Every year, when the blackberries ripened, all the cousins, and there were seventeen of us, (yes, that’s right – I said seventeen) would converge on Granny’s house at the edge of the swamp on a Saturday to pick berries so that Granny could make jam for the whole family. You got to Granny’s house down a dirt road that cut a couple miles through the woods from the highway, and the smaller cousins picked along side of the road, while the older cousins combed through the woods on either side. It was a good system. I know this all sounds like a scene from Tennessee Williams or a page out of William Faulkner, or maybe an episode of “The Waltons”, but we were in rural south Mississippi, and this was in the late sixties, which was pretty much like the fifties since the sixties didn’t come to that neck of the woods until at least the late seventies, so there you have it. Very Faulkneresque/Williamsonian/Waltonian indeed.
Blackberries grew like mad in those woods, and we would fill many a paper sack from the Piggly Wiggly on our outings. A mile or so down the dirt road from Granny’s, almost all the way up by the highway, was the little church where the Black families worshipped. One berry picking day, when I was still one of the little cousins picking on side of the road, there was a revival meeting going on at the church. Now in case you are wondering about that, churches down here, both Black and White, used to have a week-long revival every year, where you had music and preaching from a travelling gospel band and preacher every day for a week, then on Sunday you would have “dinner on the grounds”, which meant that after church you would spread blankets and quilts on the ground in the churchyard and have a feast, the likes of which I’ve never seen since.
The church was just a small, neat white building, jam-packed on this day, with open windows, through which poured the most glorious music I had ever heard. As I picked my berries along the road, I tried hard to listen to every word around the annoying chatter of various cousins. Then we started getting too far away to hear very well at all. So I began slowly straggling behind as my cousins moved on and when they were a safe distance away, I ran back to the church and sat under one of the open windows to listen.
Sitting there with my paper sack of berries, with no distractions and no picking duties, the music really started to hit home. I thought that this must be what heaven sounded like. It was multi-layered, with intricate rhythms and harmonies, strong, pure voices working together a sound that was almost hypnotic and beyond sublime. The beauty and power of the music soon brought tears to my eyes, and they poured down my face as I munched on my berries. I don’t know how long I sat there listening. Looking back now, it couldn’t have been all that long, but the music seemed to go on forever.
But alas, all good things must come to an end, and this one ended with my eldest cousin jerking me up by the arm to rejoin the berry-pickers on the journey back to Granny’s. Red-eyed and purple-lipped from the berries, I carried my mostly empty paper sack and handed it over to Granny like the others when we got back home. Some of the tattle-tale inclined cousins couldn’t wait to tell Granny that I had sat listening to music instead of picking and had eaten most of the few berries I had managed to pick. I just knew I was in big trouble, but no, my Granny said, “That’s the best music in the world, ain’t it, my cher baby? I wish I coulda sat there with you, cher.” In case you are wondering what “cher” means, that was Cajun-Granny-speak for “my-darling-precious-favorite-grandbaby-ever”. Except that she called us all that.
I knew a couple songs that I heard that day, because we sang them (not nearly as well) in my church too, but the one that really hit me hard I had never heard before. I asked my piano teacher, Mrs. Sullivan, if she knew a song that said something about “it won’t be very long”, but she didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Nothing against Mrs. Sullivan, though – she had the highest, most magnificent beehive hairdo I’ve ever seen, and she could rock that piano like nobody’s business, like Liberace, but she couldn’t help me.
This was not the only time that an unidentified song tormented me, remember “Nantucket Sleighride”? But in this case, about forty years passed before I heard that song again. A few years ago, I was doing a little reading and research on Sam Cooke, and I came across a recording he made with the Soul Stirrers, a gospel group that toured what is called “the gospel road”, performing in churches and auditoriums around the country. That recording was called “It Won’t Be Very Long”.
It’s hard to describe my excitement when I first saw that title. I put it on to play and with the very opening notes, I knew it was my song. I reacted in much the same way I did under the window – goose bumps and tears. Just listen to Sam’s sweet, high tenor, coming in like an electric current! Of course, the live version I had heard was much longer with extensive variations and improvisations, and Sam had already left us by then and it couldn’t have been him singing that day, but let me tell you, it’s the same song I heard all those years ago. By the way, they were right – it wasn’t very long before I lost my beloved, cher Granny.
Sam Cooke, the handsome, magnetic, and talented preacher’s son, took a chance and eventually went over to secular music, much to the great benefit of us all, because his tremendous abilities were soon recognized and he created some of the most charming pop and soul tunes ever. Here’s one of my favorites…
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