OPRY TO OPERA

My music life began in Tennessee with the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and Methodist hymnals on Sundays. In the two-story farm house where I was born, October 28, 1929, there was an old foot-pedal pump organ in our main room, kept warm by a wood stove, and an out-of-tune piano played only in summer because it was in an unheated room. My sister, Leita, and I played hymns. “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” was easiest to play as it was in the key of C, with no sharps or flats.

We listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights via a battery powered radio. Electricity was not available in our rural neighborhood. Hank Williams was in his heyday singing “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “I’m in the Dog House Now”, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. At age 29, he died drugged in the back seat of somebody’s car while being driven to his next performance. Twenty-five thousand fans attended his funeral in Montgomery, Alabama.

At Mulberry Hill, where I attended eight years of elementary school in a typical one room country school house, we sang from old yellow song books. We sang the civil war song, “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching” (same tune as “Jesus Loves the Little Children”). We sang the minstrel song “Look Away Dixie Land”, and the British/American Revolutionary War song, “Yankee Doodle”. We called the song books yellow, but the proper title is The Golden Book of Favorite Songs. Other favorites from that book were “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” — probably about Bonnie Prince Charlie, and Stephen Foster songs “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River” and “Beautiful Dreamer”. Nobody taught us the rich history behind the music. The teacher probably had no idea.

Summers in Tennessee were marked by revival meetings and “all day singings and dinner on the ground”. There were no phones, but somehow the word got around. Quartets, usually two men and two women, would visit from other communities and sing hymns. Our one room Methodist church would be filled to overflowing, with a crowd outside in the churchyard. The term “dinner on the ground” never changed even after a makeshift table was built outdoors and food was no longer served from a cloth on the ground. Different churches, mostly Baptists and Methodist, hosted these events. We showed up at all of them. Each was a social gathering, whether you had an interest in music or not.

Many times as a child I stood in the hillside cemetery behind our church watching a casket containing the body of a relative or neighbor being lowered into the ground. A few church members would stand around the grave singing in plaintive voices, hymns such as “Rock of Ages”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “When the Roll is Called up Yonder”, or “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”.

In our home, we had a Victrola record player and a few Carter Family records. Before playing each record the Victrola had to be cranked by hand. After the turntable started spinning, the arm holding the needle could be moved to carefully place the needle in the beginning groove of the record. Three Carter Family songs that I remember playing are “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, and “Wildwood Flower”. It was necessary to stay beside the Victrola until each song was finished, then place the arm holding the needle back on its rest. Needles needed to be replaced occasionally due to dullness. It was important not to scratch the record or dull the needle. Using the Victrola was not child’s play, but I did it anyway.

In our high school, there was no choir and no band. Except for piano, guitar, and fiddle, I never knew one musical instrument from another. Those were WWII years and Kate Smith was singing “God Bless America” and “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover”. 0ne Doris Day hit was “Sentimental Journey”, and soldiers, including my brother Dale, dreamed of a sentimental journey home from the war in Europe. The Andrews Sisters sang “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me”. Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band entertained U.S. troops in France until his flight disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944, the same month that my brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

At age fifteen, I found myself in love with eighteen year old Tommy Crutcher, who could sort of play “You Are My Sunshine” on guitar. That song always reminds me of our courtship, which was largely carried out on the Ft. Henry school bus to Dover High School.

One boyfriend in college did his best to teach me to jitterbug, but I was never any good on the dance floor. Later, I married a man who was a terrible, but undeterred, dancer and would drag me onto the dance floor for an embarrassingly awkward display. Mac had a voice that was masculine and gravelly. At home, after a few drinks he was likely to burst out singing “Waltzing Matilda” or “Lili Marlene”, or play the “Volga Boat Song” on our stereo set at high volume. Being a Jaguar sports car enthusiast, one record he liked to play was nothing but the sound of race cars roaring around a race track.

