Ernie Caudill Was My Teacher

Ernie Caudill Was My Teacher

God’s Prophet of the guitar: they called him Ernie
I discovered guitar music in 1952 on the radio. That jangly, steel-string guitar sound jumped out of my old radio and got my attention, big time. Incredibly, my Mom and Dad agreed I could have a guitar and take some lessons. So my Dad phoned up an old school chum of his who was now teaching music lessons. That old boy would change my life. His name was Ernie Caudill.

Now Ernie Caudill was a special guy. First, he was a pro accordion and guitar player around his hometown of Kansas City. Ernie had played with all the pro musicians in Kansas City and knew all the inside stuff and the gossip and the culture of Kansas City’s non-classical union musicians. When I went to him for lessons his main activity was teaching music to kids. And he was disabled from polio: one leg was paralyzed, the other was short, but functional. So he got around on crutches, the kind that clamp just above the wrist, while his hands held the handles.

Ernie’s studio was at the corner of 18th and Quindaro, a neighborhood that mostly housed the families of post-depression working guys and WWII vets. All white of course, the neighborhood was cozy, humble, and hard working in that postwar, urban, get-back-to-normal, midwestern way. Down the block, a couple of doors was the Gauntier Theater, a place for families going “to the movies” and Saturday cowboy matinees. You could get there for a dime on a bus or streetcar. On the corner was an old-fashioned drugstore, the kind with a real soda fountain and very high, led-clad ceilings and a pharmacy in the back.

Ernie walked both on crutches and on water

Ernie Caudill’s studio was in an apartment exactly over the drug store, accessible through an outside door, heavy with springs and locks. I mention the drugstore, because as you went in the apartment door, the first thing you saw was a very steep staircase, about 35 or 40 narrow steps up, ‘way up, no landing. Ernie could make it up and down these stairs on crutches holding (I’m not kidding) a full sized guitar case in each hand. Each hand gripped the crutch handle and one guitar. He made this stair climb ordeal several times a week, because he spent half time at this studio, and half at an additional studio in Kansas City, MO, a long bus ride away. I don’t know if he ever fell or dropped an instrument; if he ever did, god help him, it was a long way to the bottom.

The first guitar I ever saw

So we went into his studio, my Dad introduced me as his son Danny who was interested in the guitar and needed an instrument and would like to take lessons. My first impression of Ernie Caudill was his tiny, but well-organized studio. Ernie himself looked very businesslike in a suit, white shirt and tie. He spoke in a very dignified manner with a very soft voice and talked right to me about lessons. In addition, he had a guitar for sale. It was a Gretsch archtop, “blond” or natural finish, medium-sized and heavy, $100. Now that was a lot of money to my Dad in 1952 and expensive guitars aren’t supposed to be heavy, they’re supposed to be strong and light. This one was definitely on the heavy side, but Ernie was making a sale here; he handed the heavy guitar to my Dad as his hand sunk down with the weight, and said: “There’s a lot of guitar there, John.” I don’t know why I remember that moment, but it taught me that the guy could be both a really good teacher and also have a sales pitch that was total crap. Somehow, I sensed and remembered right then what was happening, but it didn’t matter. This was the first actual guitar I ever saw or touched and it was going home with me. It was heavy, the tone wasn’t great, and my Dad was a hundred bucks lighter, but It was a miracle and I was ecstatic.

A Great Teacher

Ernie Caudill was a great teacher. For one thing, he had materials that were systematic and adapted to a kid. His materials were designed to make you think and understand the guitar. He made a chart that combined a string chart and music staff on one page to get you to remember where the notes lay on the neck. He could sketch for you, on the spot, with a pencil, a perfect cutaway picture of your left hand properly holding a first-string bar chord. He was patient and systematic and charged four dollars for a half hour lesson where he conveyed a lot more than musical notes: in addition to notes and songs, he taught me to respect the instrument, told me stories from professional gigs so I would get the seriousness of it. He taught me like an individual, going deep into 30’s and 40’s pop music that he knew well, and found music that he thought would interest me. He sent me to a concert being presented in Independence, MO of Andres Segovia. That concert alone is a great story for a future blog; I witnessed Segovia chewing out an audience for not listening quietly to the guitar, and heard music I never thought was possible on the instrument.

Ironically, Ernie Caudill thought he had failed me, “taught him everything I knew,” he said later to my Dad. ‘Never quite figured out how to get me up the neck, deeper into jazz chords, and generally to become the kind of pro musician he recognized and knew about. He knew I had a facility for the guitar or “talent” as it’s sometimes called; he thought my right hand was really good, but my left, he thought, had problems. But it wasn’t my hand, it was my head: I wanted folk music, and I was too young and stupid to realize that I could be a better folk musician by learning what this skilled teacher could teach me about chords and scales and pop and jazz music. Ernie kept looking for music I could relate to, but I wasn’t wise enough to stay with it, and eventually I quit him. Later, though, after I had kept playing, I did go back to visit him and told some of his students what a great teacher he was, and they should pay attention to him closely.

Why You should know Ernest Caudill

I wanted to tell you Ernie Caudill’s story and how important he was. Today I think I realize better what important stuff I learned from him. He got me started in a way that didn’t ruin it for me. He was part patience, part equalizing with a little kid, part making me feel like an important person, and a whole lot, a massive bunch of respect for the guitar itself. And he also taught me how a disability didn’t prevent him from doing heroic things to make a living and help kids learn to play music. It took me a while to get it, but I learned from him that musical knowledge translates: you can learn the old-fashioned stuff that old guys know and then adapt it to where you want to go. If I had paid attention to all Ernie’s non-folk music information, I would be a better folk and bluegrass musician today.

And on the other hand, we old guys who play can pay attention to the fact that sometimes kids are learning stuff from us that we didn’t intend. Ernie didn’t think folk music and bluegrass were very good music, so he sorta’ missed how much he influenced me. ‘Thing is, In the long run what a little kid actually picks up from you may be more important than what’s in your lesson plan. Getting a kid to pay attention to the sheer beauty of the instrument, the dignity of art pouring out of a piece of wood, the nobility of getting to be someone who brings music into the world, those kinds lessons may not be what Daddy thought he paid 4 bucks for, but they might just save the world someday (another blog on that, later).

Ernest Caudill, R.I.P.

So rest in Peace, Ernie, and a big thank you: you sent me out armed with a guitar and the thing took me out to all 50 states and 30 countries of the earth, and adventures and experiences unimaginable on that first day. Today, sixty years later, a lifetime after my Dad and I took that heavy instrument home, I hope people can still hear the echoes of your advice and wisdom in my music.

And Daddy, Ernie was right: there was a lot of guitar there.