If you have never seen a crankie or do not even know what one is, this could be your chance to see and learn. A recent NPR Tiny Desk concert with two-person, a capella, bluegrass-inspired music group Anna & Elizabeth includes a handful of songs, one of which takes inspiration from fiddle player Lella Todd in a story/song that dedicates its words and notes to her.
The crankie is not a musical instrument but may have music at its soul. It is a simple device that pairs a light bulb, a story drawn on a scroll of paper, and a crank that moves the images drawn on the paper in front of the light. The crank at the top of the device gives Anna & Elizabeth a visual aid to their story of Todd which they heard through a friend of Todd’s named Letha Sexton who grew as a child near “Miss Lella.”
The story begins with Sexton’s explanation that she grew up in simple times. That fact she said — a life with no television or radio — means that she had to make her own fun.
“When I was a little girl, I lived on the banks of the Red River,” the story begins. “And to grow up back then was very different from the way kids grow up now. We didn’t have TV. We didn’t have radio, so you had to make your own fun. But I was very lucky because I lived near Miss Lella. And if you lived near Miss Lella, you had it made.”
The story continues to weave through Sexton’s childhood and interactions with Miss Lella. There were games of hopscotch, memories of a garden at Miss Lella’s house, and times of hunting for squirrel with the kids and their mentor. Miss Lella never traveled anywhere without her rifle.
She also took her fiddle everywhere because she could play to beat the band. She’d play all night at house parties — from dinner past midnight.
Her life contained no biological children of her own, but she adopted the kids of the neighborhood and would play with them and cook for them. Griddle-cakes were always on.
“She was just a precious person,” Anna & Elizabeth explained.
All the while, the crankie moves through images of hunting, fishing, cooking, walks through the woods, outings on the lake, nights at a friends houses, and ultimately, the grave sites of Miss Lella and her husband.
Anna & Elizabeth speak and play fiddle all while the crankie unfolds. They run it through the entire life of Miss Lella and then say that Sexton actually took them to those graves and to Miss Lella’s old house. It stands to this day.
Sexton only remarks at this point, “I wouldn’t miss that life — just living by her — for the world.”
The story comes to a close with applause but is steeped in both happiness and sadness with a sense of hope. In seven short minutes, a life passes in front of all viewers with a glow that seems to span all time but is, on the stage, short-lived.
An old-fashioned story for an old-fashioned sort of woman.