Music and Everyday Life: An Essence of Generational Sharing Part 1
This “blast from the past”post that I wrote several years ago was originally published on now defunct Myrtle Hart.org site
It started with the reading of a book from one of the New Negro authors of the nineteen twenties, Jean Toomer. I somehow became fascinated with the narratives of Toomer’s Harlem Renaissance novel Cane. As I read, sleeping memories began to rise and haunt my waking thought. I knew I would never be the same, and I have not.
Cane . . . sugar cane….bending beneath breezes of stilted soft summer wind in early nineteen twenties backwoods rural Black Georgia. I feel as if I know Jean Toomer’s Georgia. His description of dense rural woodlands conflate with frequently told family stories and several collections of faded brown edged early twentieth century photographs.
Several decades ago, on a cool early late summer upstate western New York morning, my uncle’s deep gravelly voice tap dances with intense excitement after a trip south to Georgia. He echoes palpable images of rural life. Uncle Lawyer and my daddy, holding thick bamboo looking stalks at eye level, laugh in a mystic sharing totally unfamiliar to me. Two working class Black men, looking back into a past of “in your face” survival, seem like one soul, lost in sights and sounds of rural life with shoeless feet, mule plowed fields, Sunday overalls, and coal stoked trains. Daddy hands momma the cane. She places it on the red formica kitchen table. Smiling she simply says, “Well.” Her eyes blink small tears. She looks at me as if I should understand her silence. “Is that stuff really sweet?” I ask. Momma, daddy, and Uncle Lawyer go outside to watch the red winged black birds noisily playing above the empty clothes line. When I try to follow, they shoo me back inside, laughing at my youthful Northern suburban naiveté.
I look out the kitchen window. Uncle Lawyer’s hand proudly grips a bundle of Macon Georgia sugar cane like cat eye marbles from an old treasure chest. He and daddy break open a stalk. They hand momma a piece. All three stand in crisp morning sun, woods framing their unity. They laugh and talk for almost a half hour before momma brings several stalks back into the house. She slides one yellow-green stalk on the kitchen table and stands the rest next to the fridge. My brothers and sister eagerly lick their lips as they asked about the cane. I whine again, “Is that stuff REALLY sweet?”
Everyone looks at me as if I am a little space being. I run off to the railroad tracks behind the house, slamming the screen door behind me, singing at the top of my voice, “Freight train, freight train . . .” That’s when I saw Aunt Bert. She winks and shakes her head. Aunt Bert and Uncle Lawyer, momma and daddy, come back outside to sit and sip ice tea with mint leaves. They sit in our back yard facing the suburban Tonawanda New York meadows and trees behind our house. Later, during a supper table of collard greens with ham hocks, pan fried corn bread, pork chops smothered in creamy brown gravy and mashed potatoes, their stories began again.
Like the rural inhabitants of Toomer’s novel Cane, all of daddy’s brothers and sisters inhabited a farmland terrain. Their personal narratives continued as they migrated from Georgia to settle within a few miles of each other in urban Buffalo New York during the late nineteen forties and early fifties. Momma’s immediate family also moved to large urban centers. Her surviving sister lived in Chicago, distant relatives still lived in Georgia, some in the high mountains. Prompted by the sight of Uncle Lawyer’s gift that summer, it seemed as if all my kinfolk who visited talked about sugar cane as if it was mythic ambrosia.
Their conversations surrounded “cane talk” with a cast of colorful, sad, funny, and bigger than life characters from a sun baked distant south. In the next few weeks, with this new batch of cane, my daddy began to talk about parts of his life he hadn’t mentioned before. He talked of his quartet days singing tenor in a local group that traveled to La Grange, Idea, Manchester, and other odd named Georgia counties. Music provided a popular source of folks’ entertainment at church, work, and at home. Daddy and I would walk around our small vegetable garden, talking about birds and listening to their songs. Then, we’d sit on a stump in his small dark purple skinned grape arbor next to the vegetable garden. He’d look over at the oak trees, start talking about Georgia and remembering. We became closer than I’d ever remembered that year.
Some days that summer, when he was working outside alone, he’d whistle, gentle as a breeze, a sad tune. He would stop and pull a piece of cane from his pockets. Unfolding the wax paper, he’d look out over the yard, cane in hand. His whistling was almost as pretty as his sweet high tenor voice. When we lived in Buffalo, few of the neighborhood fathers sang like him. They were city born. Daddy sure seemed “country” then. Out in the suburbs, none of the dads, mostly European immigrants, whistled while they worked. My friends said their folks did sing old songs they mostly couldn’t understand. Seems we all had one thing in common, music.
