Early Days … my own roots
Listen to the story as you read along …
My first encounter with live music and musicians was in our living room. It came from the soundboard of the old Heinzman piano that my grandfather brought home home from town in the Dirty Thirties … teetering in the back of the farm truck. The first musician I ever met was my mother, Betty Philips, who with only one piano lesson in her life, played that old upright like the lovechild of Jimmy Swaggert and the Church lady from Saturday Night Live.
She was a big fish in a small pond but she was the big sound of gospel music in our little Saskatchewan town for over seventy years. She was the go to piano player within a hundred mile radius of Battleford. Estimates put the weddings and funerals alone into the thousand plus mark, plus her regular gig, every Sunday morning in church. This was of course, before the churches decided that pianos and youth trios and congregational singing were not attracting youth. Just like the society around them where music in the home moved from the living room to the TV room, music in the church moved from participation to entertainment, as well. Gotta keep up with the times. So mom and the piano became church artifacts.
Mom was good … actually damn good, but that might not be the best way to describe an old time gospel player. She played with that old style “stride” style that could get truly uncorked if the circumstances and the lord allowed.
My own musical relationship with her was a bit strained by the times and I suppose, the prevailing notions that music was a gift from god rather than something a little more available to all. It seemed that god and I were not in the gift-giving mode with each other and perhaps I felt a little short changed in that department.
My sister, however, is carrying on the tradition and her gifts on that old upright are still carrying a family tradition.
That being said, mom, the church and the stride gospel piano gave me the incredible values and deep roots now expressed in my love and appreciation for old time gospel and Americana music. I guess you could say I got the love of music but not the gift.
We all sang in church. It used to be a participation thing and less the entertaining thing. Like Elvis and Aretha, growing up Pentecostal, was like a graduate degree in gospel music that led one to further deep studies in blues, jazz, country and rock and roll.
However, when it came to the singing, my voice was a problem apparently. I really did not have that golden boy soprano thing going on and in fact, I was living and trying to sing at the opposite end of that particular spectrum.
I was a bass…took me another fifty years to find that particular little fact out. Before leaving the church at puberty, I really should have walked across the aisle and stood beside Menno for the singing.
Menno Fieguth was a local singing star.
He had one of those classic bass voices and he knew how to use it. When he sang the Holy City on special occasions, people would look at each other silently thinking … are we not blessed?
Menno went abroad to Vienna to study opera. He came home and gifted us with stories about how the working people, the poor and the unfortunates were able to buy penny seats and indulge in and be part of a society that loved and became literate in live classical music.
He was also my first glimpse into the fascinating world of the early adopters of the emerging audiophile culture.
“Bobby, come on over to our place after church. I have something you should hear.” What he had was the very first stereo machine and some of the first vinyl pressed in stereo. I will never forget lying on the living room carpet and listening to that train rumbling across the room and right through my ten year old head.
We had had large old cabinet tube radio that I would curl up behind with a sleeve of crackers and a pillow. We could not get WSM in Nashville with the Grand Old Opry but we had the Melody Ranch Boys broadcasting live on CJNB every Saturday night from a big red barn just west of town.
My shirttail uncle Gordie Racicot played a blond upright 1956 Kay bass in that classic country band and I was thrilled that a relative of mine could play the devil’s dance tunes on Saturday night as well the fine relatives playing the lord’s repertoire on Sundays mornings. My cousins had deep roots in the holy roller world with my Uncle Bud and Aunt Evelyn being the local circuit-riding preachers. They would haul me out to the small towns and reservations that were part of their weekly circuit. Accordion, banjo, guitar and piano were staples in that family and there are tapes of broadcasts and vinyl albums still telling their story.
My cousin Garry gave me my first guitar and my first introduction to the key of C and the devil’s own F chord. That old, high action Kay was unplayable but I did manage to work out three basic chords and even today I am not good for many more.
Garry and I had a best friend …
Howard was another shirttail relative but he was beautifully different. Howard was crippled, a word that I used then with respect not derision. He had a hump on his back legs that didn’t work and a laugh that wouldn’t quit. No wheelchairs for him…too slow. He used crutches and then went ahead and converted all the farm equipment to hand controls do he could work a fourteen hour day driving tractor or combine just like his dad. Garry and I lived for the days we could spend with Howard on the farm. The best part was the music. Later in the day, Howard would get out his guitar and the three of us would sit on the porch, pickin’ and grinnin’ our way through Marty Robbins ballads or Old Shep. He insisted that country and western was ok but if necessary he would prefer just sticking with the western, thank you very much. He made a point of teaching me that what made a good song was not just the notes, tempo or pitch but the essence of a good song was in the story it told.
The girls …
I may be overstating this but it felt like all the girls could sing and play. Adele could play piano like Jerry Lee. We would all head over to her place after school to listen to her belt out Elvis tunes. She told me in confidence one day that she couldn’t read a note…”how do you know what keys to hit?’ I asked. “I see colors, she explains and I play the right color.”
The Sloan girls sang like meadowlarks and I was sweet on one…I was sweet on the piano player in church, sweet on sisters Ruby and Jeannette who played a gorgeous black Gibson guitar.
There were sisters, cousins (shirt tail and kissin’) who sang solos, played in duets and trios and generally maintained a sweetness that lasted years.
I was blessed to know all these musicians as a young man and I know they were a formative force in the love and respect I have for musicians and live music today.
My mom at this writing is 91, on a dementia ward. She has lost her mind but when she still sits at that old upright on the ward she still nails it and the dementia in the room goes away and the folks all close their eyes and dig it.
Menno is in rough shape as well. His voice still moves the air in the room … I should have gone and stood by him.
Uncle Gordie is gone. He was thrilled when he found out I had taken up the doghouse bass. We were both devastated when we realized he had sold the bass. He tried to get it back for me but no chance.
Howard died many years ago, but his sister found his old 1956 Harmony Newport guitar and sent it over to me. One of the first songs I wrote ten years ago was “Howard’s Guitar.”
Some of the girls are gone but I hope they are still singing wherever they are, because, as Tom Philips recently wrote, “they must have had a bird in their throat.”