The Three M’s: Music, memories, ’motions
Music, memories and emotions are inextricably linked.
Each of us has a song or more likely multiple songs that inevitably trigger intense memories of events that took place while the song provided a bonded backdrop.
Some people who may find it difficult to express their feelings in their own words relay those feelings by quoting words penned by some wise songwriter who may or may not have known that the lyrics he or she was putting onto paper expressed a universally shared sentiment.
In other stories on this site I have shared songs that stir vivid memories when I hear them.
When I hear Roy Orbison sing “Only the Lonely” it takes me back to the summer of 1960 and another of those coming-of-age nights, nights that all of us had even though the details may differ slightly.
That was the summer between my junior and senior years at Ballard Memorial High School. I spent three weeks of it at a summer science institute at the University of Mississippi where 100 high school students from across the country – probably it would be more accurate to say from across the South – gathered for three weeks of exposure to graduate level math and science. We had courses in such disciplines as geometry, chemistry, biology, astronomy and geology.
When I came home I returned to what was my first real job – guiding tours and working in the office at the Ancient Buried City in Wickliffe, an excavation of a community once inhabited by the Mississippian culture, one of the mound builder societies.
It was a tourist attraction owned by the Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, and operated by George and Cozette Johnson. Today it is known as the Wickliffe Mounds, owned I believe by Murray State University.
I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. It wasn’t unusual for a tour guide to be leading a group of 30 people, perhaps even more on busy days. After doing that sort of work for summers and weekends for the next couple of years, and selling admissions and souvenirs when I wasn’t guiding, I became very much at ease speaking to audiences.
Another of the guides that summer was a college student named Richard Bradham, a young man from East Prairie, Mo., who was majoring in anthropology at the University of Missouri. He worked there during the summers to earn money for college.
He and I became good friends, and I looked up to him because of his love of anthropology and archaeology and his knowledge of both.
In May of that year, Orbison released “Only the Lonely.” I saw him a few weeks ago on an infomercial for DVDs of the old “The Midnight Special” shows, and my internal time machine took me back to that summer of 1960.
My parents had purchased a 1959 Pontiac the year before, and I was allowed to drive it, but mostly around town and to school.
Richard invited me to come to East Prairie on a Friday night and hang out with him.
With some reluctance, my parents agreed to let me drive to East Prairie, which isn’t that far away from Wickliffe by miles, but the trip requires that you drive across two major bridges, the first one spanning the Ohio River between Kentucky and Illinois, and the other, just a few hundred feet away, across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri.
When you’re a teenager without a lot of driving experience, crossing those bridges at night is an intimidating thing. Neither bridge is particularly wide, but they seemed even more narrow as I drove across them. I kept hoping I would not meet any semi trucks, but I don’t think it’s possible to cross either bridge without eventually being side-by-side with a semi. The best thing to do is close your eyes and hope for the best.
I made it to East Prairie and to Richard’s house. I don’t remember all we did that night, except we did a little “cruising” around East Prairie. That doesn’t take long. East Prairie isn’t a big town.
We listened to the radio in the car and at his house, and for some reason the stations played “Only the Lonely” several times while I was visiting with Richard.
That’s really my clearest memory of that night, East Prairie, Roy Orbison and Richard.
I returned home later, went back to Ballard for my senior year and Richard went back to the university.
He drove a Volkswagen Beetle.
Some months after that night when I reported for work at the Ancient Buried City, Mr. or Mrs. Johnson told me that Richard and his Beetle had been in an accident in Columbia, Mo., and Richard had died.
I knew a few other people in my age group who had died in car accidents, and I knew others who would suffer similar fates later, but that death affected me more than most. I had not lost anyone I had shared a job with before, nor anyone who was so much a part of a coming-of-age moment.
I lost a friend and science lost what would have been a great anthropologist.
So, Roy, even though you’re gone too, you still sing to me of memories of friends and growing up and loneliness. It’s bittersweet, I suppose, but I appreciate so much that you remind me.
The Mind Wanders, but the Music Lingers
As the years pile up in our rear-view mirrors, sometimes we have trouble remembering a particular name from the past, or even from yesterday, but music has a magical, mysterious ability to trigger specific, sometimes quite vivid recollections.
Many of the memories are about the music itself.
