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The Blue Book of Favorite Songs

My sweet wife took me to see Garrison Keillor since I’m a long time fan of his storytelling and writing. It was a great Christmas gift from her and so thoughtful…but she’s like that.

Before we went, I expected that there would be an acapella audience sing-along sometime during the evening and mentioned that to Nancy, I knew that was something he did often on his A Prairie Home Companion radio show from which he recently retired from after several decades.  Yes, that right. Radio show, not tv. It’s a variety show that is broadcast every Saturday night on PBS stations. Garrison remains the executive producer but has turned the hosting of the show over to Chris Thile, a fine mandolin player known for his work in two acoustic music groups, Nickle Creek and Punch Brothers.

I borrowed that sing-along element from him and at times in the past when doing a show, I would incorporate a song or two and invite audience participation. The iconic old song, Tell Me Why, was one of my favorites for such a time. It was made for four part harmony and hearing lovely voices sing the parts was always wonderful. You get a crowd of folks together and there will always be some good voices present, especially among the ladies.

It was actually the way he began last evening, about a dozen minutes worth, and set the tone for the two hours he held forth. Included were patriotic songs, a few 60’s pop songs, and hymns. He began with My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, included When I Saw Her Standing There from the Beatles (funny and surprising when sung slowly),  Amazing Grace, and the Doxology, also known as Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,which appropriately ended with the traditional “Amen.” He focused on how most of our generation learned these songs in schools, public schools, and is concerned that they are no longer taught to most children.

The majority of the evening was about recollecting good things of the past in the midst of discovering you are old or at least older. It was interesting to me that as I looked around the audience that most of the people there either had gray hair, all or partially, or no hair at all. Indeed, I’m getting older. I have plenty of wrinkles, lines, sags, and so forth. My hair has thinned considerably in the past few years and I’m less flexible but as best I can, I am refusing to surrender to “being old”. I’ve never been a majorly handsome guy, just had moments when I looked better than others, like most of us. These days I’m satisfied to know that God, my wife, my family, and true friends love me regardless and that’s enough. Any desire to impress is long gone. I guess I’m like Popeye, “I am what I am and that’s all that I am”.

For those unfamiliar with Keillor, he is from Minnesota, and though he is a learned writer and speaker with great intellect and somewhat eclectic, he is still rooted to Minnesota. He incorporates his upbringing into his stories and is appreciative of that which he gleaned. However, several decades ago, he formed Lake Woebegone, a mythical town on a lake which he populated with people, families, animals, characters. vocations, and interactions based on growing up in the environment of Minnesota. His stories out of this town became a great joy to those of us who discovered his offerings. He called Lake Woebegone, a fictitious “little town that time forgot,” He usually began his stories by saying, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my home town” and usually concluded with, “And that’s the news from Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Though this little lake town in Minnesota was fictitious, Garrison often spoke about going back to Lake Woebegone, as if he actually traveled there. I understand that because in all honesty I often travel back in my mind, especially to the 1950’s and 1960’s, to my hometown. I did not make up Rocky Mount, NC though it is very surreal today to think of it as it was then and what it is now. It was a good place, filled with important values, and many, many fine people that impacted one another’s lives.

Garrison Keillor focused on the music of the past to help provoke our memories last evening and as he did so I knew all the songs he had chosen. I even recalled all the words, some that I had not sung in years. In doing so, I was reminded of a book from which we sang when I was a student at Wilkinson School where I attended through the sixth grade. It was called The Blue Book of Favorite Songs.  It was published in 1928 and included songs that were written before 1900.

We sang from it every week, every Friday morning to be exact when all the classes would gather in the school auditorium. Mrs. Sarah Towe, would sit tall and erect in perfect posture and assault the keys of the piano with vigor.  We sang great patriotic songs of our nation, melodies from Stephen Foster (many which would not be politically correct today), and hymns. Often we would end with Mrs. Towe pounding the piano hard into submission as we sang Onward, Christian Soldiers. It was very moving. Sometimes as we stood we also moved our feet as if we were marching, not because we had been told to do so but because we were inspired.

Music is a wonderful source for provoking memories, and especially so during the Christmas season. We hear certain songs and remember not only the melodies and lyrics but places we were when we heard them, people we were with, and special circumstances. The carols inspire me, make me think of the best elements of Christmases past, and make me hopeful for this contemporary season…and I can’t help but smile as I think of Mrs. Sarah Towe who almost made that piano dance with her formidable version of Jingle Bells. I’m not exactly sure how Jingle Bells got connected with Christmas since it is mentioned nowhere in the song but it is a happy tune.

Happy songs…and then there was Bob Ross, who had painted “happy trees”…and happy is always a good thing, at Christmas or any other time.

I hope all of you can be happy this season. However, if you are in the midst of a season of hardship, grief, or other difficulties try to remember the times that were happy and use them as a catalyst for the hope of how things can be again.

