How the Pee Dee’s favorite musical trio came to be
By LIBBY WIERSEMA
The kitchen is the heart of many a home, but at Rose Cottage, it is a sacred, magical space where things forgotten are remembered again. In that sense, this is a story about restoration, specifically about how old ways can find revival in a modern world. It is also a story about caring and community, porches and “potatoes,” family dogs and a doublet of daughters with dimply smiles. And if you listen closely as you read, you might overhear a lively conversation between three fiddles, their voices lifting and weaving in ways that silence sorrow and stir up joy – even in troubled times like these. Especially in troubled times like these …
A natural selection
The Flud name is as ingrained in the Pee Dee as the tree-lined waters of Black Creek that snake behind the family property. When John Flud was born in the mid-1960s, he was part of the fifth generation to be raised on the land his family acquired in the 1890s.
It was a rich environment for a boy but not just because of the running room afforded by the sweeping acreage. The interests of his parents and grandparents – gardening, cooking, music – were skills that had been passed down from one generation to the next. Whether through influence or natural ability, John had a knack for all three.
When just a third grader, he was charged with selecting an instrument to learn as part of the school curriculum. As it happened, the violin chose John and the two kept earnest company until high school graduation. In that time, he relished practices, learning a few things about the instrument and himself.
“I remember my teacher telling me I scored high on a musical aptitude test,” John said. “When they gave me the choice of band versus orchestra, I chose orchestra. I didn’t want to be out on a field marching. I just wanted to sit and practice my violin.”
When John started college, the violin played second fiddle to his studies, then continued its descension down the totem pole of pursuits until he stopped playing altogether. He had plenty on his plate during those years, though, especially when he came into possession of an early 1900s home. It was a condemned property and required moving – a rather complicated pair of issues – but “complicated” is not in John’s vocabulary.
“I had always loved antiques and history – old things,” said John. “This house was going to be torn down, but I saw features in it that reminded me of my grandmother’s house. I always wanted a house like that and knew that it could become something beautiful.”
For a pittance by today’s standards, the fixer-upper embarked on a journey from Pine Street to the Flud property in 1987 and was positioned in the spot where John had always envisioned establishing his own home. As if manifesting his dream, he had already planted a young tree to provide future shade for the house he believed would one day stand there.
Today, that tree casts its cooling shadow over Rose Cottage, a gracious home hugged by a generous porch with rockers that invite you to sit a spell. Named for the Rosabelles in John’s life – his mother and grandmother – the house had required quite an investment of time.
John stripped plaster, sanded floors, painted, varnished and, with assistance from his father, wired and plumbed to complete the restoration. It took six years to get it into shape. Good thing John was just 22 when he got started.
“You could say I was a little driven,” he laughed.
What stands today on the lushly landscaped plot (another of John’s talents) represents a lot of spit and polish. Right down to the statuaries and gaslights, John’s artful arrangements of flowering plants and foliage transformed open yard spaces into intimate alcoves with a Charlestonian feel. While there’s structure in the design, there is an improvisational aspect about it, too, that offers subtle resistance to the description “manicured.”
Inside the house, John’s reverence for antiques and vintage objet d’art is immediately apparent. Rich wood furnishings, framed paintings, high ceilings, ornate molding, vintage wallpaper – it all works together to create an elegant, but lived-in effect infused with a sense of peace.
But there is an energy, too, running like a wellspring beneath the currents of calm and comfort – kind of like the strains of a spirited song, one that yanks you by the ear and out of your seat …
And this is where the violin makes a reappearance, but with a twist. Years after putting down his old instrument, John was at the Lord’s house when he received a nudging to dust it off and rosin up his bow.
“A lady at church asked me to play,” he said. “I finally did and knew that God was bringing me to this.”
He played in a church band for a bit before things took a seismic shift. When a man invited John to bring his instrument to the Pee Dee’s iconic Back Swamp School for a Saturday jam session, he showed up. The cacophony of sounds issuing from the laid-back, casual gathering was like a multi-barbed fishhook. John bit and leaned into the experience, allowing himself to be reeled in by something new: fiddling. What had seemed a simple invitation from a stranger turned out to be a providential prodding.
“We just met by accident the day before,” remembered John. “I had never even fiddled a tune.”
Violin. Fiddle. Both refer to the same instrument, but one with a split personality. Whereas the origins of the violin are steeped in European culture, pomp and circumstance, and classical masterpieces, the fiddle is deeply tied to Americana folk culture. Tunes tend to be passed down from fiddler to fiddler who embrace techniques like droning and shuffling that get the toes tapping.
Bluegrass is often associated with the fiddle, but it is the genre known as “old time” that spoke to John’s musical soul and stitched him ever more tightly to his ancestors. Rooted in Scotch, Irish, African, Native American, Welsh, German, Spanish, English and French traditions, it is fitting that this North American precursor to bluegrass and country was born of a melting pot of influences.
“My mama’s grandfather, his brothers and children were all fiddlers,” said John. “They played ‘old time’ rather than bluegrass, which is a singing genre. In ‘old time,’ listening is part of the oral tradition – you don’t play the fiddle with sheet music. ‘Old time’ is largely dancing music. It is the ‘people’s music.’”
Practice as a practice
You could say that “old time” put John in the corner – the corner of his kitchen, that is. After heeding the siren song of the fiddle, he pulled a chair into a nook next to the refrigerator and devoted countless hours to honing his newfound craft.
