Fiddler on the boat delivers sweet bluegrass at West Palm Beach GreenMarket
THE FIDDLER ON Clematis Street lives alone on a boat in the Intracoastal Waterway. His faithful companion is an Albert Knorr violin, made in Germany in 1924.
“It’s a violin, but I’m a fiddler,’’ John Ace says, clarifying his music of choice for anyone who hasn’t seen his weekly street performances at the West Palm Beach GreenMarket.
His music of choice can be summed up by the old joke about the difference between a fiddle and a violin: Nobody cares if you spill beer on a fiddle.
“Bluegrass music is just fantastic,’’ he said. “It’s dance music. It’s soul music. It’s real.’’
Every Saturday morning, Ace steps off his 36-foot Cabo Rico yacht and onto a motorized dinghy that he cuts across the water to a dock on Flagler Drive at the foot of Clematis Street.
“Time to go to work,” he said after tying up one Saturday morning in January.
Violin case in one hand, tip bucket in the other, he walked unnoticed through the GreenMarket’s maze of vendors, customers and pets until he arrived at his stage, a patch of sidewalk at the base of an eight-story building at Clematis Street and South Narcissus Avenue.
“You’re late!” one regular teased as he walked past Ace, who was about to tune the fiddle and rosin the bow.
“It’s cold!” the 72-year-old fiddler replied, stopping to rub the chill from his hands.
Before long, he was closing his eyes, guiding the bow and rocking his head to “Cotton-Eyed Joe.’’
Over the next three hours, each song morphed into the next — “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” “Ashokan Farewell” (from Ken Burns’ “Civil War”) and a bunch of traditional mountain music songs that “have been around forever.’’
All the while, GreenMarket shoppers plied by, paying more attention to their coffee, dog strollers and bundles of fresh flowers than the bearded fiddler on the sidewalk.
“I hold people's attention basically for 20 seconds as they walk by,’’ he said, pausing between medleys to shake the tightness from his hand and wrist.
Most ignore him. Some acknowledge him with a smile or a nod. Many others drop a one or a five in his tip bucket, the one decorated with “Vietnam USN 1968-71” over an American flag.
Then there’s the small but growing legion of fans who consider Ace’s music as big a GreenMarket attraction as fresh produce, blooming orchids and strong Cuban coffee.
“Good morning, fiddler John,’’ said a woman named Sandy who stopped to dance by his side a few seconds before telling him about a market vendor offering free donuts.
Sliding the bow across the strings, the fiddler returned her greeting with a smile and a nod.
“I come every Saturday and I watch him because he’s just phenomenal,’’ said Juliana Gomez. “You listen to his playing and it’s, ‘Wow!’ He brings a lot of joy.’’
He’s been playing at the GreenMarket for about five years, a snowbird-on-water arriving every fall from his homeport in Alexandria, Va. In April, a day or two after the market closes down for the season, he’ll pull anchor and head north.
Aside from giving him plenty of pocket money for the week, the Saturday morning gigs help keep his chops up for his regular summer job in Virginia with the King Street Bluegrass Band.
“I’ve been a professional musician most of my life,’’ he said.
Born in Manhattan and raised in Pennsylvania, Ace played trumpet and guitar in high school. Back then, the fiddle intrigued him, but he had no idea how to play it.
Before he could start to learn, the Vietnam War got in the way.
At 19, he joined the Navy, thinking it was the safest option to avoid stepping foot in-country where boots-on-the-ground combat seemed inevitable.
“I did not expect to go to Vietnam,’’ he said, “but as fate would have it. …’’
From 1968-71, he was stationed aboard an LST (landing ship tank) that ferried equipment ashore for the Marines in and out of Da Nang and up and down the Mekong Delta.
“We were shot at, occasionally,’’ he said, recalling his service during an interview on a Flagler Drive dock.
“One of the biggest dangers we had, if we ran aground and couldn't keep moving, then the enemy would bring in mortars and you'd be sitting ducks. But that didn't happen. I made it through,’’ he said, and he knocked on the wood of the dock for good measure 51 years later.
About five years after his discharge, he took a job as caretaker on a farm in West Virginia, “the center of mountain music,’’ he said.
On weekends, he’d take his guitar and seek fiddlers.
“A lot of them got together on Saturdays. The guys would be on the porch picking. Sometimes the ladies would come out and sing their favorite gospel tunes,’’ he said.
