musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Effie Pierson -- 3. Music in the Family


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EFFIE3.jpgAmidst the work, there was always time for music. Music was a family affair, for Effie. She’d grown up hearing her grandparents, her parents, and playing with her siblings. She, and Ed, who played guitar, taught their daughters to play; Lillian learned guitar, Pauline learned mandolin.  Beulah also played the guitar, and went on to play and sing in church. Like their mother, the girls started playing early. Pauline remembered learning to play at the age of five. Soon after she started, she and her seven year old sister, on guitar, “played at the fair down at Booneville… and won first prize. Five dollars. That was pretty good money back then.”


There were many musicians in the area. “There were lots of boys and girls that could play music, back then,” Lillian remembered. “There wasn’t hardly any that couldn’t, if they wanted to. The only ones that didn’t play were the ones who didn’t want to. Once I got started, it was hard to stop me. I really enjoyed it.”
Though she played many instruments, “she stuck with the fiddle and banjo,” Pauline said. “She used to play for square dances, just around the neighborhood, you know. They used to get together at one person’s house and have a square dance. And she would play the fiddle, and my dad would pick the guitar.” He played French harp, too, and called square dances when the occasion called for it.
Their family would get together, Pauline remembered, “and play for people that would come to hear us. They’d come over there to my grandma’s house….” They would play “anytime anybody would come in,” Pauline continued. “If mom was at the house… we’d sit down on just regular chairs… and play and sing for them. They liked to hear us.”
They liked to perform, on their porch. As Wallace Edwards recalled, his grandmother-in-law quite enjoyed playing for others. Lillian did too: “I loved to perform. If anybody wanted to hear it, I was ready to play.” She’d tell jokes, too; “I’d stand there all day if they’d laugh. I love to hear people laugh. I’ve always done a lot myself.”
Pauline remembered one man in particular, a local drunk who always requested No Drunkards Can Enter Heaven. That’s the song he loved! He wanted to hear that,” she said, laughing at the irony.
Pie suppers were another favorite occasion for music. The girls would bake pies and take them to the local schoolhouse on the night of the supper. “They’d string up sheets across the stage,” Lillian described. “Young girls, they’d get up there and walk across the stage with a pie—their silhouette would be there on the sheet. The boys thought they knew who it was… the boy who had a crush on you might buy your pie.” They’d bid on the pies, and won the pie, and the chance to eat it with the lady who made it. A dance, and music followed. “We had a lot of fun in our way,” Lillian remembered, with bean stringings and music parties—“people would dance in their houses… dance all you wanted to.”
They would sometimes play at more public gatherings. “We used to play for a square dance down at Booneville,” Pauline remembered. “Albert Bowman’s dance hall, it was called. And we played music down there for people to square dance to.” Dances began at 7, and would go late into the night.
Eventually, the dance hall was closed down: “People complained about getting, you know, cars waking them up at night… back then there weren’t many cars.” The traffic may have disturbed the neighbors, but perhaps the heart of the complaint rested in the fact that the dance was a cultural and religious threat to some. This is implied in Pauline’s words when she observed, “It was a decent place, there was never any meanness going on, or anything,” as if in response to those old critics of the dance. The dance she remembered was a family and community affair. She even recalls dancing with the sheriff, who evidently had no objections to the goings-on.
“One night,” Pauline recalled, “The Northern Lights started… scared people to death! They thought the end of time was coming, and they thought they were doing wrong, being at the dance like that, and everything,”
Pauline learned fiddle tunes on the mandolin, tunes her mother had learned as a child, old square dance numbers. She remembered playing Billy In the Lowground, Boil Them Cabbage Down. She laughed, remembering playing Black Eyed Susan at square dances—“That’s one they wanted played all the time. I got so sick of hearing it, I couldn’t stand it!”