Waking to Music
Light comes through my window tempered with frost etchings. It’s a wonderland—ferns, flowers, a land of stars and valleys—pleasing to my imagination. But soon, competing with my fantasies are songs— the lush, enraptured voices— of women calling love’s memory.
It’s Sunday morning so I try snuggling back into my nest of blanket warmth and body heat. But, the aromas of baking biscuits and bacon that followed the songs into my room defeat my effort to nest.
In the living room Mama sits by the stereo, a notebook on her knee and pencil in hand. Her nails are marked with stubborn thin traces of dough from kneading biscuits. She keeps resetting the stereo’s needle to repeat the same section of the song. It’s annoying to me. I hear each word, each plea clearly. But she does not, so she replays that section where she missed a words before letting the song come to its natural end. Clever girl that I am, I try to prevent the replay by telling her the missing words, but each time she shushes me away.
I did not consider that spending forty hours a week punching a cash register would dull the ability to form letters or slow the memory’s ability to call forth a word, would slow Mama’s response, leave her in the melody but lost in the word.
My father is busy elsewhere, either waxing the floor to a brilliant shine or fixing and repairing the house.
I wondered why Mama was so engrossed in this music. Why did she always play this kind of music on Sunday? Was there something wrong between Mama and Daddy? Maybe there was a secret between them. Maybe the music she played was silently speaking to him. I think I was like Holly Martins in the movie The Third Man, trying to understand his friend Harry Lime, but failing. He is a bystander witnessing a complex story and is too innocent to understand.
As my appreciation of music has matured, Mama’s music is no longer annoying and is one of the memories from my childhood that I continue to examine.
At a reception, a jazz concert reception, I was munching on a canapé when a handsome young man, smiling and shaking his head, approached me saying, “This music takes me back. My dad used to put on his old scratchy records and open the window so the whole neighborhood heard. I felt so ashamed. Now I can’t get enough. I like new singers and musicians, but love the way Coleman Hawkins, the Pres, and Lady Day, Armstrong make over a song. I’m a hungry dog, lapping it up.”
Yes, I feel the same. I wanted to talk, but he wandered away, moving around the room telling his story.
I remember listening to the DJ named Bama speak in a low southern voice, playing records and spinning a fantasy of life in the 40s and 50s. In a down home voice, he told tales of a reckless life, hard times keeping jobs, betraying or being betrayed by lovers. They were funny and sad, like a wino’s stream of consciousness. He created an atmospheric framing for the blues, R&B, and jazz he played.
Listening, I sat in my easy chair, drinking coffee, wishing for the biscuits and bacon from my childhood. Bama introduced each record, giving his personal insights or the liner notes’ details about the performance, becoming the master conductor.
Body and Soul is not an easy piece to perform, but most performers embrace its challenge. The song dances with shifting tempos and keys, complex chord progressions. I don’t remember all the recordings Bama played, but I remember my impressions of these four. Body and Soul was popularized in the 30s by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, "Symphonic jazz.” His featured vocalist, Jack Fulton, presents the lyrics in a straightforward manner. The sense of sadness seemed a bit rushed, the jazz impulse seemed adrift. It’s a journeyman’s performance. He delivers the song, but is not emotional. He rides over the piece’s tangle of harmonic breaks and starts.
Louis Armstrong’s version is, of course, very different. He sings through the song like a dancer stepping to the beat and recomposes the lyrics. In his swagger, he challenges the sentiment, while giving voice to the lament.
The most admired instrumental version of the song is by the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, in 1939. Reinterpreting it sonically, yet he never played it the same way twice. I try finding words to capture his performance. It is a doomed effort, my words insufficient. Each listening is a new experience. Here is one of my attempts: Body and Soul’s melody is introduced by piano then Hawkins enters, his sax restating the melody before laying clouds of abstract and rhythmic harmonies; I hear his horn playing and imagine the music moving in physical space—dancing, tangling, strutting, pausing, circling, bursts—navigating a labyrinth.
Bama said that Hawkins’ take on Body and Soul in 1939 was the first inkling of Bebop. They heard the possibilities of this song, a way to go beyond its lyrics and melody, exploring its harmony, chord progression, and emotional complexity.
My favorite version is Billie Holiday’s 1946 recording. Although the music opens with a downbeat Holiday takes control. With her husky voice and rhythmic phrasing, she is both vulnerable and seductive—pleading for love, when her love offer is ignored. But she still is hopeful her love will be accepted.
Mama loved Holiday. She adored the way Billie delivered lyrics. Mama liked the way she shaped the words in a song’s lyrics, as if each word was the seam to Billie’s faith and dedication to love. I think Mama would say this; I think this is why she tried to copy the lyrics.
Mama’s family did not own a radio. She and her friends found music and entertainment in movie theaters, roller rinks and the dance halls.
Daddy, not a talkative man, spoke fondly about the dances at the Graystone Ballroom. “We’d go down there about once a month on Mondays, that’s when they let us colored have the room. I was going there with my friends, saw your Mama there. She was prettier than the girls who danced around Lena Horne and Bill Robinson in “Stormy Weather.” She was always surrounded by her clique at the Ballroom. I wanted to meet her. I didn’t know if her friends would let me dance with her, and if I got past them, I was scared wondering if she’d say, “No” or turn her head, ignore me.” He smiled, but one day I did it, I just went up to her and asked her for a dance.
And just like that she said, “Yes!”
The last time he remembered this story with me, I realized as he sat forward in his easy chair that he was reclaiming that moment as a great triumph.
I slipped into Daddy’s memory-time, seeing them partner in dance. She is stepping high in the rhythm, hip shifting, knees bent, holding his hand; the girl in the in bobby socks and penny loafers lissomely foxtrotting one-two, one-two. They swing in jitterbug rhythms, embracing the song, as they embraced each other. He whirled her out and lightly swung her back to him. She was too practical to dream that this dance was the beginning of a lifelong love, but she smiled and hoped.
Even though I came to enjoy many of the songs from my past, there are still times when I hear an old song and feel the old dread. I did not expect that gritty voice with perfect diction singing “This Bitter Earth”over the closing credits of “Shutter Island”—sung by Dinah Washington, and much lighter in mood than I recall. Robbie Robertson, the movie’s music director, mixed the song with Max Ritcher’s, “On the Nature of Daylight.” This combination is a serene, earthy, communion of voice and music, a fragile call to love.
The lyrics are questioning about “love.” How good can it be if it is not shared?
I can now listen to these lyrics and understand their wisdom.
I smile in memory of the young girl questioning those passionate voices drifting into her bedroom.
Leslie Brown: “I was born in Detroit to a family that migrated from the South before World War I. My parents worked in automobile factories. I currently live in the Washington DC area. Now retired, I worked as a Librarian in public and academic libraries. My creative work crosses disciplines and includes short videos, short stories, and creative non-fiction that explore the effects of the Great Migration, and the African American experiences of displacement, work, childhood, and loneliness. I have a MFA in Creative Writing from American University and a Master of Library Science degree from Wayne State University. My work has appeared in Blue Nib, Rigorous, Ragazine, Great Lakes Review, Atticus Review-Mixed Media, and elsewhere.”