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AUGUST 2011

At a get-together with some of my cousins a couple of years ago, I learned that our memories of our grandfather were completely different. They couldn't imagine that he had ever crawled around in the brambles with me, looking for the nests where the guinea hens had hidden their eggs, or that he had ever told a ghost story, or even smiled, or any of the myriad things that I remembered.

To them, he was a bristle-browed old man with piercing blue eyes who grumped and hollered. But then, they only visited infrequently, with their brothers and sisters, when his house was filled with adults and children and unaccustomed noise; I lived with my grandparents until Mother remarried when I was six years old.

And that made all the difference ....

"And he played a banjo? He sang and danced?" they asked, disbelievingly.

"Well, yes," I said.

I would beg him, "Please, Grampa, play and dance for me."

"Oh, your ol' Grampa's too tired," he would say, but eventually he would play his banjo or dance a jig, his feet in their old high top shoes moving rapidly and his arms flapping loosely at his sides.

They looked at each other, shaking their heads and trying to picture THEIR grandfather doing that.

Almost embarrassed, I added, "And sometimes he would sing to me, songs like Barbara Allen and Black Is The Color of My True Love's Hair. My hair was black and I always thought he made up that song just for me."

"Oh, yes," they said. "We remember that black hair," as we all smiled at my now all-white head of hair. Then they all regaled ME about a grandfather that I had rarely seen, grouchy and irritable and overwhelmed at all the noise of his visiting children and grandchildren. And not one of them had ever gotten a letter from him, (but not one of them had ever written to him, either, as I did). From the time I was about 8 years old until he passed away when I was a young bride, I wrote him, and he wrote me, signing his letters quite formally, Your Grandpa, J. B. T.........

That get-together was a revelation, and a reminder that even though we were cousins, we were all quite different in our perspectives on family, particularly Grampa. And our age differences, irrelevant now, made a big difference when we were children. Even my brother and sisters had dfferent recollections of Grampa, although their memories of him were pleasant like mine, because we only came for a visit once or twice a year and he made a big deal out of it, heading off to the candy factory first thing to bring back big bags of candy. That's the reason that to this day I love peanut patties; they remind me of Grampa.

All of them had a particularly hard time believing that he would sing a lullaby. But I remembered many nights nodding off to sleep as he sang and patted my shoulder.

Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses.

Blacks and bays, dapples and greys,
Go to sleepy little baby,
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby....

Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you'll have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.

Along with the warmth and love that surrounded me as he sang, even as a small child, though, I felt a touch of melancholy as I saw all those pretty horses running through the darkness.

There was a stanza before the end of the song that my grandfather did not sing to me ...

Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
There's a poor wee little lamby.
The bees and the butterflies pickin' at its eyes,
The poor wee thing cried for her mammy.


Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you'll have cake,
And all the pretty little horses.

I learned long years later that Grampa's song was an old slave lullaby, presumably sung by a woman who was forced to take care of another woman's child. She could not sing to her own baby, which perhaps had died - as reflected in that missing stanza. I have no idea who, if anyone, Grampa ever sang that song to besides me, or where he first heard it. I never thought to ask my mother if she had ever heard him sing it. I do remember her saying that he had had a black woman as his wet nurse when he was a baby because his own arrogant hateful mother did not want to take care of him.

That discussion with my cousins about Grampa and his songs reminded me of an incident from my teaching days. I often played music, usually on Fridays, and sometimes my students brought their favorite albums to play. During that hour while we listened to each other's music, we wrote whatever came into our minds. No matter what it was, Faust or Elvis, the music tapped into our right brains and my students wrote freely, and vividly, and I wrote right along with them.

One day a student brought in Michael Martin Murphey's album Swans Against the Sun, and my heart quickened when I heard the banjo music, and almost stopped as the words of the last stanza of Dancing in the Meadow reverberated in my head:

,,,
When the seasons pass and the hour glass
Has all too quickly shattered,
You'll lay me low beneath the snow
And wonder if I mattered.
Late in the night your hair gone white
Will surely stand on end;
You'll hear me sing, my banjo ring,
The voice of your old friend.
If you get brave, run to my grave
And holler, "Are you dead?" "No!"
No tombstone can cover my bones
I'm dancing in the meadow . . .

I laid my head on my desk and cried for my grandfather.

And I didn't apologize for crying in my classroom that day. When we wrote to music we all let our hair down, and all of those kids at one time or another heard something or felt something or wrote something in our class that touched them deeply, and they understood.

The next day, as I read my piece about my grandfather singing me to sleep and dancing and playing his banjo for me, once again the tears rolled down my cheeks, and they all nodded in understanding and looked down in silence. And for the rest of the period and even several days after that, they wrote about their grandparents or other special family members who had behaved unselfconsciously and loved them unconditionally when they were small. And I think some of them cried for them, as well.