Before my marriage and during my years as first grade teacher, 1950-52 at Eglin AFB, in the Florida Panhandle, I was dating fighter pilots, including the one I married. In the Officers Club and the Officers Beach Club, and several surrounding night clubs, we heard Nat King Cole’s big hits, “Rambling Rose” and “Mona Lisa”. Also Rosemary Clooney was popular singing “I’ll Be Around When She’s Gone”.

Country singer, Patsy Cline, born three years after me, recorded “I Fall to Pieces” two years before her plane crashed near Camden, Tennessee on a rainy night while she was trying to get home to Nashville following a performance in Kansas City. The shocking news of her death reached me in Spain. Her recorded voice still rings clear as a bell on my Spotify playlist. There was no shortage of heartbreak and tragedy in the country music community. Dean Martin’s “Born to Lose” is from his aptly named collection, Hurtin’ Country Songs.

Fighter pilot drinking songs were mostly what I heard throughout my marriage. Three memorable ones are “There Are No Fighter Pilots Down in Hell,” “Throw a Nickel on the Grass Save a Fighter Pilot’s Ass”, and “Itizuke Tower This is Air Force 801”. The latter has special meaning for me as I spent some time living in a barracks on Itizuke AFB, Japan, teaching American kindergarten children in a poorly heated Quonset hut. These drinking songs are available on YouTube, but the recording artists are never drunk enough to sound authentic. Itazuke was the USAF base in Japan where Korean War pilots brought their aircraft for maintenance. Mac would fly his F-84, The Girl Pat, over from Taegu in Korea occasionally and we could see each other for a weekend getaway.

While we were living in a Madrid suburb for three years in the early 1960’s, I became familiar with Andre Segovia’s classic guitar music. I liked it much better than the ubiquitous Flamenco dance music. On my current playlist, I have Segovia playing these two pieces: Bach’s Suite, No. 1, G Major” and “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” by Francisco Tarrega. Because I have visited the Alhambra, the romantic latter is a favorite.

Bob and Irene Osborne were special Air Force friends. When we were stationed at Truax AFB near Madison, Wisconsin, evenings spent with them usually ended around 2:00 a.m. out in our yard by Lake Waubesa loudly singing “Goodnight Irene” to Irene. Also I would serve pigs in blankets, tiny wieners baked in biscuits, which would prompt Irene and me to sing “Oh, I Wish I Were an Oscar Mayer Wiener”. The nearby Oscar Mayer plant was our inspiration. Unfortunately, I am the only one still alive to remember those laugh-filled evenings, unless it would be our oldest son Eric who was ten at the time and witnessed our nightly, martini-fed, embarrassing parental behavior.

One Christmas, while diapering daughter Clea in our home in Sarasota, FL, she was singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” with me. She might have been age two and her pronunciation of gentlemen was all b’s and j’s. Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” was played often in our home when the children were small. Different instruments represent different animals to tell the story. I was learning along with the children.

After graduating with Class of ’77 from the Air Force Academy, Eric did flight training at Reese AFB in Lubbock, TX. Mac, Clea and I visited him there. For Christmas, he made us each a tape of our favorite music. At the time my favorites were Barbara Streisand and The Eagles. For years, I played The Eagles’ “I’ve Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling” in my car, until tapes were replaced by CDs.

Our second son, Casey, was our musician. After he was diagnosed with HIV, he recorded tapes of himself playing guitar and singing some bluesy folk music. After he died, I edited and made a collection of his music on one long tape. His preferences influenced my listening habits toward blues and folk. He had a device that held his harmonica near his mouth while both hands were busy playing guitar. Once, when he was younger, I found him at our dining table with different sized stemmed glasses lined up. He was playing recognizable tunes by tapping the glasses with a fork. Casey’s guitar lives on in the care of our step-grandson, Alex.

