by Rita Leydon ©1998
Did you know that Leif is a dyed-in-the-wool Motor Head? At home, in Viksta, he tenderly fusses with his vintage Vincent Black Prince motorcycle. She drools oil wherever she goes and he loves her all the more. She’s British and that explains the oil. When he wants to go fast he hops on his modern Kawasaki and burns rubber, but his heart belongs to the Prince.
Chris and I developed a telephone friendship with Leif over a period of time during which we investigated and purchased two nyckelharpor. Even at the early stages of our telecommunication it was clear that we were destined for a deeper than casual friendship. We would get through our business quickly and move on to passions, agonies and other matters of the heart.
When Leif realized that Chris makes his living messing about with old cars—vintage Grand Prix racing cars to be more specific—he was ecstatic, and when we promised him a run in a freshly restored blue Bugatti on his first visit the man could barely think clearly. Chris had a 1929 Type 45 Bugatti in the shop and felt it would be ready about the time of Leif’s scheduled late summer visit.
My regular car is a Jaguar XJ6 and Motor Head took great pleasure in sharing the driving with me when we returned to Lahaska after a week at Augusta Heritage Center in the mountains of West Virginia. Leif had been the venerable “Master of Swedish Fiddle and Nyckelharpa” and I had been among his bright and eager students. True to his word, Chris had the Bugatti ready. He had test driven it for the first time the day before our return. A Bugatti is a thoroughbred, and as such, it retains the right to be persnickety. It doesn’t tolerate small changes in the global climate very well. All things being equal, it only moves if it feels like it. We got Leif all prepped in leather helmet, goggles, and zipped up in an outer shell. He was so excited he bounced up and down like a kid on a trampoline, bubbling over with glee. A fiddle student was expected at any moment for a private lesson and Leif was nervous about the time. I said not to worry, the student would surely understand if Leif was detained because of a date with a vintage Bugatti.
Well, Miss Bugatti didn’t feel like starting on que this day and Chris was momentarily mystified as he set about methodically exploring possible causes. The fiddle student arrived and Leif reluctantly walked off with his student, all the while looking over his shoulders at the recalcitrant Lady. She just wasn’t quite ready and the man would have to wait. I must tell you that a Bugatti is a little slip of a thing—basically four spindly wire wheels loosely laced onto an exquisitely macho cubic engine with fine plumbing and spigots in a becoming array of polished metals. Sheathed in the requisite blue boat tail body, she offers no creature comforts worth mentioning, not even a wind screen if you happen to be the riding mechanic. One has to be slightly mad to delight in what she has to offer. The Type 45—one of only two ever made—is a bit different from your average, run-of-the-mill competition Bugatti. The 45 is propelled by two engines joined at the hip and functioning as one. Even Ettoire Bugatti himself couldn’t get his hare-brained siamese design to work properly. The first time a Type 45 has ever run successfully is now, as a result of Chris’ magical touch and genius.
After fifteen minutes, the Lady agreed to fire up, having cleared the cobwebs from her intakes and the dust bunnies from her pipes. Her engines singing, Chris flashes the thumbs up signal and scans the shop for Leif. “Where is he?” This means, “I got her fired up, but I don’t know if she’ll keep going, so GET LEIF NOW!” In the space of ten seconds, a faster-than-speeding-bullet Leif rounds the corner, leaps over some box bushes, and breathlessly dives into the cockpit next to Chris.
“What about your student?”
The startled student materializes and I make an effort to soothe him and explain the serious nature of Leif’s particular disorder. He seems amused and not annoyed in the slightest. He said that when Leif heard the engines, he jumped up so fast the chair he was sitting on fell over backwards as he flew out the door.
After half an hour or so we hear the unmistakable sound of the boys in the Bug coming closer and closer. Rolling triumphantly into our long driveway, arms jubilantly hoisted skyward in victory mode, Leif beaming from sea to shining sea—a very successful run. We unstrap our friend, releasing an explosion of yelping and toothy grinning. Leather straps flapping like loose dog ears, goggles askew, the man from Viksta bounces and hugs everyone in sight, including his startled student. It takes him a while to settle down. The moment is duly documented on film by several cameras. A lifetime experience for Leif, to be sure. And, oh yes, the student did get the balance of his lesson—one he'll probably never forget.