When we lived in the city, my family had an old piano roll upright … I’d watch the keys and try to press my hands in them as the music played. I guess that’s how my folks decided that I had his and momma’s gift for music. As a matter of fact, they gave all my siblings music lessons. Clarinet, guitar, organ, accordion, and despite the fact that I wanted to play ukulele like Arthur Godfrey on TV, they gave me piano lessons at a piano studio called “Wurlitzers” that specialized in Wurlitzer pianos.
Momma liked that I was learning piano. Every year, she would play hymns and Christmas carols as all of us gathered around and sang. Daddy and momma, who had the best voices of us all, sometimes sang duets. Momma had a high spinning soprano voice that made us sit quiet, made us listen. She and Daddy both read music. His silky high tenor voice was smooth and honey-like. My folks encouraged us to sing and play at least one instrument well. It was just what they grew up doing, what should be for us too. For some reason, everybody expected me to play piano. We had a clunky, solidly built heavy old upright piano with a functioning piano roll. Fascinated by sound and movement, I would watch the keys play and play and play. It was magical entertainment.
When our family moved to suburban Town of Tonawanda in Western New York, we traded our old piano roll upright for a light weight smart spinet. We moved because like many areas of Buffalo New York at that time, our old neighborhood was filling up with people who didn’t have traditional Southern values. These were new, urban second generation people who seemed to move with irritation, seemed to create palpable tension, fusing the air with violence and noisiness. They and their children always seemed ready to fight. In response, our old neighbors, Irish, Italian, and old world Jewish immigrants, began moving out. We had music and song, got to know each other through our “cultural musics” With our old neighbors, from old world places beyond America where group music was better than television, we shared music, songs.
Our new neighbors’ children didn’t sing or play instruments or have a piano like us. They watched a lot of television, sat on their front porches in kitchen chairs and commented on passersby with barely covered. I don’t think I ever saw their dads. And their moms always seemed more intensely cranky near month’s end. Not like our old parents or our old neighbors whose mild crankiness depended on how NOT well behaved us children were at any time of the month as we giggled and played “Engine Engine, Number Nine” or “Red Light Red Light Green Light”or “Giant Step”.
These new Northern born city folks and their kids were less friendly towards my folks and us. My parents were never truly “urban”. I think my siblings and I had somehow absorbed quite a few rural attitudes and ways of being. We could be quiet when needed, not defiantly cussing at adults or throwing rocks at each other.
We couldn’t go to our new neighbors’ houses and sing and just hang out and talk. As girl and boy gangs began to surface, my dad became less tolerant. Perhaps all their fighting and drama pushed him and my mom to move us out of the concrete grey city and into the green lawn suburbs with meadows, woods, and no sidewalks on the street. Without loud anger and noise from the city’s urbanely profane people, my parents felt at peace. It wasn’t Georgia, but it was enough.
The Georgia of the early twentieth century that my parents grew up in was a different place than today. Most people who could afford a piano had a beat up old something to bang on. It was common for somebody in Black neighborhoods to sing or play a guitar, a piano. Music lightened long work days in tending to fields or washing over a hot laundry tub. Perhaps many rural African Americans were unaware of the ways in which academics viewed cultural historical memory linked to usages of music to ease repetitiveness of manual labor and daily chores.
This aspect of music’s function was an African-inflected tradition documented from slavery days. It continued into the twenties and thirties as Blues music spread. According to my mom and dad, music was also used to create a deeper sense of community: music bonded folks with shared meaning as they came together to dance, sing, and play instruments, to celebrate rituals and holidays. The space could have been sacred, secular or profane, but music was often the common unifying performative element.
Part 2 is in my second book, now in progress!
 Jean Toomer. Cane.(New York: University Place Press, 1951) 3rd printing 1967. with Foreward by Waldo Frank.
Toomer’s collection of poems, vignettes, short stories, and songs weave a surreal tapestry of early twentieth century Georgia rural life. As a child, my images of Georgia, through relatives’ stories, grew into a mystical fable world.
 We attended the Trinity Baptist Church in Buffalo New York which, at that time, was located at 41 Spruce Street.
 According to Earl L. Stewart “General Characteristics of African American Music” in African American Music: An Introduction (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998) p.7, Although several famous African American male singers have been baritones, a majority, especially in popular music, are notably tenors. Typically in popular music, black male vocal lead singers of various musical genres have and are tenor. They cultivate personalities to add flourish to the falsetto range of their tessaturas. The tenor with falsetto is still quite common even in the twentieth century. This is seen today for instance in the voices of Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Ney-o, and Prince
 Mungo Park. “From Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa 1800” in Readings in Black American Music. 2nd ed., Eileen Southern ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1983) 4-7. Julia Floyd Smith. “Slave Culture of the Georgia Coast” in Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia 1750-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press:1985) 166-167.
Special note: Cane book Image from zorosko.blogspot.com
Musewoman, Delores Fisher