“I sat in that corner for two years and struggled,” said John. “It was the spot that seemed to speak to me. Even though I was rusty, I wanted to learn from others and would show up at jam sessions. Getting together to play as a community of musicians is part of the ‘old time’ tradition.”
Sometimes that tradition and its inclusive intentions were forgotten elements. This was especially disheartening for a newcomer still honing his fiddling chops. But the sting of feeling “less than” only served as motivation for John, who would return home from some of those group sessions and head back to his corner.
His persistence paid off and life was good. Not only did he become a highly skilled fiddler, but a family man, too. John married Shelly, a busy schoolteacher he met at church, and fathered a sixth generation of Rose Cottage residents, Madelynn Rose and Caroline. And it was the longing to pass down this musical tradition to his daughters that became the driving force behind his fiddling ambitions.
“When the girls were old enough, I gave each one a pink violin,” he said. “We would sit in the kitchen and practice, which was basically the process of listening to a lot of noise. But that’s just part of their learning.”
As his daughters grew, practice became a way of life for the father-daughter trio. John moved out of the corner, pulled two small chairs in front of him, and set the stage for the blossoming of his young prodigies. Their nimble little fingers seemed made for fiddling and both girls demonstrated an uncanny ability to learn tunes and techniques. And when they opened their mouths to sing, out came the voices of angels.
“We were amazed at how well they both sang and how quickly they learned,” said John. “I can teach them a song and they are playing it in no time. And they don’t forget it. Music is truly at the core of our lives.”
John and the girls made a weekly trek to Columbia to learn bowing techniques from a fiddle champion. And family vacations have never equated to vacations from playing – not that they would ever want to leave their fiddles behind.
“Wherever we go, I look up fiddle players who can teach us something new,” said John. “We are always in learning mode and are willing to share what we have learned with others.”
As the girls sharpened their skills, they joined their father during musical performances at church. Their authentic love of the genre and the unbridled joy they demonstrated while playing together captured the hearts of all who witnessed it. There is something irresistible about two darling girls in matching flouncy dresses, eyes twinkling as they niftily coax a tune from a string under the proud tutelage of their father. So, it was only natural that John began hearing from folks across the Pee Dee who wanted to book the “Fiddlin’ Fluds” at their churches, markets, and social events.
“It seemed so sudden,” said John. “The girls really loved sharing our music just as much as I did, so we just went with it. Now, the fiddles go with us everywhere – even if it’s to the grocery store. You just never know when you’ll get an opportunity to play for people.”
And speaking of people, well, that is perhaps the most meaningful piece of this fiddler’s tale …
The Welcome Table
Now ages 10 and 8 respectively, Madelynn Rose and Caroline often venture outside the familiarity of the kitchen with their father to share their talents. The Fiddlin’ Fluds appear regularly at the Pee Dee State Farmer’s Market and get requests for out-of-town and out-of-state bookings. One day, someone gave them a tin can covered in hand-painted flowers.
“It was for tips but that wasn’t something we had done before,” said John. “But I decided to put it out there when we played, and any money collected is used to teach the girls about spending. They save it to buy new strings when they need them and to use for vacations.”
Wherever they go, their music and smiles lighten hearts and soothe moods – something particularly alluring in these heavy times. But while the Fiddlin’ Fluds are rising stars for sure, their hearts remain grounded on the home front. The kitchen at Rose Cottage is still their favorite stage for the ultimate musical experience.
“I remember how it felt when I was struggling to learn,” said John. “So, I have designated my home as a safe place for people of all skill levels to be part of the camaraderie, learn from others, and share in the joy of playing ‘the people’s music.’ I have had such great experiences just playing on porches or anywhere people gather. ‘Old time’ is about being with other people, and I want to make sure that is at the heart of our jams.”
In testament to his philosophy, John cites one of his favorites, an old time spiritual called “The Welcome Table.” When Madelynn Rose and Caroline sing the lyrics, John usually is not the only one with a tear in his eye.
“I’m gonna sit at the welcome table
all God’s children gonna sit together …”
These words, written so long ago, have special meaning to so many people. In John’s case, they are like a directive to uphold the roots of the music he loves. It is now Rose Cottage tradition for folks to show up on Monday nights – fiddle, banjo, or guitar in hand – for some musical fellowship with the Fiddlin’ Fluds. The aromas of John’s homemade soups, chili and fresh-baked cornbread (served on good china with silver spoons, no less) are a sign that this welcome is genuine. For dessert, guests help themselves to Shelly’s fiddle-shaped sugar cookies. And everyone – from newbies to seasoned players – receives the same hospitality.
“When I jam, everyone is invited,” said John.
As people take a seat around the old kitchen table and lift their instruments, there is a vibrancy in the air that hints at the magic about to be released. It is time to serve up some “potatoes” – a fiddling term for the intro that is played to set the tempo and cue up the musicians. Even the family dog knows the signal and settles in at the girls’ feet in anticipation.
And in that pause before the first note sounds, a sense of family history and unconditional love conjures the presence of those who went before and settles like a soft blanket over every living thing.
The circle of players – young and old, slow and fast, skilled and unskilled, living and dead – have assumed their place in the sacred space of this remarkable welcome table.
Contact the Fiddlin’ Fluds by visiting their website at fiddlinfluds.com or call John at (843) 992-1802.