When Leif washes up on our shores periodically he carries only the barest essentials—unmentionables and toiletries, his fiddle and nyckelharpa, a few changes of clothing, a miniature tape recording setup, some small gifts for those who host him or touch him along the way, and, of course, his signature black hat with its red and white band.
“Come here, Rita, I want to show you something.” In his hands he has a small, ordinary, plastic medicine bottle with blue pop-off cap. He opens it, and the contents spill into his cupped palm. “I want to show you my treasures.” Tiny, unassuming objects come to light. A smooth white pebble from his daughter. A small Mediterranean pottery chard from his son-in-law. A tiny green plastic ladybug with a windup button for flapping the wings from his granddaughter. An empty red plastic round of the sort small boys put in their cap guns, from Rasmus, his grandson. He says “RRRRRRRRasmus,” rolling the r’s with his tongue the way we Swedes do. And lastly, a pink squishy piglet from Andrea. Leif tenderly fingers each object in turn, telling me something about its owner, holding each item to his heart before going on the next. “These are my loved ones,” he says, “I carry them with me wherever I go.” Meeting my eyes, he smiles and nods.
I was very moved by this intimate sharing. I wanted to be in there among his loved ones too. Leif and I had covered many miles together in the previous weeks. Had spend long hours driving back and forth between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Had shared a week of experiences and breakthroughs at Augusta. Had peeked into a few dark corners from our respective pasts and aired out the mysteries that plague us. I felt close to Leif. I felt love for Leif.
As the day wore on, I kept thinking about the bottle. The feeling that I wanted to contribute something got stronger and stronger. What do I have that is tiny and precious to me that I can give? I had no idea. The day got older. Then it came to me. Of course! I have the perfect thing!
Feeling happy and giddy, precious item hidden in my closed fist, I descend the spiral stairs into my kitchen where Leif is reading. You know that delicious feeling that tingles your whole being when you have a surprise for a loved one and you’re about to spill the beans. I can’t keep a secret more than a moment or two because my face is totally transparent and it always betrays me.
“What are you up to?” asks Leif suspiciously, peering over his glasses.
I smile. “What does every little Swedish girl hang around her neck on a golden chain when she gets dressed up?” I ask.
Leif thinks back to when his daughter, Malin, was little. “A gold heart,” he says with certitude, for there is no other answer.
“Yes,” I nod, “and what does she do with her heart?
He ponders a moment, recalling gauzy visions from the past, “She chews it and it becomes all dented and flat.
I ask him to select one of my clenched fists. He guesses right and I unfurl fingers to reveal my own dented, flat heart. I was a little Swedish girl once upon a time, and I have kept my well chewed heart with me all these years.
Leif looks at me, eyes tearing up, “Nej, men Rita . . .” is all he can say.
“I wanted to be in your bottle,” says the little Swedish girl.
Leif delivered a glorious performance to the well-heeled financial supporters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He, as his normal effervescent self, washed those stiff upper crusts with syncopated polska rhythms and other musical marvels from the byways of Uppland, rinsed the grime off the Big Apples and made them smile.
“What do you call that thing again?”
“It’s called a nyckelharpa.”
“How exotic! Isn’t it, Marvin?”
“Marvelous, Dear.” And so on.
Event over, we bad adieu to Andrea and hiked several long blocks—Leif still in moose skin knee britches and flapping tassels at the knees—to retrieve my carriage. Paid the $35 it took to get the key out of hock and left the bustling Megalopolis glimmering in the rear view mirror. Best place for it.
The plan was to fetch Chris in Pennsylvania, switch from Jaguar to truck, and proceed to the outskirts of Washington DC where Leif was due at ten the next morning to teach a fiddle workshop. When the two of us arrived in Lahaska it was almost midnight. Chris said, no way. “We will sleep here and get up early.” Leif and I put up no resistance. Chris is sensible, while I tend to push till I drop.
Chris took charge in the morning, getting us all up, fed and out the door. I love that, having another take charge when I can’t light all my burners. Our truck is big, shiny, and black, with “Leydon Restorations” painted in elegant red uppercase on both sides. It has front seats and back seats. Plush and comfy. It’s a middle-age truck. We face a four hour drive, straight down 95. The dawn is beautiful, crisp and full of bright promise. Leif’s in the back, Chris and I—Mom and Dad—are in the front with raucous wake up music playing on the CD.
