In 1955 to play the piano is a social grace, a declaration that one is middle class, no matter one’s roots—a sign of having moved beyond your Depression era childhood and those days at school trying to pass for not poor. It’s like being raised Baptist but going, instead, to the Methodist Church and pretending the mothers of the young women who’d been your classmates believe you belong.
So, yes, my mother tried to teach me the piano, and, yes, I resisted as she explained the black dots and sentenced me to the bench as if “practice” would somehow make “perfect” when what I wanted was music. Music like my father’s brother singing “Red River Valley,” his thumb playing a simple bass line as he moved from chord to chord. Or like my father’s sister strumming and singing verse after verse of “I Can Tell You’re a Logger ‘Cause You Stir Your Coffee with Your Thumb” as my cousin cut out the paper dresses for her dolls and I stacked blocks. I hadn’t yet heard Cousin Steve do “Be-Bop-A-Lula” as he practiced his stage moves dreaming he’d be a Rockabilly star, and, really, I don’t think it had anything to do with the guitar (Cousin Bill’s?), unplayed, behind the couch at my aunt’s house—the one with the hula dancer painted on it and a pair of decorously set rhinestones to make it acceptably polite.
So, why was I so determined that I would be a guitar and not a piano? Maybe because guitar was the music I wanted to be and piano was just notes. Maybe because guitar was a different way of having been poor across those Depression years before the war, and guitar meant you could go to whatever church you wanted—or not go at all.
For information on Merle Travis and Tennessee Ernie Ford, both invoked in “Please, God,” please see the entry for “Sixteen Tons” (coming soon).
Gene Autry used the cowboy ballad, “The Red River Valley,” as the featured song in his 1936 film, Red River Valley, and released a re-recorded version in 1946.
“The Frozen Logger,” a tall tale, humorous ballad, was recorded by The Weavers in 1951. That might or might not have been how my Auntie Sue knew it, but know it she did. A logger woman herself, married to a logger man, she took (in my memory of things) a special delight in this song. As this site evolves, I hope to add the National Geographic photo of Sue and Oliver Hillman, posed against the cab of their logging truck. For now, here’s The Weavers’ rendition of “The Frozen Logger.”
“Be-Bop-A-Lula”: a 1956 Rockabilly hit for Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps (Capitol Records)
My sullen picking at Row, Row, Row Your Boat was, I’m sure, less jaunty than this recording.