Sunday, November 24, 2013

***The Roots Is The Toots- The Music That Got Them Through The Great Depression And World War II- Sultry and Sleek Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather…

… it wasn’t always about the fight to beat the rent-collector for another week to keep a roof over your head, it wasn’t always about the indignity of standing in soup-lines when one was willing and able to work, it wasn’t always about some big world historic struggle to gain dignity, and it wasn’t always about a guy’s number coming up, a girl seeing him off at the station before he was gathered up in some god forsaken troop transport to face, to face whatever was coming, and the waiting. Sure a lot of it was, most of it, but the multifarious varieties of human experience, human experience close to the nub, did not take a holiday just because the economy tanked or the world was facing the night of the long knives. What did she know of class struggles and long knives all she knew was her man was gone, gone away and she was blue, blue as a woman could be and still stand. What did she know of too much production and not enough demand when all she knew was that her man, her only man, had gone, gone and left her with no dough, and no way to get dough. What did she know of world historic monsters afoot when her man has beat it, left her flat, maybe gone back to his other woman, or maybe some new young thing. Yeah, what did she know except the damn man-wanting blues, the baddest blues around. Yeah, what did she know…     



Peter Paul Markin comment on this series:

Whether we liked it or not, whether we even knew what it meant to our parents or not, or frankly, during that hellish growing up absurd teenager time in the 1950s trying to figure out our places, if any, in the cold war red scare world, if there was to be a world, and that was a close thing at times,  or whether we cared, music was as dear a thing to them as to us, their sons and daughters, who were in the throes of finding our own very different musical identities. As well, whether we knew it or not, knew what sacred place the music of the late 1930s and 1940s, swing, be-bop swing, be-bop flat-out, show tunes, you know jitter-bug stuff, and the like held in their youthful hearts that was the music, their getting through the tough times music, that went wafting through the house on the radio, on record player, or for some the television, of many of those of us who constitute the now graying fading generation of ‘68. And some of us will pass to the beyond clueless as to what our forebears were attuned to when they came of age in a world, a very darkly-etched world, which they too had not created, and had no say in creating.

Yes they were crazy for the swing and sway of bespectacled Benny Goodman blowing that clarinet like some angel- herald letting the world know,  if it did know already, that it did not mean a thing, could not possibly matter in the universe, if you did not swing, with and without Miss (Ms.) Peggy Lee, better with, better with, swaying slightly lips moistened, swirling every guy in the place on Why Don’t You Do Right vowing he would do just that for a smile and a chance at those slightly swaying hips. Mr. Harry James with or without the orchestra , better with, blowing Gabriel’s horn, knocking down walls, maybe Jericho, maybe just some Starlight Ballroom in Kansas City blasting the joint with his You Made Me Love You to the top of the charts. Elegant Duke Ellington with or without Mr. Johnny Hodges blowing that sexy sax out into the ocean air night in some Frisco club, blowing out to the Japan seas, on Taking The ‘A’ Train. Tommy Dorsey all banded up if there is such a word making eyes misty with I’ll Never Smile Again.  Jimmy Dorsey too with his own aggregation wailing Tangerine that had every high school girl throwing dreamy nickels and dimes into the jukebox, with or without fanfare, Glenn Miller, with or without those damn glasses, taking that Sentimental Journey before his too soon last journey. Miss (Ms.) Billie Holiday, Lady Day, with or without the blues, personal blues, strung out blues too, singing everybody else’s blues away with that throaty thing she had, that meaningful pause, yeah, Lady Sings The Blues. Miss Lena Horne with or without stormy weather making grown men cry (women too) when she reached that high note fretting about her long gone man, Jesus.  Miss (Ms.) Margaret Whiting going for that Old Black Magic. Mr. Vaughn Monroe with or without goalposts. Mr. Billy Eckstine, too. Mr. Frank Sinatra doing a million songs fronting for the Dorseys and anybody who wanted to rise in that swinging world, with or without a horde of bobbysoxers breaking down his doors, putting everybody else to shame (and later too). The Inkspots, always with that spoken refrain catch that nobody seemed to tire of, doing teary I’ll Get By or If I Didn’tCare. The Mills Brothers with or without those paper dolls. The Andrews Sisters with or without rum in their Coca-Cola, The Dewdrops with or without whatever they were doing with or without. Mr. Cole Porter, with or without the boys, writing the bejesus out of  Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes. Mr. Irving Berlin with or without the flag, ditto Mr. Porter. And Mr. George Gershwin with or without his brother, creating Summertime and a thousand other catchy tunes. Yeah, their survival music.  