And then, long after I retired, came the Coen brothers, with their wonderful quirky movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? Oh the impact of that music as I watched that film! I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck with every song echoing the music of my childhood, from the first lines of The Big Rock Candy Mountain all the way to the last,

O come Angel Band, come & around me stand
O bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home
O bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home...

Of all the songs in that movie, however, the one that got me the most was the one that the Sirens sang (voices of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch), echoing once again a poignant lullaby like the one sung by my grandfather.

go to sleep little ba-be

go to sleep little ba-be

your momma's gone away and your daddy's gonna stay
didn't leave nobody but the baby

go to sleep little ba-be
go to sleep little ba-be

everybody's gone in the cotton and the corn
didn't leave nobody but the baby


you're a sweet little ba-be
you're a sweet little ba-be
honey in the rock and the sugar don't stop
gonna bring a bottle to the baby


don't you weep pretty ba-be
don't you weep pretty ba-be
she's long gone with her red shoes on
gonna need another loving babe


go to sleep little ba-be
go to sleep little ba-be
you and me and the devil makes three
don't need no other lovin' ba-be


go to sleep little ba-be
go to sleep little ba-be
come lay bones on the alabaster stones
and be my everlovin baby

,,,

It was hard for me to reconcile the mesmerizing beauty of this lullaby with the chilling effect of its lyrics. It is certainly reminiscent of the one my grandfather sang, too. What is this in our collective psyches that has us singing lovely melodies to our babies, and at the same time telling them the bough is going to break and their cradles are going to fall out of the tree? How many women over the ages have had to take care of someone else's child and sing to them the lullabys that they could not to their own?

From the time I first heard it, this song raised more questions than it answered. Who is singing? The father, agonizing over an unfaithful woman, wondering how he can care for her baby? A grandmother, left with a child she cannot care for?

Who can care for this little baby? Perhaps not the father, or the poor grandmother, and everyone else is out working in the fields. Certainly not the promiscuous mother in her red shoes!

Perhaps only the angels?

 

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NOTES:

I felt compelled, almost driven, to do something with this haunting song for a long time, and originally my idea was to have the baby lying on the "alabaster" stone next to an angel in a graveyard. However, I was dissatisfied and didn't know exactly what was lacking. On a visit to our place in Cloudcroft I prowled around in a local secondhand store and there it was, a plaque that at first glance might seem wildly inappropriate with its little mailbox scene. But none of that mattered; it was the backing of fragments of weathered wood that drew my eye. It reminded me of the faded wood of old grave markers in the Oklahoma country cemetery where my grandparents lie buried.

My husband helpfully removed all the little elements. I saved the little fence, bench, mailbox and sign, as well as the wooden planter, for who knows what future project. The only thing I got rid of was the dried plants.

I printed out the lyrics and used a ruler to tear around the edges. It took three or four tries to get the right fit.

Here I am experimenting with an early printing. I wound up using a font size that allowed me to place it right against the top frame so that as little of the song would be obscured as possible. After gluing the page in place, I gave it a brown wash to help it blend into the background.

The corn rows I had purchased in Chicago at the Bishop International, and the simple little doll was in my stash for a long time.

The angel had been sitting for years in a little glass case atop an etagere in our bedroom. It was among some gardening themed items I found at Michaels a few years ago.

And guess what I found! There beside the angel was another wooden shoe with tulips (made from some painted wild plants that my husband brought me from one of his hikes), which I shall now add to my Netherlands setting!

I repainted the baby. His hair is little snips that I trimmed off the man when I gave him a shorter haircut.


His blanket is made from a scrap of my faded and very worn old knit nightgown! Gosh, was that gown comfortable!

The male figure was a Chicago purchase at the 3 Blind Mice Show. He was made by a woman named Julie from New Mexico, whose business name is Celtic Juju. I had no plans whatsoever to purchase a doll, but he called out to me. He was a standing figure, but I decided he needed to be kneeling for this setting. It took some doing to get his legs and body posed. I inserted a glue coated needle tool inside his clothing to help achieve natural folds.

In experimenting for different ways to place him, I made an interesting discovery.

There burned into the base was the name of the name who created the little mailbox setting and made this wonderful backdrop (couldn't quite figure out the last name). Thanks, Carlos! Unfortunately, the name is now obscured by the landscaping.


I removed the individual stalks from the original base and planted them at the back, using my needle tool to poke holes in the cardboard base. I used my standard brown paint and Tacky glue mixture and coffee grounds and model railroad foam for dirt. I also used a mixture of crumbled dried materials to suggest weedy grass.

Ultimately I decided that I wanted the angel to be looking at the baby, so turned it to face them. Therefore, the final setting ....

GO TO SLEEP LITTLE BA-BE!

Here again is the link to those wonderful singers, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch

 

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http://gostats.com/gogi/count.pl?mn=wanna

 

 

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