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The Villager Notebooks

The first time I visited the Schnaufer archive at Vanderbilt University was several years before I ever had an inkling I would plunge into writing David's story. A former student of David's who had some things she wanted to donate to the archive invited me along. I decided to go primarily for the opportunity to see what the inside of the Blair School of Music looked like. When we arrived at the music library, much to my surprise they had laid out a number of items that had belonged to David on two long tables for us, including his straw hat, his glasses and two binders full of papers, sheet music and photos. Once section of a table include some thirty 4 x 4 cocktail napkins with handwritten notes on them, some only on the front and some on both sides. I knew very little about David Schnaufer then, but there was something about those cocktail napkins; they had a kind of baraka with a small "b" ... I picked them up one by one to read the writings, but, having no context for these messages from the past, most of their meaning was obscure. Some were lists, some lists made reference to places I recognized as being in Texas; some included a message and a phone number; several mentioned names I recognize now but didn't then. Some were clearly evidence of a songwriter's language play, and some made no sense at all. Why would Blair have these napkins in the archive?

One napkin did contain an affirmation that made sense, however. As both a former teacher and someone struggling to learn how to play an instrument, the sentence he drew a box around on the napkin below immediately resonated. For just a moment, an odd thought occurred to me: he wrote that sentence for me to read. Of the napkin's four thought-units (nomenclature we used to use in second language acquisition studies), only that one is dated and boxed. Meaning: it was very important to him. Suddenly, he became very real to me.

"Village Notebook" #22 Courtesy of Vanderbilt University/Archives and Special Collections

Drew Ponder (a friend of David's from his early days in Nashville) told me that David had this habit of writing bits of ideas he wanted to remember on napkins at Brown's Diner when he first went to Nashville. He would carefully fold the napkin and tuck it in his pocket before leaving the restaurant. Later on, when I talked to Tim Bryan and Steve Stubblefield of the Starlings, TN band, I learned that David and his friends jokingly referred to these napkins as "Villager Notebooks". Whenever they sat in the Villager Tavern and shot the breeze together, they would jot down things they wanted to remember: to-do lists, song ideas, stream-of-consciousness word play, and so on. And David saved at least 29 of them. When he passed away, he had very few material goods besides his dulcimer collection. But these flimsy, tissue-like pieces of paper that would carry his thoughts into the future, they mattered. They had baraka with a small "b" for him, we might say.

These "notebooks" are no longer a complete mystery. I understand many more of their references today than I did during that long-ago visit. And I envy the future scholars who will have the means and the time to explore these historic documents in more depth to help decipher the man, the time period, and the music. I imagine them poring over the writings on these napkins the way the Mayan decoders studied the Yucatan stelae. They'll do so without the bother of the heat and insects, and with help of other scholars and perhaps a future library director who will likely be as kind and generous as Holling Smith-Borne has been to me.

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