Monthly Archives: October 2013

Berry Picking Day and Mr. Cooke

Berries of the blackberry plant

Berries of the blackberry plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Piggly Wiggly grocery - NARA - 280994

Piggly Wiggly grocery – NARA – 280994 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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…

Sam Cooke in studio, 1963

Sam Cooke in studio, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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It’s Not Marie, It’s Gloria*

Although my parents played Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and other fifties dudes of that ilk around the house when I was a kid, I was introduced to my favorite kind of fifties music by the movie, “American Graffiti”.  I saw it at the movie theater when it came out, and I immediately bought the soundtrack, listened to it a bazillion times, made myself a poodle skirt in home economics class, and was forever made a fan of doo-wop.

What a heavenly, romantic sound is created by the blending of velvety voices, the slow, smooth music in the background, and the hormone-soaked, burning lyrics.  Good Lord a’mighty…it’s just beautiful.  Here’s some unsolicited advice to men – you want to win that girl?  Make her return your longing glances?  Doo wop and flowers.  That’s all I’m saying.  That, and stop shaving (waxing?)  your chests.  Apparently, that’s the going thing, but JUST SAY NO.  It’s weird and unnatural.  Be unashamed of your virility, young men, and get yourself some doo wop pronto.  Here’s a few of the best to get you started…

“In the Still of the Night” by the Five Satins. One of the loveliest pop songs ever written, in my humble opinion…

Here’s another beauty…”A Thousand Miles Away”, by The Heartbeats.

*Of course the title was taken directly from the lyrics of this song.  Just listen to that plaintive, echo-y call to Gloria.  Magnificent.  I’ve never been accused of being a shy, shrinking violet, wallflower type, but for Gloria, I’ll step aside.  It’s not Marie, it’s Gloria…by The Cadillacs…

Sold yet? Here’s a link to a list of the top 100 doo-wop songs. Not a dud on the list, I assure you.  So young men, throw away those chest hair razors/waxers and good luck on your romantic quest.  And if your intended doesn’t respond to doo-wop, well, you’ll have to figure that one out.  I’m including the song below as a hint.

Now whatever happened to that poodle skirt?

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Okay, Heart. I Now Forgive You for the Eighties.

Dreamboat Annie

Dreamboat Annie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of all the bands from the seventies that bitterly disappointed me in the eighties, Heart was perhaps the worst offender, because I had loved them so much – not only loved them, but looked on them really as role models. As you know, my dear follower, I was at one time a young, female wannabe of almost the same make and model as the Wilson sisters. I wanted to sound like Ann – I played their records over and over and tried to imitate her, hairbrush in hand in front of the mirror.

And then the seventies ended, the eighties dawned, and darkness covered the face of rock. The list of bands that disappointed me by changing their sound to the over-commercialized pablum of that era is so long that it would be easier to list those that didn’t break my heart by suddenly sucking. I remember watching Heart on MTV during that period with a mixture of pity and disgust. It made me sick the way they tried to “hide” Ann and play up Nancy when Ann’s weight started going up. It was hard to watch, and the music was hard to listen to. It was such a far cry from Dreamboat Annie that it was downright sad to me. But I understood that they had to “stay current” with the hideous music trends at the time in order to be successful – I just wrote them off in my mind as a “sell out” and moved on.

Now, all these years later, things have changed. It started with their 2010 release Red Velvet Car, which harkened back to the days of their first few albums stylistically, and reached full fruition with their performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center Honors for the mighty Zepp in December 2012. I’ve watched this video an embarrassingly large number of times. It’s just amazing. And note the way that Ann stands and sings proudly, unashamed, the way it should be, and doesn’t permit herself to be pushed to the side anymore.  She’s now more than just a rock r0le model, she’s a role model for all who refuse to hide their talent or abilities under a bushel because they supposedly don’t measure up to societal pressures to have the “perfect body”.  Way to go, Ann!  I admire that greatly.

If you’re a Zepp fan, and I know you are, and if you’ve never seen this clip – you are in for a treat!  It’s worth watching just for the looks on our heroes’ faces alone, not to mention this incredible version of Stairway.  By the way, that’s Jason Bonham on drums, and at the beginning of the clip, you will see Plant acknowledging him with a look of sheer joy on his face.  You’ll also spot a tear or two in his eyes as the performance progresses.

Here’s a clip of what might be considered Heart’s best song – one of the coolest sounding songs in rock history, in my humble opinion. It’s “Barracuda”, of course…

And I had to include this clip of “Crazy On You” – I remember watching this on Midnight Special in 1977, sitting on the bean bag chair in the family room, my eyes popping out of my head with the effort to memorize every nuance of Ann’s vocal performance.

Long live the rock legends and role models for girl rockers everywhere, Ann and Nancy Wilson.

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