We the generation of ’68, baby-boomers, decidedly not what Tom Brokaw dubbed rightly or wrongly “ the greatest generation,”  decidedly not your parents’  or grandparents’ (please, please do not say great-grandparents’ even if it is true) generation could not bear to hear that music, could not bear to think anybody in the whole universe would think that stuff was cool. Those of us who came of age, biological, political and social age kicking, screaming and full of the post-war new age teenage angst and alienation in the time of Jack Kennedy’s Camelot were ready for a jail-break, a jail-break on all fronts and that included from “their song” stuff. Their staid Eisenhower red scare cold war stuff (he their organizer of victory, their gentile father Ike), hell, we knew that the world was scary, knew it every time we were forced to go down into some dank school basement and squat down, heads down too, hoping to high heaven that the Russkies had not decided to go crazy and set off “the bomb,” many bombs. And every righteous teenager had a nightmare that they were trapped in some fashionable family bunker and those loving parents had thoughtfully brought their records down into the abyss to soothe their savage beasts for the duration. Please, please, please if we must die then at least let’s go out to Jerry Lee’s High School Confidential.  

We were moreover, some of us any way and I like to think the best of us, driven by some makeshift dream, ready to cross our own swords with the night-takers of our time, and who, in the words of Camelot brother Bobby, sweet ruthless Bobby of more than one shed tear, quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson, were “seeking a new world.” Those who took up the call to action heralded by the new dispensation and slogged through that decade whether it was in the civil rights/black liberation struggle, the anti-Vietnam War struggle or the struggle to find one’s own identity in the counter-culture swirl before the hammer came down were kindred. To the disapproval, anger, and fury of more than one parent who had gladly slept through the Eisenhower times. And that hammer came down quickly as the decade ended and the high white note that we searched for, desperately searched for, drifted out into the ebbing tide. Gone. But enough about us this series is about our immediate forbears (but please, please not great grandparents) their uphill struggles to make their vision of the their newer world, their struggles to  satisfy their hunger a little, to stop that gnawing want, and the music that in their youth  they dreamed by on cold winter nights and hot summer days.

This is emphatically the music, the get by the tough times in the cities, on the farms, out in the wide spaces, of the hard born generation that survived the dust bowl all farms blown away when the winds gathered like some ancient locust curse to cleanse the earth and leave, leave nothing except silt and coughs. All land worthless no crops could stand the beating, the bankers fearful that the croppers would just leave taking whatever was left and the dusted crowd heading west with whatever was movable. They drifted west, west as far as California if the old buggy held up and they had enough gas in the tank, not knowing what some old time professor, from Harvard I think, knew about the frontier that it had been swallowed up, been staked out long ago and too bad. Not knowing as well what some old time Okie balladeer knew that if you did not have the dough California was just another Okie/Arkie bust.

Survived empty bowls, empty plates, wondering where the next meal would come from, many times, too many times from some Sally soup-line, some praise the lord before thy shall eat soup-line. Survived that serious hunger want that deprives a man, a woman, of dignity scratching for roots like some porcine beast in some back alley lot, too weak to go on but too weak to stop as well. Survived, if not west, then no sugar bowl city street urchin corner boy hard times of the 1930s Great Depression, always with that vagrant foot up against some brick-laid wall, killing time, killing some dreams,  sleeping under soot-lined railroad trestles, on splintered park benches newspapers for a pillow’s rest (one eye open for swarming festering jack-rollers and club-wielding sadistic cops), and hard bench bus stations (ditto jack-rollers and cops).  Survive the time of the madness just then beating the tom-toms of war and degradation coming from a hungry want-infested Europe filled with venom, those drums heralding the time of the night-takers casting a shadow over the darkened world, portending the plainsong of the time of the long knives, outlawing dreams for the duration.

