One of the scenes in my novel, Catfish Alley, involves an all day singing and dinner on the ground. During the editing process, my New York editor asked me, “Can’t you just say picnic?” I had to say no, that a dinner on the ground is so much more than a picnic! All day singings with dinner on the ground have been a tradition in Southern churches for many years. In the past, people in the community brought baskets and boxes of food and gathered at the church. After church service, the food was spread out on planks that were laid across sawhorses and placed under the shade trees. Folks filed through, filling their plates with the best food in the county. After everyone had dinner, the singing would begin, lasting into the evening.
When my mother was a child there were singing schools, often led by a traveling teacher. Mama learned to read music using shaped notes. The shape of the note indicated the musical tone on the scale (http://www.mcsr.olemiss.edu/~mudws/harp.html ). I’ve always found this system amazing, having learned piano the traditional way at New Hope Elementary with Miss June White as my teacher.
Mama plays the piano, not only by reading music, but also “by ear”. In other words, she can hear a tune and pick it out on the piano. Mama plays beautifully, and usually played for church. However, I remember one of my favorite times was when Mama played “Beer Barrel Polka.” It was such a treat to see my usually straight-laced, Sunday-School-teaching mother tearing up the keyboard like she was playing in a honky-tonk. I loved to watch her hands fly across those keys!
At my mama’s present age, she has begun to ask us what we’d like to inherit when she passes on–always a difficult thing for a daughter to consider. On one of my recent visits she asked me that question and I, of course, had no ready answer. Soon after, we began talking about the old upright piano that sits in the front room of Mama’s house. I love to sit down at the piano and play the old hymns when I go home to visit—the same ones I used to play for church, following in my mother’s footsteps—although, I’ve never been able to play by ear, as she does. When I was a child, that same piano stood in Grandma’s house in the small room off the living room, near the kitchen. I often played Grandma’s favorite hymn, “When They Ring Those Golden Bells”, while she listened from the kitchen table.
That day, as we talked, Mama told me the story of how they came to own the piano. She was attending singing school at church, along with some of her brothers and sisters (Uncle John was musical too; he made himself a fiddle out of a cigar box). One of the men teaching the singing school was also giving piano lessons. Mama had one or two lessons (she was about eight or nine years old, so that would have been around 1932 or 1933), and the teacher told Grandma what a strong aptitude Mama showed for piano. Grandma surprised Mama not long after by selling a cow to buy her that piano. This was quite a gift, considering the only way Grandma made a little spending money was by selling butter and eggs. When Mama told me that story, there was no question about what I wanted to inherit—that old upright piano. It did occur to me to wonder what I’ll do with the baby grand I already have. But you have to make room for memories, right?