A year later, a neighbor whose mom had just passed away gave Ace a fiddle that had been stored in her attic. “I bought a bow and I spent the winter teaching myself to play fiddle,’’ he said.
“I was fortunate that I lived alone on a farm way back in the hills 7 miles down a dirt road. Because I lived alone, I could practice all day long, and there's nothing worse than listening to somebody learn to play the fiddle or violin. It screeches and squawks. It’s never in tune. It’s a horrendous process.’’
He bought a music book and a few fiddle records, and with inspiration from the fiddlers he watched, he slowly learned.
The following spring, while hitchhiking back to Pennsylvania, he gave his first performance.
“I got picked up by a truck driver. He saw the fiddle and said, ‘Can you play?’ ‘No, I’m just beginning.’ ‘Oh, come on, bring it out.’ So I broke it out and played as we trucked along the highway.’’
In Pennsylvania, he sat in with a bluegrass band called Pot Belly Stove. Before long they hired him full time. A couple of years later, the band landed a prestigious gig at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.
“We played 14 nights in a row to jam-packed multinational crowds with numerous celebrities in attendance,’’ he recalled.
He’s been a professional musician ever since, supplementing his income as a “jack of all trades,” from a printing pressman (his father was a pressman for the New York Daily News) to a vending business.
Around 2005, he embarked on his other dream: “To get a boat I could live on and go wherever I wanted to,’’ he said.
“In five weeks, I sold the house, sold the car, sold the business, sold whatever I could, gave away what I couldn't sell, threw everything else away and moved on board the boat, and I’ve been on board now for 17 years.’’
The boat is called “Four Aces,” a nod to his wife and two daughters.
His figerglass yacht has plied the chilly waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the warm waters off the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.
On his first visit to South Florida, he docked in Lake Worth Beach but it wasn’t long before he found West Palm Beach. On days he ferried his bicycle to shore for Publix runs, he noticed musicians playing on the streets downtown.
“I thought I ought to give it a shot, bring the fiddle out,’’ he said. “I did so well, I can't stop doing it.”
He played one or two weekend evenings on Clematis Street but didn’t like the vibe from the bar crowd. He focused his talents on the GreenMarket, where his tip bucket gets fairly full by 1 p.m., an indication that just about everyone, from kids and teenagers to hipsters and grandparents, enjoy his music.
“Mostly ones,’’ he said of the donations. “Occasionally there’s a $20 and a $10. I got a $50 bill one time, I was like wow! I was so touched.’’
He’ll get an occasional request. One man asked him to play something by The Beatles or Chicago. (He did not.)
“I do a lot of traditional fiddle music,’’ he said. “That's how I basically cut my teeth on violin was by learning fiddle tunes.’’
He prefers the freedom of busking as opposed to playing in a bar or coffee shop.
“I’ll start with one fiddle tune, I’ll morph into another fiddle tune and I’ll just get in a groove and let it go where it wants to go,’’ he said.
The glass floor-to-ceiling windows of the shop behind his sidewalk stage act as an amplifier.
“I know it's working when I can see people on the other side of the street watching me,’’ he said.
“The main thing is to have that dance rhythm going. When I see kids stop and people on the street dancing, then I know I'm doing it right.”
Like any show, Ace said, the reaction to his performances always starts off slow, with passersby more intent on getting to the market. By 11 a.m., more people are stopping to watch.
“It takes a while to get it going,’’ he said, “but I just play and let it happen, and it generally does.’’
When he’s not fiddling at the GreenMarket, he climbs to the rear deck of his boat and plays as the sun sinks behind the downtown West Palm Beach skyline.
If the wind is calm, Ace’s winsome danceable melodies carry across the water, an unexpected treat for his boat-dweller neighbors and landside walkers to the east on the Lake Trail in Palm Beach.
“It’s so beautiful,’’ said Cally Duncan, who could hear Ace’s fiddle from her sailboat 70 yards away at the Evernia Street docks, where she’d tied up for a few weeks in January.
“You’ll have to come play for me when I get to Australia,’’ she said as she prepared to set off for the Bahamas on a journey she is chronicling on her YouTube blog, shestheskipper.
Ace smiled and wished her luck.
During the cold snap last weekend, he took a break and flew to North Carolina to stay with a friend. The time off gave his thumb time to heal (he sliced it while cutting bread one day aboard the Four Aces) but more important: “There’s heat!”
He plans to be back in time to play the next GreenMarket.
© 2022 ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.