Building up a pretty list of those wants on cold nights , name them, food, shelter, sex, two- bits in the pocket, name those hungers, success, dignity, not having to struggle against the want night. Building that phantom list while among tree-lined Hudson River “hobo jungle” riverside fires stoked by fugitives, brethren, the fellahin of the world, upstream from the clogged city, upstream from clogged city prying eyes and prickly cops, cities clogged with broken dreams, or worse of late no dreams, and not enough food to go around, not enough work either and that ate at him, her more that the food hungers. Down in dusty arroyos, parched, no water, no agua aqui senor, lo siento, as they, the bracero brethren, passed the water jug between them and pointed him west, west you cannot stay here gringo, no way. Under forsaken silver-plated bridges, steel beams to rest a weary head, rolled blanket for his pillow, trying to keep the winds at bay.  Survived god knows how by taking the nearest freight west, some smoke and dreams freight, sleeping on some straw-scratched floor, plugging ears with napkins to drown out the rattling rails and deep sleep snores. Taking Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, B&O, Illinois Central, Penn Central, Empire State, Boston and Maine, or one of a million trunk lines to go out, and young as he was, desperate as he was, penniless as he was, search for, well, search for…

Searching for something that was not triple- decker bodies, three to a room sharing some scraggly blanket, an old worn out pillow for rest, the faint smell of oatmeal, twenty days in a row oatmeal, oatmeal with.., being cooked in the next room meaning no Pa work, meaning one jump, maybe not even that, ahead of the sullen dreaded bastard rent- collector (the landlords do not dare come in person so they hire the task out), meaning the sheriff, his damn auction, and the streets are closing in. (What did the Sheriff care that all meager life-times possessions were street-ward bound he was paid by the item tossed.) Bodies, brothers and sisters, enough to lose count, piled high, cold-water flat high, that damn cold water splash signifying how low things have gotten, not even hot water for the weekly bath, with a common commode for the whole floor and brown-stained sink.

Later moving down the scale, down to the lower depths as some Russian writer called them in a book of that name, a rooming house room for the same number of bodies, smudged prison-paned window looking out onto the air- shaft, dark, dark with despair, no air but some fetid foul breeze from the basement furnace, the very, very faint odor of oatmeal, thinned out even further, who knows how many days in a row, from Ma’s make-shift hot plate on its last legs.  Hell, call it what it was a flop house stinking of perspiration and low-shelf whiskeys and wines. Stinking of winos and riffraff in the hallways howling at the moon all night and jack-rollers preying on whoever was witless enough to walk into his lair. All around shadows, moonlight shadows, moonless night shadows the times when the midnight sifters plied their trade and snuck in, snuck in these damn one room hells looking for anything, anything to pawn, anything to feed that junk habit that had them in its grip. Ma, yelling at the kids, jesus, at the kids, milling around the room, that why didn’t they, the jack-rollers, the midnight sifters, the junkies, and the twisted sister street tricks (whores she called them when the kids got older and knew what that word meant) go uptown and bother the Mayfair swells who had dough and leave respectable people alone.        

Others had it worse, tumbled down shack, window pane-less some wax paper taped to hold off the winds and rains coming from the north, tarpaper siding leaving exposed wood to rot and provide homes for fugitive termites and vermin, roof tiles falling leaving poorly patched spots where the spring rains would wash through, wash through to the six buckets which were placed beneath the patches to hold off collapse, a lean-to ready to fall to the first wind, the first red wind, an ill wind, a land wind the old sailors, old tars called it and maybe they were right, coming out of the mountains and swooping down the hills and hollows, ready to fall to the first downpour rain, washed away. Cold water flat, flop house room, tumbled-down shack, leave them behind, get out on the open road, blow the stinks off, get that bindle stick together, a cup, a plate, spoon, a comb just in case you are in a town, some matches, keep dry matches, a pouch of Bull Durham and papers, maybe some change all wrapped in a handkerchief, the worldly possessions of the fellahin, the fugitive, the hobo, the tramp and the bum, grab that slow moving freight before she picks up steam, watch out for the “bulls” and search for the great promised American night that had been tattered by world events, and greed.

Survived the Hoovervilles, the world come down to the great cardboard siding, tin can cartons, discarded boxes, found in some orphan street, dilapidated, to serve as buffer against the hard winter winds, the spring rains and that damn relentless summer heat. Tin can roof thundering sounds at every light rain, slap-dash jerry-built camp explosions along rivers. Mighty rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi and no account ones, trickle down ones, like the Elko and the Dearborn that no longer gushed ramparts. Survived down in hard rock- infested ravines filled with brambles, snakes, gnarly insects ready to do battle once some fugitive arm or leg was exposed. Survived under railroad trestles, the clanking freight trains above, what did Shakespeare call it, yes, murdering sleep, and murdering dreams too. No wonder some guy, some hobo philosopher-king, and don’t laugh there were such fellows, along with broken-down stockbrokers, wreaked high financiers, ex-movie moguls, unemployed cabbies, unemployable union organizers, out-of-work workers of all types, families attached, and habitual malingerers trying to weather another day without working, said that life, his life anyway, and maybe their lives, were nothing but train smoke and wishful thinking. Hell, he didn’t know the half of it, didn’t know that life could get much coarser out on the great Wilderness Road. 

