Lee Stripling, of Seattle, a Southern-born, old-time fiddler whose career was reborn in later life, died Monday at 87.
To watch Alabama-born Lee Stripling play the fiddle was to witness the magic of an elderly gentleman becoming young again.
His eyes would light up, his body would rock to the beat, and — in an oft-requested rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” — he would play the fiddle with the bow held between his knees, under his leg or behind his back.
But even the restorative power of music has its limits: Mr. Stripling, 87, a Seattle resident since World War II, died Monday of lung cancer. “He never stopped loving life and doing what he could to enjoy it,” said a daughter, Carol Stripling, of Seattle.
Music, golf outings, corny jokes and the company of family and friends — coupled with an unfailing optimism — helped keep Mr. Stripling vibrant and vital.
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“He saw the bright side of everything,” said his other daughter, Sherry Stripling, of Mount Vernon, a longtime Seattle Times reporter. “He was always upbeat, always saw a patch of blue sky over whatever golf course he was headed to.”
Lee Edwin Stripling, born Aug. 30, 1921, had music in his genes. His father, Charlie Stripling, Alabama’s most recorded fiddler, traveled as far as New York City during the Depression, accompanied by his brother Ira on guitar.
At age 8, Lee Stripling got his first music lessons not from his famous father, but from his mother, Tellie, who taught Lee and his brother Robert basic chords on a mandolin and guitar a visitor had left behind. One night, the boys surprised their father by strumming along with him on “Little Brown Jug.”
In the lean years, with the loss of the family farm and store, the boys traveled as their father’s backup band, and the money they made playing dances and festivals became as important to the family’s survival as the income from their work as sharecroppers growing cotton.
Mr. Stripling’s service in the Army Air Corps brought him to Washington state in the 1940s, and after the war, his music took a back seat to raising a family in North Seattle. He worked as a bookbinder, retiring from the University of Washington in 1984.
His renewed interest in music was triggered in the 1980s, in part by Sandy Bradley, then host of a weekly music show on KUOW Radio.
When she heard one of the second-generation “Stripling Brothers” lived in Seattle, she paid him a visit, telling him his family’s music had a following here.
“He was surprised that anybody on this side of the Mississippi would have heard it,” she said.
Bradley invited Mr. Stripling to play live on her show. “He was a little bit rusty at first, but it all came back to him.” His music bore an “authenticity,” Bradley said. “It’s music that’s a social lubricant. It’s the backdrop for a potluck or a conversation, a wake or a wedding.”
Mr. Stripling began playing more regularly after the death of his wife, Lucille, in 1998, after he met a younger fiddle enthusiast, W.B. “Bruce” Reid, 56.
“He was sort of adrift at the time; he and his wife had been so close,” Reid said. “He had this void in his life and he was ready to fill it by playing the fiddle again.”
Reid assembled a group, Lee Stripling and His Six Footed Boys, playing dances, festivals and recording a CD. In more recent years, Reid and his wife, Bonnie Zahnow, rounded out the Lee Stripling Trio, playing a variety of venues, and releasing another CD.
Mr. Stripling’s music connected him to enthusiasts who were decades — often generations — younger than himself. He encouraged even the most novice of musicians, always finding something to compliment in their style or effort.
Twice he was on the faculty of the annual Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, once with his brother Robert who lives in Birmingham, Ala., and once with Reid and Zahnow.
At last year’s festival, Seattle filmmaker Jeri Vaughn, who had traveled to the South with Mr. Stripling in 2006, debuted her documentary, “Winging My Way Back Home: The Stripling Fiddle Legacy.”
Just days before Mr. Stripling’s death, a handful of musicians stopped by his hospital room for a few tunes, with Mr. Stripling joining on the fiddle and vocals — as much as his fading strength allowed.
He’ll be remembered, said Zahnow, for his music and sweet disposition.
“And he still has gigs on the books,” she said. “I think that’s very important to a musician, to still have things on the calendar.”
In addition to his daughters and brother, Mr. Stripling is survived by sisters Christine Johnson, of Birmingham, Ala.; Elsie Mordecai, of Kennedy, Ala.; Sarah Jo Duke, of Hueytown, Ala.; Rubye Ball, of Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and Jean Gaston, of Gautier, Miss.; and one grandson.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org