No one remembers seeing Aunt Maudie in Aunt Maudie's Country Garden, a bar of humble origins in the Over-the-Rhine district. "i been coming in here forever," says Spoons, "and I've never seen her. There's her picture, though," he adds, almost respectfully. He point to a large sepia portrait on the wall facing the bar. It is the portrait of an old lady who looks as though she were the product of a conceptual theory passing between a Methodist parson and his dour Mid-western wife.
Underneath Aunt Maudie is a juke box at which a young man is trying, unsuccessfuly, to find a song called, "ain't No Flies on Jesus." Across from Aunt Maudie is the bar, one sign that reads "bluegrass Capital of the Mid-west" and another that tells of the limited edition Mason jar for $2, beer included. Most of the customers at Aunt Maudie's drink out of Mason jars.
Spoons drinks out of a Mason jar, too, except his contains water. Spoons hasn't touched a drink in 12 years. "once," he recalls, "a patrolman woke me up in the highway. I was sleeping on the yellow line. 'you going to get killed,' he said. 'if I roll this way, I could get killed,' I told him. 'and if I roll that way, I might get killed. But as long as I stay on the line, I think I'll be okay. Now let me get some sleep.'"
In those days, Spoons began the day with a fifth of Canadian Club and three or four quarts of beer. "then," he says, "i'd go out and get drunk." A number of times, he woke up in strange cities. One night in a bar, he looked in a mirror. He knew he was looking in, but he didn't recognize who was looking out. "it'd been years since I'd looked in a mirror. It was like being two different people. It shocked me out of 19 years of drinking. I went home and told my mom, 'i've quit." I was still drunk at the time. She said, 'sure. Until the bars open tomorrow.' I said, 'nope. And while I'm at it, I might as well quit smoking too.' And I did. In my time, I drank enough to float Maudie's down to New Orleans. When I quit, they laid off the third shift at the brewery."
It scared Spoons when he sobered up. He didn't know if he would be able to play.He found he could, though. Since, he's played from New York to Mississippi, on television and at festivals, made an album and been the subject of a book of photographs. (It's available at Washington Project for the Arts.) He's known at Aunt Maudie's as the best spoon player in the world, but even Spoons doesn't know exactly what that means.
The last time he took on any real competition was years ago. "some people come up to me and said, 'spoons, you're good, but there's this guy across the river who is great. You should see this guy.' I thought about this for awhile, and then I decided to go down and see for myself. So I set out. Didn't have no money, so I walked. It was 27 miles. Fellow played at this barn down in Kentucky. Finally, I got there. After awhile, the spoon player come in. He even had a little leather pouch to carry his instruments in. He started playing, all single beats. Ever now and then, he had two beats together.That was his idea of a hot lick. I went over. 'You're fantastic,' I said. 'You ever been on television?' He said, 'nope.' I said, 'you ought to be. How you hold them spoons?' He showed me, 'fantastic,' I said. 'but wouldn't it work better if you held 'em this way?" And I went off into this number. He watched for a minute, then he called me a few choice names, threw his spoons in the corner and walked out. 'jesus Christ,' said the bartender. 'i've been trying to get him to do that for two years.' I still got them spoons."
Now Spoons is at Aunt Maudie's every Friday and Saturday night. (His real name is Joe Jones but not many people know his real name and even fewer acknowledge him by it.) He plays a number or two with the band and presides at the door, where he collects the dollar cover charge and acts as the official greeter. The cover charge, according to Spoons, keeps the local crazies out. This, he says, allows one night's furniture to be used the next night.
Over-the-Rhine, once a large neighborhood of German immigrants, has lost its turn of the century, working class prosperity and deteriorated into a ghetto of mostly transplanted Appalachians. It has a high occurance of crime, unemployment and welfare. The neighborhood people not only dislike the cover charge, but they don't care much for bluegrass music, either. "what they like," says Spoons, "is electric guitars, country music mixed with rock 'n' roll, and the louder the better. Music to bring the ceiling down."
It is not that Spoons doesn't like the neighborhood bars. It is merely that he does not receive combat pay. After all, Spoons began his musical career in the neighborhood bars. He sold flowers and played the spoons. Once, after ducking a beer bottle at the end of his performance, he said philosophically, "the spoon and flower business can only make it in a wild bar.
"i'd go by and ask the bartender, 'when was the last fight?' He'd say, 'oh, about 10 minutes ago! Then I knew I had another 10 minutes before the next fight. There seemed to be about 20 minutes between fights.Once, a policeman came in the restroom and said, 'hey Spoons, you can come out now. The fight's over.' I never been known to be too brazen."