Tossed, hither and yon, cold- water flats, flop-houses, tarpaper shacks, then the great outdoors, what did that guy call it, that writer guy, I forget his name, called it probably from his cozy fireplaced study, fully nourished from the look of his pipe-smoking face on the back jacket of his latest pot-boiler, oh yeah, the romance of the road. Tossed around about six million different ways, name each one instead of counting sheep at night, murdered sleep. But it all came down to this, to the rivers, ravines, trestled-bridges, when the banks, yeah, the banks, the usual suspects, and rightly so from all the evidence, robbed people of their shacks, their cottages, their farm houses, their smokeless back forty dreams, and left them with nothing but the romance of the road. Even that smug pipe-filled writer, Jesus, what was his name, should pause to wonder. Yah, those bastards robbed them, picked them clean, as an old-time balladeer, a free-wheeling, song-writing red, a commie, hell, nothing but a Russkie-loving home-grown Bolshevik in the days when in some quarters, say, Frisco town, Akron, Minneapolis, blessed shut-down Flint, lion Detroit, hog-butcher to the world Chi town, smelter to the world Pittsburgh, sailing under that banner was a badge of honor, or just another fist in the struggle, welcome brother, welcome sister, we need all the hands, no, all the clenched fists we can get, said at the time not with a gun but with a fountain pen, but still robbed them. Cleaned them out, to get lost on that Wilderness Road, that trail of one thousand tears leading west.

Survived the soup kitchens hungers, the gnawing can’t wait in the endless waiting line for scraps, dreaming of some by-gone steak or dish of ice cream, and always that hunger, not the stomach hunger although that was ever present, but the hunger that hurts a man, hurts his pride, hurts a woman’s too, hurts when he, they have to stick their hands out, stick them out and not know why. Not know why a year before the sun was shining, they had dreams of living in that little house, a cottage really, ending their patterned days there, and now had shutter dreams of living in that cold-water flat, the flop-house room, the tar-paper shack forever turning their mouths to ashes. Not knowing why Bill up the street, Jack down the road, Leroy across the way was working, worrying but working, while his two hands were idle, and a million human things still needed to be fixed, to be built, to be created. And she cried a tear on those hands to see how his ignorance of what made the world go round ate at him, ate at his beautiful heart.  

Planning the fruitless day, fruitless since he was born to work, took pride in work, had worked since twelve to help a struggling family even in good times,  planning around dark hour Sally breakfasts don’t be late, six to nine, but with sermon and song attached, mission stuff in heat-soaked rooms, men smelling of unwashed men, and drink (quick drink, an eye-opener they called it in the shelter,    before entry and hence a strong smell of cheap rotgut). Planning around city hall hand-out lunches eaten on park benches or lawns, peanut butter sandwiches, slapped slap-dash together with a pint box of milk and an apple, maybe. Worse, worse by far the nightly Saint Vincent DePaul suppers, soup, bread, some canned vegetable, something they called meat but was in dispute, lukewarm coffee. Such a feast had only, only if you could prove you were truly destitute with a letter from some churchman, a Catholic churchman, like Protestants, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventist, Quakers, Shakers, Devil-worshippers, Jainists, Buddhists, Moslems, and every other kind of fellahin religionists were not hungry just then, and, in addition to the religious test, under some terrible penalty, you had to say that you had searched for work that day. A hard dollar, hard dollar indeed.

