never stopped playing the melody, evidently had no concept of mandolin backup, and seemed very happy with my guitar playing. My career took me a little further away from Chico, while his age and arthritis affected his playing. I headed off in musical directions of my own, apart from the family influences, magnetically attracted to musicians who moved me. That has been written about elsewhere, but guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix, Albert Lee, Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi, Manuel Baruecco and Andrew York. Guitarists.

He called for me in March of 2003 to accept the gift of his 1906 Martin mandolin. To honor my grandfather and our heritage, I promised him I would learn to play the mandolin. For him, for me. Maybe for all of us descended from Fiddlin’ Ned.


That is how I got here, Rosine, Kentucky. The birthplace of Bill Monroe, 110 miles north of Nashville. 2,200 east of my home, 220 miles west of my old Kentucky home. I’m proud of my musical heritage and my Kentucky family heritage. Thank you all, and happy birthday Claude.

A third of Grandpa’s ashes rest between his parents in West Liberty, KY.

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