South of Wilmington, traffic starts to build up and slow down. Soon we are no longer moving. Not overly concerned, we talk and enjoy each other. After half an hour the scenery still hasn’t changed. We notice this and remark on the petrified condition of the roadway and worry a tiny bit about our arrival time. At forty five minutes, Leif says, “I have to pee.” This is the congested American north east, there are no trees, bushes or woods along the highway. We are in the inner lane of an eight lane freeway, surrounded by irate truckers with smoke curling from every orifice and plenty of other desperados chomping their bits. I look around thinking, “Yeah, right, Leif.” We try stall tactics—we sing, change the subject, tell jokes. Five minutes later, “I really have to pee.” The voice is unhappy. I scan our comfy chamber for empty containers that could be of use, but Chris tidied up before we left home. I have nothing to offer. No solution. I feel like an unprepared mother, stuck in traffic beset with rigor mortis.
Well, we all agree, everybody on the planet has to pee several times a day—no big deal. Let the man out to pee on the highway. What else can you do? This decided, we let the now frantic Leif out the door. At that very moment, traffic starts to quiver. Engines ignite, gears engage and the log jam starts to shift all around us. Shivers of fright race up my spine. Leif is stumbling about out there trying to figure out where to relieve himself as the road comes to life again. What the hell—we can see the thought in the action—the man from Viksta takes care of business smack dab front and center of our truck. The massive hood preserves his scant dignity. Pressure relieved, Leif flashes us the biggest grin his face can accommodate and zips up. He bows to his left and to his right, then scrambles back in. Speed has resumed on our right, and horns are honking aggressively up our rear. We arrive on time and all's well with the world.
We were six in the house, sharing a long weekend. Among us we had four nyckelharpor, four fiddles, a guitar and a bunch of voices. You can imagine the music! We stayed up half the night singing by the fire—old Swedish songs with twelve verses each—Leif on guitar, Andrea, Kerstin and I on vocal chords, Chris snoring accompaniment from the rocking chair. Charles, happy as a clam on the computer in my studio. This is how life and friendship should be!
The next morning our guests slept in, while Chris and I were up early. On the kitchen table, sitting there like a seductive Lorelei was Leif’s nyckelharpa. The Master’s instrument wiggling its keys in come hither motions, bow averting its eyes. My thoughts quickly took me where they ought not to go. I peeked in on Leif and Andrea. Out like lights. I rubbed my hands together. Chris saw it coming. Naughtiness on the horizon.
Much as Leif is a very close personal friend, there is a definite demarkation when it comes to music. He is the Master and Chris and I are just eager upstarts, struggling along at the first level. He is our Teacher and our respect for his station as such is impenetrable. I would never knowingly compromise that balance. It has never even occurred to me to ask if I could try my hand at Leif’s instrument, I’m wrestling plenty with my own. But who among us wouldn’t want to try on the King’s robes-just once-if the opportunity presented itself?
On this particular morning, with the house quiet, and the item in question sitting so pretty on my table, I did the forbidden. At first I just stroked it and admired the craftsmanship. Then I decided it was in my way—there must be something I need my table for. Thus convinced, I picked it up. Once in my hands, the distance to hanging the thing around my neck was very short. I went out into the mud room and closed the door. I didn’t dare adjust the strap even though it was way too long for me—that would be impertinent. Arranging myself as best I could to Leif’s harpa and strap, stretching my left arm to the max to reach his keys way down there beyond my ability, I drew his bow down over his strings.
“Ooohh . . .” I sighed with sheer amazement and elemental suffering at the beauty and resonance of the sound that came forth. I readjusted myself further and proceeded to have a really good time out there by myself in mudroom exile. It was wonderful. What an instrument! What tone! What singing! No wonder Leif sounds so good! But then, he sounds great on my harpa too. I felt as if I had discovered something major. I returned the stolen goods to the table, washed my hands, and whispered excitedly to Chris. He was amused at my audacity and chided me for my utter lack of self restraint. We imagined a scenario in which all the terrific players would have the mediocre instruments and all the fresh upstarts would get the brilliant instruments—you know, level the playing field.
By the time Leif appeared I was feeling just a little guilty. Yes. But I didn’t feel any remorse. No. I hung my head suitably and admitted my transgression. He smiled and said, “Yes, but Rita, it also costs twice as much as yours.”
I want to share some Leydon Family tunes with you. They come from Chris’ and my private collection of good times shared with our friend and teacher, Leif Alpsjö. I hope you will enjoy my melodies as much as I enjoyed recording them. These are songs from the heart.