Jesus, out of work for another day, another in a long line of days, long line of Sally, City Hall, Saint Vincent DePaul hand-out days,   with three hungry growing kids to feed, boys, wouldn’t you know it,   kids, boys, who, what did they call what kids did then, oh yeah, eat them out of house and home. A wife, a precious wife, sickly, sickly from boys too close together, sickly from her own delicate frame,  sick unto death of the not having, not having for the boys, their boys, he thought. Making, she making, sick or not, their meager savings, their dole hand -out, their occasional relative money gift, stretch beyond endurance with the weekly bill envelopes always shorting some irate collector. Damn, little work waiting for anybody that day, that day when all hell broke loose and the economy tanked again, stocks tumbled, again, and guys were jumping out high buildings left and right, guys were trying to scrape every dime they could gather in order to not go under and face the high building windows, guys were getting tossed out of work, other guys who were thinking about buying guns and taking what they could take, and take it fast at least that is what it said in the Boston Globe he found on the ground and read while he waited once again in the damn soup line (ditto the reportage in  The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner if anybody was asking). They, the newspapers, said that there was too much around, too many cars, houses, too much wheat, cotton, oil, too many record-players, whatever, Jesus, too much, too many, and he with nothing for those kids, those eat them out of house and home boys, nothing and he was too proud just then to ask for some damn letter to give to those Vincent DePaul hard-hearts. 

And that day not him, not him yet, not him with a sickly wife worrying unto death over bill envelopes, not him with three hungry boys conceived too closely together, not him who was without steady work and glad get what he got when he got it and could shake off the damn charity soup-lines for a time, could thumb his nose at those Vincent DePaul hard-hearts, but others. Others who read more that the Boston Globe (and the dittos)  and who were dreaming of that full head of steam day to come, the day to even things up a little for a mess that they had not made, in places like big auto Flint eyeing those lines and thinking how to shut them down from the inside, out in waterfront Frisco town thinking that in order to make the water bosses cry that they might have to shut the whole place down, out in rubber Akron thinking of maybe even bringing the unemployed, guys like him to stop the scabbing, guys, steel-sweated guys out in hog butcher to the world prairie Chicago thinking of onebig union, hell, even in boondock small trucker Minneapolis thinking of bringing in the wives, sisters, and sweethearts, the whole sweated, misbegotten fellahin world for one big push,

Yeah, they dreamed a lot, in places like bayside Frisco town,  mid-America Akron, trucker Minneapolis, Chi town name your industry, clanky Flint and motor city Detroit, places like Harlan, Birmingham, Los Angeles too, seemed like half the whole fellahin  was dreaming then, and some guys and gals, some stand-up guys and gals were scheming too, talking it up, were not going quietly into the rubbish can of history, dreaming of that day when the score would get evened, evened a little, and a man (and where I say man I say woman too, women who like they used to say in China hold up half the sky), could hold his head up a little, could at least bring bread, maybe some fruits and vegetables, to those three hungry growing kids, those boys who were eating him out of house and home, who didn’t understand the finer point of world economics, just hunger. Stomach hunger not that hunger that gnawed at him, there would be time enough for that for them. Until then, until he decides to not go quietly into the rubbish can of history though, he is left shifting the scroungings of the trash piles of the urban glut, the discard of the haves, the have- nots throw nothing away. On other horizons, Omaha, Grand Junction, Topeka, Davenport, Neola, Muskogee,  places where the corn and wheat grow tall, taller than a man, the brethren curse the rural fallow fields, curse the jack-robber banks, and curse the weather, but curse most of all having to pack up and head, head anywhere, but the here, and search, search like that brother on that urban glut pile for a way to curb  that gnawing  hungry that cried out in the night-want, want that is all. 

Survived too the look, the look of those, the what did FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the young, or forgetful) call them, oh yeah, the economic royalists, today’s 1%, the rack-renters, the coupon-clippers, the guys, as one of their number said, who hired one half of the working class to fight the other, who in their fortified towers, their Xanadus, their Dearborns, their Beacon Hills, their Upper East Sides, their Nob Hills, and a few other spots, tittered that not everybody was built to survive to be the fittest. That crowd, and let’s name names, a few anyway, Ford, General Motors, Firestone, U.S. Steel, fought tooth and nail against the little guy trying to break bread. Fought that brother too out pounding the mean streets to proud to ask for a letter, Jesus, a letter for some leftover food, before he got “religion” about what was what in the land of “milk and honey.”  Wreaked havoc on that farmer out in the dust bowl not travelling some road, some road west knowing that the East was barred up, egging him on to some hot dusty bracero labor filed picking, maybe “hire” him on as a scab against those uppity city boys. Yes, fought every guy trying to get out from under that cardboard, tar paper, windowless soup kitchen world along with a hell of a lot of comrades, yes, comrades, not Russkie comrades although reds were thick in those battles, took their lumps in Frisco, Flint, Akron and Minneapolis, hell, any place where a righteous people were rising, kindred in the struggle to put that survival of the fittest on the back-burner of human history. To stand up and  take collective action to put things right, hell, made the bosses cry bloody murder when they shut down their factories, shut them down cold until some puny penny justice was eked out. And maybe just maybe make that poor unknowingly mean-street walking city brother and that sweated farm boy thing twice about helping those Mayfair swells.      

