I’m sitting here trying to finish this column, and in the background is Ken Burns’ fabulous series on the history of country music. Familiar voices playing familiar songs, pictures of remembered faces, and my heart is returning to the past the filmmaker is recalling with affection and a keen ear.
Now, some folks might wonder why a born ’n’ bred Yankee girl from Back Bay Boston is getting sentimental about 18 hours of the history of country/bluegrass/outlaw/honky tonk/blues/cowboy/western/rockabilly music. They have to remember that I am the child of a traumatic childhood!
Imagine a 5-year-old girlchild, raised in the heart of Boston, suddenly transported to the backwoods of Virginia. Gone are the trolley cars and water troughs for the policemen’s horses. Suddenly there are rambunctious creeks tumbling down beside the two-lane road. In front of your house is a road of huge gravel rocks. Behind the house is a pasture with big black-and-white cows. Across the railroad tracks at the curve of that road are the railroad tracks with huge, black smoking freight trains roaring by a couple of times a day.
A loud factory whistle blows every morning and throughout the day, signaling the start of shifts down the road where the huge wallboard plant clangs and bangs; the hooded sheds of the gypsum mine entrances lurk by the clattering overhead wires cages, carrying the newly dug plaster into the big, noisy plant where they turn it into wallboard for people’s houses.
There I was, far from the Chinese laundry in the basement of our apartment house and the watering troughs for the policemen’s horses, transported like Alice in Wonderland, where I was surrounded by strange sounds, strange foods, strange people and very strange activities.
Our only contacts with the outside world was LIFE magazine and the radio. During the day, we listened to a 100-watt station out of Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee. At night, we could pick up WOW out of Boston, 10,000 watts of ballgames, Sunday night comedy shows, daily soap operas and late afternoon adventures with Straight Arrow and Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy.
Sunday nights we popped corn in the fireplace and gobbled Daddy’s homemade fudge, sprawled on the rug laughing to Jack Benny, Phil Harris and Fred Allen before we climbed the stairs for bedtime.
But every day when we returned from the four-room school (after the 3 o’clock whistle blew), we turned on the radio.
And we listened to bluegrass music. Lots of bluegrass. The Foggy Mountain Boys, Uncle Ed and The Good Men, Roy Acuff and, of course, my Saturday afternoon matinee idols, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. We learned all of the local stars, and we listened to the stars of the Grand Ole Opry on the jukebox at the bowling alley and the radio at the general store. Driving over the mountain to grocery shop in Glade Springs, we sang along with the radio and tried to yodel with the best.
My mother despaired. But we slowly learned to fit in with the culture. Every day my sister and I trudged down the dusty road from our two-story company house on “Silk Stocking Row,” past the smaller homes of shift supervisors and plant foremen. Past the company office, with its huge fir trees, and the entrance to the plant itself, where piles of gypsum rose from the mine and clanged along high, caged assembly lines into the plant to be turned into wallboard for houses and shipped out on the chuffing trains.
We lived by that whistle. School started at 8 a.m. sharp. When that 7:30 whistle blew, we better be out the door.
Turn at the office and take the road up the hill, past the post office, cross the road at the company store and head up the road to the schoolhouse just over the creek bridge. There it was … the schoolhouse. All four rooms of it, white stucco outside, with a long walk of steps up to the door.
My classroom was the one ahead on the right. Inside were the desks, each one complete with a hole for inkwell and a groove for pen/pencil. Five rows of desks, blackboards on two walls, windows open to the trees outside, the teacher’s desk and entrance at each end to the cloakroom where coats and hats were stored.
Between the two classrooms at the back was a folding wall that could be pulled back to allow a crowd. That was the wall that sealed my acting fate. The principal announced that we were going to have a TALENT SHOW! And I decided that I was going to perform. This came as a big surprise to my family, since I had heretofore never displayed any talent for anything except argument and a gift of gab with grownups.
The first question was what talent? Why, singing, of course. I did it all the time with the radio. And I had just the song. My very favorite from the daily mountain music shows. (Something my folks never really paid a lot attention to.) And it was going to be a secret song. I rehearsed every day behind the chicken house. I kept it a secret from everyone, especially my younger sister. I informed my mother that my outfit would be my favorite Halloween costume: a ruffled blouse, a circle skirt, a bandana holding back my curl, and all of my mother’s necklaces.
For days I practiced in secret. I had slowly learned all the words, my ear pressed to the radio in the living room and shooing others out of the room.
The day of the performance I was ready at 4 p.m. By 6:30 we were seated in the desks in the opened classrooms. The principal, a dignified woman who was my mother’s best friend, was the mistress of ceremony.
Then it was my turn! Mrs. Bateman introduced me; I would sing a popular song. Dressed in my best gypsy outfit, I strode confidentially to center stage and broke into my favorite song: a honkytonk version of “The Red Silk Stockings and the Red Perfume!” A bawdy song by a shady lady about how to get and keep a man. I belted it out to a stunned audience and basked in the applause. The adult audience was amused; my parents were aghast.
Mummy finally realized I was a lost cause, and I was in hog heaven, determined to someday be a star!