Once, while Spoons was playing, a customer yelled, 'shut up that racket!" The fiddle player reached down and punched him. "the guy slid about eight feet into a wall, taking down most of the plaster," says Spoons. "the fiddle player was a friend of mine. He worked at the stockyards and made a little money on the side by betting he could drop a steer to his knees by punching him between the eyes. I liked those bars, though. I could make money in the rough places. I think it was because the cast changed so fast."
Aunt Maudie's is loud, but not rough. "the bartender gets on 'em real fast when they start dancing on the tables," explains Spoons. Aunt Maudie's customers seem to be young professional people and college students. They are washed and well-dressed. Against the architecture of Aunt Maudie's, which might be described as Early Indifference, the customers appear almost incongrous, as though a large number of people had wandered together into the wrong place-and stayed.
During the course of an evening, many policemen drop in. After the other bars in the neighborhood, Aunt Maudie's seems to be an oasis. "you don't know what a relief it is," says one officer to the bartender, "to see a broad with no tattoos and all her own teeth."
"i was married to one who had her own teeth," says Spoons. "had 'em in her purse. Sat on it one night and bit herself 14 times."
The policeman wants to learn to play the spoons. "don't you make enough money under the table without taking my job away?" Spoons asks. The policeman implies that he will play the nightsticks on Spoons.
Everybody seems to know Spoons. He spends most of his evening near the door, stamping customer's hands with an ink pad, drinking water from a Mason jar and playing the spoons. He will play the spoons anywhere; up and down his arms, on the bald head of a customer and on the wide bottom of Boomer, a regular patron who is celebrating his birthday by eating a cornerstone-sized piece of the cake on the bar and chasing it with light beer.
Soon, the customers call for Spoons. "we want Spoons! We want Spoons!" they chant.
"so does the law," he answers.
He heads down the length of the long room to where the bluegrass band is, pulling plain soup spoons with taped handles from his back pockets. The tape keeps the handles from cutting his hands when he plays. He may play with as many as six or eight spoons in one hand. He used to get them from the Salvation Army. Now he won't say where he gets them. When someone asks, he says, "that is a secret between me and the people who recognized they were gone after I left."
He plays the spoons as though they were castanets, clicking them together, playing them up and down his body, against his cheeks for the sound, twirling them and flipping them. The crowd yells and applauds. "i tune 'em in C," he tells the crowd. "that way they sound like hell and go with the band."
Spoons does not consider his weekends at Aunt Maudie's as work, having been instructed in a definition of work by his grandfather, who spent 37 years with a railroad. "he was never sick and never late," says Spoons. "he didn't miss a day in 37 years and he died hungry and broke. I decided that if I was going to die hungry and broke, I didn't want to work for the privilege of it."
A friend says, "spoons heard they were hiring on Sixth Street, so he went down to Eighth Street in case anybody on Seventh might tell him about it."
Says Spoons, "i am a bum by choice, not by chance." Thus, Spoons presides at Aunt Maudie's.
He does not complain of a lack of fortune nor his lack of fame in the larger world. What he complains about is how people regard spoon-playing. He wonders why spoons aren't considered just one more percussion instrument. "look at any orchestra," he says sadly. "there's a fellow smashing two pieces of metal together. Another one is tapping on two blocks of wood. These guys went to college to learn that. That ain't no crazier than playing spoons. I don't know why bands don't have spoon players except they can't get one and I ain't teaching nobody. All I know is, when you play the spoons, very few people admit to knowing you. It's like being a animal mortician."
Spoons finishes playing with the band and heads up front where the regulars are finishing off Boomer's birthday cake, and the evening. Behind the bar, a phone rings. "that's your wife, Boomer," says Spoons, "she's calling to find out where you are, so's she can go somewhere else." Boomer does not hear. It is not certain he can speak.
"i'm wasted," he says to Spoons.
"if you're driving," says Spoons, "get in the back seat. It'll be safer."
By 2 a.m., the band has surrendered and most of the cake is gone. Spoons contemplates the spoons. He does a little number for the remaining loyalists. "always in tune," he says. "cheap and portable. Amaze your friends. Impress the competition. There are still things ain't been done with spoons. Some ain't gonna be. Like where they tell me to put them spoons when they get tired of hearing me."
There is a number Spoons likes to do sometimes when he is wandering around town. A small boy comes up and says, "mister, you hear that spoon player over there?"
"you mean there's another fellow plays the spoons around here?"
"yep," says the boy.
"does he do this?" says Spoons, and he plays the spoons up and down one arm.
"nope," says the boy.
"does he do this?" asks Spoons, and he flips his spoons in the air.
"nope," says the boy.
"then," asks Spoons, "maybe he does this?" And he plays the spoons down one leg, up the other, flips them over his shoulder and catches them.
"well, hell, kid," says Spoons "that fellow don't play the spoons. He holds the spoons." CAPTION: Picture, Spoons has played from New York to Mississippi, on television and at festivals, made an album and been the subject of a book of photographs. Photos by Cal Kowal