Survived but took time out too, time out if young perhaps, as if such things were embedded in some secret teen coda, to stretch those legs, to flash those legs, to sway those hips, to flash the new moves not, I repeat, not the ones learned at sixth grade Miss Prissy’s Saturday dance classes but the ones that every mother, every girl mother warned her Susie against, to a new sound coming out of the mist, coming to take the sting out of the want years nights, and the brewing night of the long knives. Coming out of New York, always New York then, Minton’s, Jimmy’s, some other uptown clubs,   Chicago, Chicago of the big horns and that stream, that black stream heading north, following the northern star, again, for jobs and to get the hell away from one Mister James Crow, from Detroit, with blessed Detroit Slim and automobile sounds, and Kansas City, the Missouri K.C. okay, the Bird land hatchery, the Prez’s big sexy sax blow home. Jesus no wonder that madman Hitler banned it, along with dreams.  

The sound of blessed swing, all big horns, big reeds, big, well big band, replacing the dour Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and its brethren , no banishing such thoughts, casting them out with soup lines (and that awful Friday Saint Vincent DePaul fish stew that even Jesus would have turned down in favor of bread, wine and a listen to Benny’s Buddha Swings) casting that kind of hunger out for a moment, a magical realistic moment, casting out ill-fitting, out of fashion, threadbare (nice, huh) second-hand clothes (passed down from out- the- door  hobo brothers and sisters tramping this good green earth looking for their place, or at least a job of work and money in their newer threadbare [still nice] clothes), and casting aside from hunger looks, that gaunt look of those who have their wanting habits on and no way to do a thing about it.  Banished, all such things banished because after all it did not mean a thing, could not possibly place you anywhere else but in squareville (my term, not theirs), if you did not have that swing. To be as one with jitter-buggery if there was (is) such a word (together, not buggery by itself, not in those days, not in the public vocabulary anyway). And swing as it lost steam with all the boys, all the swing boys, all oversea and the home fire girls tired of dancing two girl dancing, a fade echo of the cool age be-bop that was a-borning, making everybody reach for that high white note floating out of Minton’s, Big Bill’s Jimmie’s, hell, even Olde Saco’s Starlight Ballroom before it breezed out in the ocean air night, crashed into the tepid sea. Yeah.       

Survived, as if there was no time to breathe in new fresh airs, new be-bop tunes, new dance moves, to slog through the time of the gun in World War II.  A time when the night-takers, those who craved the revenge night of the long knives took giant steps in Europe and Asia trying to make that same little guy, Brit, Frenchie, Chinaman, Filipino, God’s American, and half the races and nationalities on this good green earth cry uncle and buckle under, take it, take their stuff without a squawk. It took a bit, took a little shock, to get those war juices flowing, to forget about the blood-letting that had gone on before when the flower of Europe, when the older brothers and fathers the generation before, had taken their number when they were called.  And so after Pearl, after that other shoe dropped on a candid world Johnnie, Jimmie, Paulie, Benny too, all the guys from the old neighborhood, the corner boys, the guys who hung around Doc’s hands in their pockets, guys trying to rub nickels together to play some jitter-buggery thing, guys who had it tough growing up hard in those bad Depression days, took their numbers and fell in line.

Guys too from the wheat fields, Kansas Iowa, you know places where they grow wheat, guys fresh from some Saturday night dance, some country square thing, all shy and with calloused hands, eyeing, eyeing to perdition some virginal Betty or Sue, guys from the coal slags, deep down in hill country, down in the hollows away from public notice, some rumble down shack to rest their heads, full of backwoods home liquor, blackened fingernails, never ever fully clean once the coal got on them, Saturday night front porch fiddlings wound up carrying a M-1 on the shoulder in Europe or the Pacific. Leaving all those Susies, Lauras, Betties, and dark-haired Rebeccas too waiting at home hoping to high heaven that some wayward gun had not carried off sweetheart Johnnie, Jimmy, Paulie, or young Benny.  Jesus not young Benny. Not the runt of the corner boy litter, not our Benny. Not carried off that sweet farm fresh boy with the sly grin, not carried off that coal-dust young man with those jet-black eyes, and fingers.  