One unforgettable musical moment is of Elton John singing “Goodbye English Rose” in Westminster Abbey during Princess Diana’s funeral. What a strange and historic circumstance that was! A gay pop star performing in the majestic Westminster Abbey! It was 1997 and somewhat shocking at the time.

When granddaughter Anna Rose was five, her failing Grandfather Mac, determined to avoid a nursing facility, remained in his apartment in his Little River Airport hangar. Our daughter, Clea, left Anna Rose with me while she spent a few days helping her Dad at his hangar near Live Oak, FL. Anna Rose and I had things to do that required time in my car. With her in the child seat in the back and me at the wheel, our favorite CD to play was the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou. I will never again hear “Keep on the Sunny Side” without remembering how the two of us belted it out, sounding just like the Carter family.

For Christmas 2009, when grandsons Andrew and Stephen were both in their early twenties, I requested that they each create a CD of their favorite music as a gift for me. Both questioned whether I really wanted music they listened to, and I insisted that was exactly what I wanted. On arriving home from New Jersey with my gifts, I inserted Stephen’s CD into my CD player and heard rapper Lil’ Wayne’s “Sky’s the Limit” in which he uses the F-word to excess. I e-mailed “OMG” to Stephen and, with impish delight at my shock, he replied “I warned you, Grandma!” Other favorites of theirs were the Foo Fighters, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Goo Goo Dolls, Eminem, One Head Light, and Puddle of Mudd. It was an eye-opening trip into their music world, but none of their selections became my favorites.

A sexier song of my choice is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as sung by Jeff Buckley. It is Biblical, referencing David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah, lustful, heartfelt, and explicit. Cohen’s puzzling lyrics require study, and I have done the research. Cohen’s message seems to be I don’t understand a thing about life, but Hallelujah anyway. Another Leonard Cohen song that I like a lot is “Suzanne”. He sings it beautifully with Judy Collins.

Linda Ronstadt sings for the same reason a bird sings. I believe she appeared on earth to sing “Desperado” and “When Will I Be Loved”. Learning she had Parkinson’s Disease felt like a heartbreaking loss. Alison Kraus’ “Down to the River to Pray” is a favorite. The melody of “Aura Lee”, an old civil war song, was adapted by Elvis into “Love Me Tender”, and sung as a duet with Barbara Striesand. Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” rates high on my list. Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson sings “Bless This House” like a fervent prayer. Percy Sledge does soulful versions of “My Special Prayer” and “When a Man Loves a Woman”. I love gospel and soul. These are conclusions I have reached since grandson Andrew got me started on my iPad Spotify playlist two or three years ago.

My iPad and I are linked by music. It goes with me to the kitchen while I chop and sauté vegetables. It goes to my bedroom with me while I get showered and dressed. I spend lots of time reading on my den sofa with the iPad in easy reach. One great pleasure in living alone is not having another person need the TV on all day. I don’t have, or want, a TV in my den, just the music.

Ideas for new favorite songs come from unexpected places. I ask complete strangers, or the termite inspector, or get suggestions from books, magazine and newspaper articles. One day, a crossword puzzle clue “jazz singer Cleo” piqued my interest enough to Google it and listen to Cleo Laine singing Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”. It was added immediately to my Spotify playlist. Once, while having dinner at The Blue Gill on South 34th St., I asked the waitress to identify the music being played. It was Sam Cooke. I came home and added eight of his songs to my list, “I’m Just a Country Boy”, and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” among them. Surfing the web I found the New Orleans jazz piece “Corrine Corinna” by Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton. To watch the rocking musicians on YouTube adds to the enjoyment. Another great find was Miles Davis, masterful on trumpet doing “How Deep is the Ocean” from the Blue Note Albums. I read jazz news in The New Yorker magazine and check out their recommendations, which led me to the great Charlie Rouse.

My favorite movie scene, and favorite music from a movie is the Mozart aria played in The Shawshank Redemption when actor Tim Robbins gains access to the warden’s office, locks the warden out, and uses the PA system to broadcast the “Duettino Sull” aria from The Marriage of Figaro over the prison yard. It is a moment of profound beauty and human spirit while the evil warden goes berserk with anger.

