musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Emma Lee Dickerson - 3. A Quiet Home


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Emma Lee, with one of her three children.It was the son of one of Levi's co-workers, Wilson Dickerson, who successfully wooed Emma Lee. No easy task, in Carl’s remembrance. “There was other boys interested in her, but she wasn’t interested in them,” he said.

She was “backward,” he said, by which he meant she was a shy, timid young woman. “I don’t know how your dad did it,” he said to Sharon. Oh, she replied, he was a dashing, handsome man, that’s how.

Emma Lee and Wilson were married when she was eighteen. They moved briefly to Baltimore during World War II, Wilson working at the shipyards. They mo  ved back to Kentucky, and settled outside of Ashland, in a little community called Ironville, where they lived most the rest of their lives, raising three children— two daughters and a son. He worked as a construction worker, and was often away on jobs; together, they ran a grocery store they’d built next to their home.

With her husband often away, Emma Lee was constantly working at the grocery store. “My little sister nearly grew up there,” Sharon recalls. “I remember taking naps on the bread shelf.” Her mother, she said, “worked all the time.” As a busy woman,  her daughter said, “There were several years passed, she never even picked up the guitar. It seems like there was always something more important to do.”

Emma Lee was also plagued by bursitis, which kept her from playing. “[Her shoulder] froze,” said Sharon. “She couldn’t do anything for the longest time.” She remembers her mother getting shots in her shoulder, to treat the condition.

Sharon, the daughter of a fiddler, remembered a childhood without very much music. Music was something that had to be “dragged” out of her mother, she explained. She remembered, as a child, enjoying a particular tune her mother played—Cacklin’ Hen, a tune which pulls sounds from the fiddle that imitate the sound of the animal. “It would tickle us to death” to hear that tune, she said, but “it was like pulling teeth, to get her to play.”

Emma Lee was a shy, reserved, woman, who “didn’t stress music. You would never know by talking to her that she knew anything about it, really,” Sharon said. As we looked through photographs of Dickerson, Sharon pointed to one, where her mother’s eyes avoid the camera—“this is what she was always like,” she said. Playing music, Sharon said, her mother was “quiet. She wouldn’t hardly look up, or make eye contact with anyone, almost an embarrassed thing.

“She didn’t want to be in the limelight,” Sharon said. “If she’d been the type to pursue playing in public, that way, she could’ve probably got a lot more attention than what she had, but she never really pursued it,” Sharon said, returning to the point, later in the interview. “She could’ve gone places with it, but she never had any desire to do that. You couldn’t hardly tape her. She’d really get embarrassed…She really didn’t feel like she was that good at it... ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that,’ she’d say,” Sharon said, adding, “but she could.” Sharon said, at one point in our interview, “I don’t think she loved it too good,” referring to her mom’s music.

None of Dickerson’s children learned to play the music; it was not something Dickerson encouraged. “I think she almost thought that [that] type [of] music was a little bit embarrassing, to be from that old school. I think that’s why she never did push it any.” That “old school” to which Sharon referred was the old way of doing things, the culture and tradition in which Dickerson was brought up, which Sharon described in contrast to her mother’s desire to “have nice things. That was her aim in life. My dad saw to it she had it.” She was “proper,” Sharon said, and worried about her lack of education; Dickerson never finished high school, though as an adult completed her GED. “She really didn’t have access to higher education,” with the nearest college Morehead State, too far away. “She would’ve loved that.”