Survived the endless lines of boys heading off East and West, heading off to right some wrongs, at least that is what the guys in charge said, put a big dent in the style of the night-takers, the guys who wanted to cut up the world into two to three pieces, and that was that, cutting the little guy, making the little guys like it, making them take it or else. Some of those little guys, after Pearl for sure, could hardly wait to get to the recruiting office, hardly wait to go mano y mano with the night-takers and their illicit dreams, went gladly from the farms, the factories and the mines, many to never look back, never to farm, to run a production line, or to dig from the earth but make new lives, or lay down their heads in some god forsaken piece of dirt, or some watery abyss. Others, well, others were hanging back waiting to be drafted by their friends and neighbors at the local draft board, hanging back just a little to think things over, to see if maybe they could be better used on the home front, scared okay (as if the quick-step volunteers were not afraid, or should have been) but who gave a good accounting of themselves when their number came up. Still others head over heels they were exempt, 4-F, bad feet, you see. Somebody had to keep the home fires, keeping the womenfolk happy.

All, all except that last crew, the dodgers found in every war,  who got to sit a home with Susie, Laura, Betty and even odd-ball Rebecca were constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for their ships to sail or their planes to fly. Hanging in some old time corner boy drugstore, Doc’s, Rexall, name your drugstore name, just like when they were kids (a mere few weeks before), talking the talk like they used to do to kill time, maybe sitting two by two (two uniforms, two girls if anybody was asking) at the soda fountain playing that newly installed jukebox until the nickels ran out. Listened to funny banana boat songs, rum and coca cola songs, siting under the apple tree songs, songs to forget about the work abroad, and just some flat-out jitter-bugging stuff, frothy stuff in order to get a minute’s reprieve from thoughts of the journey ahead.

Listened too to dreamy, sentimental songs, Always, I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, Sentimental Journey, songs that spoke of true love, their true love that would out last the ages, would carrying them through that life together if they could ever keep those damn night-takers at bay, songs about faraway places, We’ll Meet Again, Til Then, songs that spoke of future sorrows, future partings, future returnings (always implying though that maybe there would be no return), future sacrifices, future morale-builders, songs about keeping lamp- lights burning, songs to give meeting to that personal sacrifice, to keep the womenfolk, to keep her from fretting her life away waiting for that dreaded other drop, songs about making a better world out of the fire and brimstone sacrifice before them.

Songs to make the best out of the situation about Johnnie, Jimmie and the gang actually returning, returning whole, and putting a big dent in their dreams, that small white house with the white picket fence (maybe needing a little painting, maybe they could do that together), kids, maybe a new car once in a while you know the stuff that keeps average joes alive in sullen foxholes, sea-sick troop transports, freezing cargo planes, keeps them good and alive. Hell, songs, White Cliffs Of Dover songs, about maybe the damn wars would be over sooner rather than later. Listened, drawing closer, getting all, uh, moony-eyed, and as old Doc, or some woe-begotten soda jerk, some high school kid, wet behind the ears, with that white paper service cap at some obscure angle and now smudged white jacket implying that he was in the service too, told them to leave he was closing up they held out for one last tune. Then, well-fortified with swoony feelings they made for the beach, if near a beach, the pond, if near a pond, the back forty, if near the back forty, the hills, you know, or whatever passed for a lovers’ lane in their locale and with the echo of those songs as background, well, do I have draw you a map, what do you think they did, why do you think they call us baby-boomers.              

The music, this survival music, Harry James, Benny, the Dorsey boys, Bing, Frank, the Mills Brothers, the Inkspots, and on and on wafted (nice word, huh) through the air coming from a large console radio, the prized possession centered in the small square living room of my growing up house amid the squalor of falling roof tiles, a broken window or two patched up with cardboard and tape, a front door that would not shut, rooms with second-hand sofas, mattresses, chairs, desks, tables, mildewy towels, corroded sinks, barely serviceable bathtubs, and  woe-begotten stuffed pillows smelling of mothballs. My broken down, needs a new roof, random shingles on the ground as proof, cracked windows stuffed with paper and held with masking tape in need of panes, no proof needed, overgrown lawn in need of cutting of a shack (there is literally no other way to describe it, then or in its current condition) of a too small, much too small for four growing boys and two parents, house. The no room to breathe, no space but shared space, the from hunger look of all the denizens, the stink of my father’s war wounds that would not heal, the stink of too many people in too small a house, excuse me shack. The noise, damn the noise from the nearby railroad, putting paid to wrong side of the tracks-dom worst of all. Jesus.      