Ballard Memorial High School classmate Carol Wolfe Coryell sent by e-mail a link to a musical jukebox site where music is available from the ’50s into the ’80s.
That made me think of some of my favorite music from those days. Some of my favorites may not make the top 10 lists, but I remember them fondly.
Jorgen Ingmann playing “Apache.” The Fendermen’s version of “Mule Skinner Blues” where they laughed the yodeling parts. The String-A-Longs playing “Wheels.” The Fireballs and their great guitar work on “Bulldog” before they teamed with Jimmy Gilmer on Sugar Shack.
Does anyone besides me remember the novelty song, “Please Mr. Custer”?
All of those achieved some level of recognition on the charts, but some of my favorite music was by local groups, most of which never earned a reputation outside of our area.
Western Kentucky, Southern Illinois and Southeast Missouri all had plenty of talented musicians back in the earlier days of rock and roll.
The local performer who hit it biggest of all had to be Ray Smith of Melber, Ky., who had a show on the Paducah TV station. Rocking Ray Smith cut some records at the Sun Studio but he never made it as big as some of the other Sun musicians.
Rocking Little Angel probably was his biggest.
Narvel Felts from Missouri started as a rockabilly performer but achieved stardom in country music.
One of the men who performed with Felts was Louis Hobbs, who stuck with rockabilly and was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame prior to his death.
Buddy Hottinger, who I believe was from the Mounds, Ill., area, also was a hot local commodity who had one record that did fairly well.
All of these and others played at various clubs and venues around the area.
Danny Ryan and I used to go to Teen Town in Cairo mostly to play ping pong, but they had some good live music there too. One band played a song called Wild Weekends, featuring the sax as a lead. My good friend Charley Sullivan who played in some of the bands, including one called the Mods, said that they sent the song to a music producer to see if they could get it released as a record. It got released, but by some other group and the Cairo musicians got no credit.
Another member of The Mods was Kyle Lehning, a gifted musician in his own right, who made his mark by becoming a record producer in Nashville. He produced the early Randy Travis hits.
I saw in the paper that a Ballard County band will be playing at some of the community festivities. Members include John Earl Evans and Gary Chandler.
I suspect they’re pretty good now, but my memories of them go back into the late 1950s when we were on the Ballard Memorial High School basketball team. On road trips, John Earl would play his guitar and Gary would beat on the back of the bus seat to provide the “drum.” They had a good Buddy Holly repertoire in those days.
One of my favorites is a guitar player named Chuck Sowers. I believe Chuck is still alive and probably still lives around Mound City, Ill.
I used to hear him play at Club 18 in Cairo, and on rare occasions he would be playing with another extremely good guitarist named Teddy Buckles.
I worked with Teddy’s brother Larry at the Ancient Buried City in Wickliffe. I had my Rickenbacker guitar at the time. What I didn’t have was any songs I could play.
Larry offered to set up a time for me to visit Chuck Sowers at his home in Mound City. I drove there one night.
The impression I had is that Chuck sat around much of the day listening to the radio and shooting at rats with his pistol. I recall that he had a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt sleeve.
He got out his Gretsch guitar in the evenings and played what he heard during the day.
What set Chuck apart from most of the pickers in the area was his virtuosity. While most guitar players were picking single strings among three chords, Chuck played entire songs with complex chords that required at least eight fingers per hand, with each finger being a foot long. At least, that’s how it seemed.
He showed me a lot that night, after apologizing that his reverberator wasn’t working because he had loaned Ray Butts one of the springs. Ray had a music store in Cairo, and was always working on some electronic invention.
I think Chuck eventually played guitar at the Louisiana Hayride.
Teddy Buckles played a Chet Atkins’ style. That involves picking with multiple fingers instead of using a guitar pick.
He was extremely good at that style of playing.
One night, Danny Ryan and I wandered into Dovers, a Cairo tavern that sometimes featured live music, as it did this particular night.
Chuck Sowers and Teddy Buckles both were playing with the band that night. Wow! The drunks in the bar were calling out songs that you wouldn’t expect to hear in a bar. Someone would yell out, “Play Star Dust!” Chuck could play anything and Teddy wasn’t far behind him. It was one of those fantastic nights you sometimes stumble into along your journey.