Yussel Binyamin Cantotski

Yussel Binyamin Cantotski was born in Vilna, Russia, in 1861. The son of three generations of successful poultry farmers, "Chicken Yussel," as he was called as a child, discovered his own musical ability when he found that his singing increased the hens' egg production, though at the same time it made them uncharacteristically hostile and aggressive. At the age of eight he began to accompany himself on the botchtikala, a reed and bellows instrument somewhat akin to the accordion, but considered to be a less dignified instrument. The combination of the contempt he experienced from the villagers because of the botchtikala and the hostility of the chickens may have had a psychological impact on Yussel; as a youth he seems to have been withdrawn and somewhat vulnerable to the indifference of the other members of his family.

Determined to prove the villagers and, sadly, the members of his own family, wrong, at the age of 19 Yussel left Vilna to pursue a course of musical study at the University of Grozna in western Roumania. However, his peasant education placed him at a terrible disadvantage and caused an unfortunate error when he registered for his first classes. Confused between "clavichord" and "clavicle," he inadvertently enrolled in a course titled "The Well-Tempered Clavicle," a study of bone manipulation (similar to chiropractic), and did not realize his error until it was too late to rectify it. In his third year at the university, however, he designed a system of physical therapy based on the fingering he learned as a master of the botchtikala. He became the most successful bone manipulator in Roumania, and was in a short time called to the court of the Duke of Grozna, where he maintained the health of the royal family. His success seemed assured, when fate dealt him another blow. As he was fingering the 12 half tones of the A minor scale on the lower spine and pelvic area of the youthful Duchess of Grozna, his hands inadvertently slipped to a G flat, which immediately became a G natural and, finally, a tremolo G sharp. The Duchess's subsequent chromatics, sung acappella in a bold yet earthy alto that crescendoed to an equally bold soprano, drew the attention of the Duke and, it was said, half the city of Grozna: Yussel was fortunate to escape the country with his life.

He became a wanderer under dozens of aliases, forced to hide the magic in his hands to avoid detection by the Duke's agents. For the rest of his life there was a longing in his aspect, his hands and his eyes always in search of a resting place, as they are in this photo. Eventually, in 1891, he found his way to America, where, taking the name of Junius Brutus ("Juney") Camtor, he became for a time an itinerant workman on rural bridges over an endless array of nameless creeks and gullies. In 1896, he learned a measure of contentment in the love of Matilda Rose-of-Sharon Bridges, the great-great-aunt of the poet. (Here she is sitting to his right.) The irony of her name was not lost on him, and gradually he crossed the bridges that had once been denied him: he heeded his own inner voice to play the botchtikala again, and to chronicle the journey that had become his life.

Still, a part of him lived out his life in desolation. He never explained his background to Mattie; thus she never understood his bad taste for whitefish, lox, and latkes. The banjo pickers of the family shunned him and his botchtikala music, though secretly they enjoyed their first-hand knowledge of an instrument more despised than their own. Juney was never welcomed into the familial musical gatherings and was only occasionally heard to play his lugubrious compositions at a distance in the fields. Even his descendents, who still bear his Anglicized name, carry with them a sense of defeat and jadedness, and project a strong aura of grief, though often punctuated with flashes of buoyant insouciance. The journal records all of this, and it grew to twelve volumes over the years. Eventually, it is thought, it was found by the youthful poet, Lamont, in whose own work echoes of his great-great-uncle are clearly discernible.

Junius died in 1954; he was buried with the botchtikala (everyone agreed it was the best place for it) and mysteriously (and somewhat embarrassingly), with his fingers in exactly the position they had been in during the unfortunate incident with the Duchess of Grozna.

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