That wrong side of the tracks shack of a house surrounded by other houses, shack houses, too small to fit big Irish Catholic- sized families with stony-eyed dreams. Small dreams of Johnny or Jimmy getting on the force (cops, okay), and Lorrie and Pamela getting those secure City Hall jobs in the steno pool until some bright prospect came by and threw a ring at them but in the meantime shack life, and small faded dreams. Funny, no, ironic but these tumbled-down shacks which seemingly would fall with a first serious wind represented in some frankly weird form (but what knew I of such unnamed weirdness then I just cried out in some fit of angst, cried out against that railroad noise, and that sour smell of sweat) the great good desire of those warriors, and almost to a man they had served, and their war brides who had waited, had fretted while waiting, to latch onto a piece of golden age America.

And take their struggle survival music from Doc’s jukebox, from the Starlight Ballroom, from WDJA, with them as if to validate their sweet memory dreams, their youthful innocence before the guys got caught up, caught up close and personal, the ugliness of war, the things they would not speak of unto the grave, and the gals not asking, not asking for all the money in the world but sensing that he, they, had changed, had lost some youthful thing. That radio, that priceless radio console taking pride of place, as if a lifesaver, literally, tuned to local station WDJA in North Adamsville, the memory station for those World War II warriors and their war brides, those who made it back. Some wizard radio station manager knowing his, probably his in those days, demographics, spinned those 1940s platters exclusively, as well as aimed the ubiquitous advertisement at that crowd. Cars, sofas, beds, shaving gear, soap, department store sales, all the basics for the growing families spawned (nice, huh) by those warriors and brides.

My harried mother, harried like all the neighborhood large brood mothers, harried by the bleak wanting prospects of the day with four growing boys and not enough, nor enough food, not enough, well, just not enough and leave it at that. Maybe bewildered is a better expression for her plight, for her wartime young marriage adventure not wanting to be left with only a memory of my father if things went wrong in the Pacific. As so she took to turning the radio on to start her day, hoping that Paper Dolls, I’ll Get By, or dreamy Tangerine would chase her immediate sorrows away. Yea, a quick boost of their songs was called for, their spring youth meeting at some USO dance songs before he shipped out. Those songs   embedded deep in memory, wistful young memory, or so it seemed as she hummed away the day, used the music as background on her appointed household rounds. And whether she won or lost the day’s bout with not enough, with some ill-winded message from some bill due, seemingly always some four boy hurt, some bad father work news, the list of her daily sorrows and trepidations could have stretched to infinity she perked up, swayed even to those tunes.
That stuff, that mother dream stuff, that piano/drum-driven stuff with some torch-singer, Peggy Lee, Helen Morgan, Margaret Whiting, maybe even a sneak Billie thrown in bleeding all over the floor drove me crazy then  Some she bleeding with the pain of  her thwarted loves, her man hurts, her wanderings in search of something in this funny old world, her waitings, waiting for the good times, waiting in line for the rations, waiting, waiting alone mind you, for her man to come home, come home whole from some place whose name she could not pronounce, they should have called it the waiting generation, just flat-out drove me crazy then. Mush stuff at a time when I was craving the big break-out rock and roll sounds I kept hearing every time I went and played the jukebox at Doc’s Drugstore over on Walker Street down near the beach (not the old torn down Doc’s of their generation over on Billings Road if that is what you are thinking). As far as I know Doc (the son of their Doc), knowing his demographics as well as that radio executive at WDJA, did not, I repeat, did not, stock that stuff that, uh, mush for his rock-crazed after school soda fountain crowd, probably stocked nothing, mercifully before about 1955. Funny thing though while I am still a child of rock and roll this so-called mushy stuff sounds pretty good to these ears now long after my parents and those who performed this music have passed on. Go figure. 

Stormy Weather


Songwriters: BELL, DAVID A

Don't know why there's no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain't together,
Keeps rainin' all the time

Life is bare, gloom and mis'ry everywhere
Stormy weather
Just can't get my poorself together,
I'm weary all the time
So weary all the time
When he went away the blues walked in and met me.
If he stays away old rockin' chair will get me.

All I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more.
Can't go on, ev'ry thing I had is gone
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain't together,
Keeps rainin' all the time


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