musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lois Short -- 3. Kitchen Music


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Of Lois’s music making, Kathleen remarked, “She didn’t start singing ‘til after your dad died.”
She did sing, in fact, but just never on a stage, never outside her home, as long as her husband lived. She sang, said Larry, “just in the kitchen, there, around the house… she didn’t travel around or anything.”

Kitchens, and front porches had been the comfortable home of banjo tunes and ballads for generations, but for Lois, that kitchen concert hall was the sign of a dream deferred, or even obstructed.

She had dreams of being a performer. “She wanted to do that all of her life,” said Larry, something she never did until later in her life. “I understand there was some jealousy between her and our dad,” Larry said, “In terms of her singing publicly… Dad didn’t think it was the place for a woman to be.”

She would sing and pick up her banjo in the old frailing or clawhammer style, around the house, Larry remembered, during those moments when “she’d get caught up with her housework. I can remember being outside, and hearing her singing, and playing. She was real good, I’d say, probably an excellent clawhammer banjo player.” She played a Vega White Lady Banjo, purchased from a distant cousin of her husband. “I heard that story,” Don said, “where they stopped and bought it, one day, after coming from church, they stopped and bought it.”

She was a guitarist, too, played a D-18 Martin bought from a Harlan music store, and sometimes played on the upright piano that they had at their house, an instrument she “took lessons on, early on,” in Larry’s remembrance. “She tried to push pianos on us,” said Don. She taught Don a “few chords” on the guitar, when he was little, and he still plays a bit—“just sitting on the couch.”

She’d learn tunes she heard from the radio, and from records they bought. Her boys remembered trying to listen to the Grand Old Opry, on their battery powered radio. “You’d have to put your hand on the radio, or behind the radio or something… to get the station to come in,” said Larry. “She liked the Chuck Wagon Gang awful well,” Don recalled. The Chuck Wagon Gang, and Hank Williams, Charlie Pride, Don Reno and Red Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, The Hardin Brothers Quartet, Mother Maybelle, and the Carter Family.
But her sons remember, primarily, hearing her sing ballads, “old songs, without music,” that she had learned from her parents, the words of which neither of her sons ever learned. She sang at church, too, Don said,  “whatever [was] popular during that period.” Amazing Grace, and the like, as he recalled.

She was a Missionary Baptist, for most of her life; later in life, she became a Hard Shell Baptist. “Her mom and dad and her brother and sister were the old hard-shell Baptists,” Larry said. “They kindly got talking to her, and convinced her to come over and join their church… because that way she’d have her name on the books…. That they were the chosen few.” Parishioners believed in divine predestination, that certain people are chosen to be saved by God. It is the music of her church that, Lois herself noted, contributed to her singing style: loud and big, an ornamented archaic style typical of Appalachian ballad singers.

She learned to sing old ballads from her father, and mother, “all these old songs, from the late 1800s,” said her son Larry. She seemed to understand the value of the songs, and wished to have them preserved, though she never did write down their lyrics, or pass them on to her sons. The way to preserve them, in her mind, was through recording. “She always said, she didn’t want to ever leave without recording those songs on record,” Larry said. At one point, Larry “set up a recording place at the house, and recorded about half a tape of her… sounded good.” But Lois didn’t agree with his assessment: she didn’t like the way the tapes sounded, so she took them all with her, never to be recovered.