“Maybe that was a omen or some kinda, somethin’ to tell me I shoulda left music alone.”
Howard chuckled at this, and Grandma Bonnie did too. One of my favorite themes that carried through the stories that he told me during our interview was about how he lost guitars throughout his life. How maybe that was somebody trying to tell him something.
“Tell me about your first guitar,” I said, thinking this would be a good place to start. And, of course it was.
“My real own one?” he asked. “I had to play my brother’s before then. Your grandmother and I went to play music once, and it was the same place I played with my brother in 1934, the same place. The time my brother and I went, they took all the furniture out of the room so they could dance. And we sat in between the rooms, in the doorway. We started playin’ a little after dark naturally, square dancing. And some of those sets lasted about twenty minutes. If you know old square dancin.’ Well here I am playin’ on an old beat up guitar, my brother’s, strings that high off the neck,” he showed me with his thumb and index finger. “Had to push ‘em down. My fingers was bleedin’ after about two hours. Then some more people would come in, and they’d have a set they’d want us to play. And ‘fore you know it, it’s two o’clock in the morning. And that was a dry county, but they went into Missouri, but they had moonshine, and I’ll tell ya, that’s what they got lit up on. And the more they drank, the more they wanna dance.”
We all laughed hard, Howard sitting back, looking up at the ceiling, smiling at something there, some smoky memory that curled through the folds of his memory, fingers interlocked in his lap. The sun was up full now, beaming through the windows, igniting the small, dark room through the laced drapes.
“So when did you own your first guitar?” I pushed forward.
“Well, I was pickin’ cotton, in southeast Missouri. And me and my sister was goin’ home one evening after pickin’ cotton.”
The words were coming easy now, Howard looking over at me with regularity as his comfort level rose. Dessie, his only sister, owned a farm with her husband when Howard was young, and when work was scarce for the family, she would hire Howard and some of his brothers, even his parents once in a while, to come and work the land. One evening, sun fading into the hills behind them, Howard and Dessie were walking in from the fields by themselves when a roaring car stopped along the road. I imagined a twitch of uneasiness passed between them.
“And a coupla guys pulled up in an old beat-up car. One got out and he had a guitar. And uh, he asked my sister if she wanted a guitar, buy a guitar for two dollars. My sister looked at me and said, ‘Howard, would you like to have that guitar?’” Howard’s voice was soft for Dessie’s, softer than the silly, high-pitched sound he used for most females in his stories to make the audience laugh. Instead, he made himself sound goofy, eyes bugging at the prospect of owning an instrument.
“And I said, ‘Yeah.’” Grandma laughed hard, shaking her head.
“So she turned around, reached down into her bosom…” Grandma laughed harder here. The sheer hilarity of that act, pulling money out of her bra, in front of her little brother, got a wheezy snort. “She got out two dollars, handed it to me, and I handed it to the guy and he gave me the guitar. But we couldn’t wait ‘til we got home.
“How old were you?” I interrupt.
“My sister was quite a bit older than me. She was married. I think I was…it was right about the time I played to the square dance. I was ‘bout twelve year old. Anyway, before we got to the house we set down there in the field.”
This might be my favorite moment that he shared that day. They moved a few paces into the field and sat down together as Dessie inspected the guitar. Howard’s excitement was too much. No way he was making it all the way back to the house. And his big sister probably saw that, decided to make a moment that he would remember for the rest of his life. The last golden sunlight fading, she decided to give in to the sparkle in his eyes.
“She looked the guitar over, she knew ‘bout three chords. D, G, and C, I think. And she showed ‘em to me. Anyway, um, that song, ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ she taught me that. She sang a few words ‘a that and showed me the chords, and I think that was the first song I ever learned.”
I love the memory of them, the story it created for me, although my view might be so very different from how it actually transpired. Out in a field, my own view of the two of them, playing and singing together. Nothing but music to hold together a harsh world of little money and sweaty work and uncertain futures for a few more moments while the sun was still shining. The very real prospect of a destiny with music in his life, when the everyday experience could be arduous. Sitting there, singing the sun to sleep.
And then he hit me with the omen.
“But anyway, I went in and went to bed. I laid the guitar right down beside of me. Long in the night she woke me up. She said, ‘Howard, those guys are here to take the guitar back.’ She said, ‘They got to thinkin’ that they might get into trouble ‘cuz it was stolen.’ She said, ‘They gave me back my two dollars.’ I didn’t wanna do it ‘cuz I really liked that guitar, ya know, thought I really had somethin’. But I gave it back to ‘em.”
I groaned at the thought of it. He and Grandma laughed, but I could still hear the disappointment all those years later, the strained way it came out of his mouth.
Thought I really had somethin’.
He had something alright. More than just the instrument itself. Perhaps not even aware of it, Howard had found purpose in those first few chords he learned in that field with his sister, Dessie, strumming the life into his first guitar. And the glitter I saw on his face every time he held an instrument for the first time, it’s that twelve year old kid popping up, tucked away for so many years. Pumped up with life again. The sparkle of possibility. While I can see many of the things in his life that he would be proud of, finding music, and understanding his larger connection to it, would carry him through the rest of his days.