From The Week magazine, I discovered that Martin Scorsese has a remarkable blues collection. From his collection, I chose “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” by Keb’ Mo’, and Bessie Smith’s “Careless Love”. The Week’s article on The Basement Tapes led me to Bob Dylan’s “900 Miles Away from Home”, also his “I’m Going Down the Road to See Bessie”, referring to Bessie Smith.

I have given up on choosing a favorite classical composer. It is probably Beethoven, followed by Mozart, Bach, or Dvorak. Beethoven’s sound is sometimes profound, deep, and solitary. I like his “Pathetique”, Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan”, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, and Dvorak’s “Humoresque” and “Going Home”. Being completely self-taught, I feel pleased with myself when I walk into a public building and recognize Albinoni’s Adagio on the PA system. While listening to classical music in the car recently, I guessed correctly that the music was by Haydn, though I was not familiar with the piece. Smugness is not attractive, but smug is how I felt – very pleased with myself.

Each Christmas I invite myself to the First Presbyterian Church with my friend, Ruth, to hear their choir and brass ensemble’s Christmas music. I don’t consider myself to be a churchy person, but my favorite music tends to have a somber, forlorn and lonesome sound and is rather churchy. For instance, my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” is churchy, as is Yo Yo Ma on cello playing the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”. I might point out that I never felt forlorn, somber, or churchy in Officers’ Clubs all over the world or when 35 fighter pilots and their 35 wives were in my house, drinking and carousing. I ask which is the real me, the churchy one or the irreverent one. I don’t know the answer but will go with irreverence as the more light-hearted choice.

In my mid to late eighties, I crave security, dependability, and the comforts of home. I notice the words “river” and “home” occur frequently in the titles of my Spotify playlist. A river is dependable and reliable. As Paul Robeson sings in “Old Man River”, “he just keeps rolling along”. There are currently 412 favorite songs on my Spotify playlist, though I am adding some and deleting some every day. Son-in-law John’s most recent contribution is this prize by David Frizzell, “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our  Home”. It never fails to captivate me, and it does have the word “home” in its title.

If a memorial service is ever held for me, I would like Kathleen Battle to sing “Going Home” from Dvorak’s New World Symphony #9. It is basically a Negro spiritual. Another choice would be Bette Midler singing “The Rose”, which is full of hope and meaning. Or, for a touch of country, Emmylou Harris could sing “When They Ring Those Golden Bells for You and Me”. But, funeral planners should be aware that my choices change every few days.

Last opera season I attended five HD Live operas at a Butler Plaza movie theater: Il Trovatore, Othello, Tannhauser, The Magic Flute, and Turandot. At this point, I am still an opera learner, not an opera lover. We viewers in movie theaters are seeing the performance on screen at the same time it is live on stage at the Met in New York. The New Yorker magazine helps me keep tabs on the opera world.

It seems ironic that after my pathetically limited musical upbringing, I am drawn to excellence in music in my later years, always searching for sounds beautiful enough to transport me. Two sounds that do transport me are “O Mio Babbino Caro” as sung by Kathleen Battle and “Porgi Amor” from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro sung by Renee Fleming. Still, no matter how much transcendent beauty I find, nothing melts my heart more quickly than The Nashville Brass playing “The Green, Green Grass of Home”. My country roots are likely to remain strong and deep.

Advertisement

2 thoughts on “OPRY TO OPERA

  1. This is wonderful, Pattie. I enjoyed your “playlist” enormously. As a musician myself–I was trained in Classical piano, was a church organist, and sang Joan Baez-style song in coffee-houses–I really appreciate the range of your explorations. I hope you get a chance to read my novel, American River: Tributaries, that will be released in a few weeks. It has lots of music in it! Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to your next “memoir.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s