An Unforgettable Man

wilkinson-school

This was the only photo of Mr. Pittman that I could find. It was posted on Facebook by Craig Bone.

This guest post was written by Dave Riley, a friend from childhood, and is about our beloved principal at Wilkinson School in Rocky Mount, NC, Sanford Pittman  It was sad to hear a couple of years ago that he had passed. He was fine man, loving and kind, the type we surely need more of in this world. He was an excellent and committed educator as were the teachers under his supervision at Wilkinson School. We were blessed to have known him and learned from him.   

—David

Now read Dave’s post and enjoy….

Sanford Pittman will go down in my life as the Reader’s Digest used to say “One of My Most Unforgettable Characters”. He was the principal at Wilkinson School for many years in the 50’s &60’s. We lived across the street from the school and my mother did a lot of volunteer work there doing everything from grade mother to sewing up clothes that got ripped on the school yard. Mr. Pittman had her on speed dial, before there was such a thing for these emergencies.  Mr. Pittman was a stickler for order and proper procedures. He made sure everyone was schooled in proper manners and even held dance classes in an effort to teach us how to ballroom dance. Both of these were rather hard for a great deal of us 10-11 year old boys that would rather be learning better ways to shoot marbles or play ball.

The schoolyard took up a complete city block with plenty of room for improvised ball fields and other field activities and was a focal point in the neighborhood. After school and on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons (after church of course), a lot of the neighborhood kids congregated there to play whatever was in season. There were these massive (at least to us) swing sets that were about 20 feet tall and made of 4 inch piping. As stated earlier, Mr. Pittman was stickler for order and this was especially important for fire drills.  Not that the safety of the students was something to be taken lightly, but Mr. Pittman held his stopwatch and clipboard at the ready to time each class as they exited and then how long it took for the entire school to evacuate. This was also the case for the nuclear bomb drills where we had to get in the hall and kneel with our heads to the wall. Still haven’t figured why the Russians would single out Rocky Mount to drop a bomb and how that was going to save us, but I guess it was the best we had at the time.

So much for the background and the day of the famous fire drill.  The fire bell rang and we all did as we were directed and formed neat and orderly lines by class in the school yard. Mr. Pittman was recording times and making sure each teacher had an accurate head count. When the drill was over, he would then announce the time it took, the importance of the drill and praise us for a successful drill. I guess since he was in the Army during WWII he still marched briskly rather than walk. On this day he did his usual about face to return to school and misjudged one of the support poles to the swing set. Hitting is head on, it completely knocked him down and out. It was the first time I ever saw a person crumple starting with their knees, but he went down with a thud. There was an immediate gasp from the teachers as they went to his aid, followed by a bunch of kids (boys mostly) breaking out in nervous laughter. My mom saw it happen and came across the street to help and ended up taking him to Dr. Crumpler’s nearby office for a quick check up. He was fine and returned to school for the rest of the day.

He remained good friends with my parents until they moved to Morehead City and was kind of enough to attend our Dad’s funeral.

While not funny by any means, it is just another saga in the Wilkinson School Chronicles.

Memorable Fogs

fishinginflogA few days ago we had a couple of foggy days. I remembered that years ago the old folks in North Carolina used to say that for every fog you experienced in August or September there would be a snowfall during the winter. Fog is kind of mysterious. In most of the old horror movies, it is included at some point, especially those centered in and around London where it seemed to be perpetually foggy. Carl Sandburg even wrote a very short little poem entitled Fog: (more…)

The Power of the Cashew Nut

cashew-cores-1549580_1920Once we moved into town we lived only a few blocks from Main Street and I would walk there with my mother when she shopped. I always tried to be especially well behaved on those excursions because I knew there would likely be some kind of reward if I did so. Normally, it would be something seasonal. In the spring of the year, it could be marbles, a fine Duncan yo-yo, or one of those balsa wood airplanes with a red plastic propeller and a rubber band engine. In the summer water guns were in order and in the fall it could be something related to Halloween. In the winter, green rubber army men were always great because I played with them for hours on the oval braided rug in front of the fireplace. (more…)

Stormy, the Weatherman

stormyrottmanThe spring of the year is always lovely, especially if you live in a place where the winter has been hard. I remember when I lived in Denver everyone was longing for some bright and warm spring days after an extended period of cold and snow. And sure enough, a few such days came and then it turned cold and snowed some more.

One day I walked down to Arby’s for lunch which was only a block from where we lived. When I got there I saw Stormy Rottman, who did the weather for KBTV (now KUSA), channel 9. I always enjoyed Stormy because he was a lot of fun (Leon was his real name). He was a thin, small man and I remember seeing him dress up like a leprechaun for his St. Patrick’s Day weathercast. I said hello, told him I enjoyed watching him, and he invited me to sit down with him to eat. He identified from my accent that I was not from Colorado so we begin to talk about weather in different parts of the US. (more…)

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