Last post I said goodbye to my Gibson LG-1 guitar. Today it’s time to say so long to my Stella Harmony mandolin. I sold it to a neighbor for their uncle.
Stella and Harmony are both names of companies that closed their doors years ago. Harmony keeps coming back with new owners who acquire the name and attempt to recreate some of the models of instruments made by the original, but the new guys aren’t actually related to the Harmony that made my mandolin. The original was owned by Sears for most of the time it operated.
Before the American market was flooded with Asian and other imports, often with U.S. company names but imports none the less, if you wanted a low priced guitar, mandolin, banjo or other stringed instrument you bought it from Harmony, Danelectro, National (Supro and other names) or from the catalog stores such as Sears or Wards. Still, the companies that supplied Sears and Wards were Harmony or the others just mentioned. Harmony once made more stringed instruments than any other company.
The quality of most of these instruments left something to be desired. Their best were often acceptable but these were not professional level instruments. In spite of this, these instruments were often loved by their owners. They were the people’s instruments. Affordable, durable and a stepping stone to “real” instruments. I’ve owned a Silvertone (Sears) banjo made by Harmony and the Stella by Harmony mandolin. There was nothing great about these instruments but there was nothing wrong with them either other than being plain, simple and affordable.
Why did I buy a mandolin in the first place? I’m no mandolin player. Reason #1 was being inspired by the Siegal Schwall blues band’s recording of “Bring it with you when you come.” Corky Siegal was a harmonica player and though they were a Chicago blues band they had more of a jug-band feel to them. Jim Schwall was their guitarist. I liked him because he played an acoustic guitar with a pickup in the soundhole — just as I did. “Bring it with you when you come” was unique because Schwall got the solos and he played them on a mandolin. So cool. I wanted to play that. And eventually I did.
That wasn’t the only reason for wanting a mandolin. I’ve always been looking for instruments good for travel or fun to grab or hold while doing something else — like watching television or sitting around a campfire (mutually exclusive activities). My Stella mandolin dates to before the time that Martin came up with the Little Martin and Taylor developed the Baby Taylor. No one made travel guitars back then. If you wanted something small to take traveling you had to look for ukuleles, mandolins or other instruments.
I couldn’t remember how long I had owned this mandolin when I first decided to sell it as part of the pre-move downsizing effort my wife and I are going through. But then I remembered an incident that allowed me to estimate how old the mandolin was.
My first wife and I moved in together one summer while we were both students at the University of Illinois. The first place we lived was a real dump — a summer rental. We couldn’t have stood to live there much longer. My memories of the apartment are somewhat vague. I remember slime mold in the bathroom and several mouse holes along the baseboards.
I also remember that after I purchased this mandolin I kept it lying flat on its back on a high dresser. Soon after, in the middle of the night, I woke after dreaming I heard my mandolin being played. Maybe not played so much as someone lightly brushing the strings. This happened on more than one night. We finally realized a mouse (or mice) were scampering across the dresser and dancing across the mandolin strings. This was the summer of 1973, so the mandolin was about 42 years old when I sold it.
I own a better mandolin now. It’s a Kentucky brand with a solid spruce top and maple back and sides. Very nice. I still can’t play much more than maybe a dozen chords, bits of “Boil them cabbage down” and other old-time tunes and, of course, a poor but recognizable rendition of “Bring it with you when you come.”