MINSTREL DESTINATIONS 1961-1968

Our house stood in a neighborhood directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg in Falmouth,Virginia.  Although all the while retaining much of its core identity, Fredericksburg and its surrounding area have since expanded into and become part of the southern exurbs of Washington D.C.

But in the 1960’s it was a Southern town, not so plain and simple. If local eyes, hearts or souls sought nearby city lights, they turned South toward Richmond.

I was 4 years old when my family (older brother and sister…yep) placed me into the annual Kiwanis Club talent show in 1961. They felt that my rendition of Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread had potential. I don’t remember learning it or who taught it, but I knew it well enough to tap, snap and sing it, all to the beaming amusement of the tall ones. Nor did I grasp the meaning lurking within its repetitive rhymes:“two little babies ---lying in the bed—one was sick and the other one, dead” verse. I liked singing them. The song was funny. Folks laughed.

The try-outs took place in the booming wooden auditorium of Maury School, an aging mainstay in the heart of downtown Fredericksburg. The late afternoon sun poured down from high windows through the municipal dust while hopeful youngsters sat in or scurried about the rows of theater seats. Jugglers, dancers, singers, plate spinners, card flashers, baton twirlers, joke tellers and trick mongers each awaited their turn to step up onstage for their shot at being in the annual show.

One contestant was a girl who was bigger and older than me--7 years old, I thought.  I sat silently and spellbound beside my older Brother as she sang “Yellow Bird”. There on the stage, she stood starkly and stiff, with barely moving but slightly trembling blond braids, blue jeans and white sneakers and holding a painted wooden bird on a stick before her, carefully and softly reciting in a shaky voice the lyrics which her darting eyes scanned from its back.

Several times she started then stopped then started , Yellllow Biiiird Up high in banana treeee
Yellllow Biiiird You sit… all…alone…like me…

On the third or fourth try, she made it to the end and the judges were gently reassuring as she was led offstage by her mother. I was glad to see her utter relief that it was over.

Soon we heard my name called and I slid off the theater seat, looked to my brother who said something like “go on, Jon…just like at home…it’ll be great” which shored me up enough to launch into my bit without too much fuss.

To this day I still feel that original pang of “this is the real thing” jitters after rehearsals in a well lit room give way to the dress rehearsal onstage and opening night in front of audience whose anticipations cannot be known. It was they who were now upright and attentative in those theater seats, judging from the dark night instead of ushering us through a sunny afternoon.

All performers sat on bleachers in a remotely stark and echoing sodium lit gymnasium in the bowels of the school. Waiting for their names be called when they would then proceed, three by three, toward the world which waited in their near untold future.  I held my brother’s hand as he led me down long locker-lined hallways around and through various realms of the school's daytime life, quietly moving toward my moment of truth.

We scaled one last steep stairway leading up to a lady who smiled and “shushed” us as we rounded the corner, stepped through a door and found ourselves gazing from the offstage shadows onto the spotlit stage.
There before us, with two bows in her braided hair, a frilly dress and slightly nuzzling in shyness into the pleated curtains gathered before her,  stood the Yellow Bird girl. Her shiny patent leather shoes made short brittle scraping noises against the hard floor as she fidgeted.

We arrived just as the emcee's ominously amplified voice announced her name. From around the corner where we couldn’t see came the roaring applause of the roomful as she inhaled slowly then stepped out and crossed toward the lone glinting microphone stand. The clapping scattered and ebbed to silence as the girl stopped and stood facing them, holding the wooden bird on a stick. She and it were still, rigid and silent. She glanced down and squinted at the back of the bird, turning it around then around again, her neck gradually craning forward and toward the indistinct and impermeable black silhouette created by the giant spotlight.

With a quivering voice she started to sing, Yelllow Bird…high up in banana treeeee….
She trembled through four lines before sputtering to a halt. Still trying to make out the written words there cloaked in shadow she began again, stamped one shiny shoe, then restarted, then  gasped while lowering and raising the stick in desperation, holding it at arms length with both hands for one last try. Letting loose a tearful yelp before turning on her hard heels, she ran as if being chased directly toward where we stood in the wings.

My brother quickly stepped aside letting her blow past and we could hear her sobs echoing away down the stairwell while the man onstage uttered something jovial to the awws of sympathy and warm complicit applause.

I had never been that near to such panic and anguish, and it all happened moments before I heard my name called. 

Don’t worry about it, Jon..remember, just like at home…

I don’t remember much more about that night, other than the invisible roar of the audience, the blinding  glare of the super trooper spotlight which cloaked the seated crowd into a penumbra of anonymity. But I heard my family comments of how I must have just been nervous, etc.

It was next year, 1962 when I would sit in that same dark auditorium as an audience member to see the Lion’s Club Minstrels. My father explained to me that there were no winners or losers and that it was a variety show, and he and our mom would be singing and dancing a romantic duet. We had heard them at home practicing at the piano once or twice, a show tune from My Fair Lady, On The Street Where You Live it probably was.

My mother became ill and my dad would have to do the number with the alternate, which only made it more of an episode for her. There was arguing and accusations. It was a pattern, and the same drama would occur again the next year.
But the Mistrel Show, as it was known,  was a lively celebration with many varied numbers, each of which were enjoyable for a 5 year old, especially the vaudeville type bits. One such routine sported a group of 6 or 7 men bursting onstage in clownish suits of polka dots, wide stripes and bowler hats while cavorting and careening all about the stage crowing jokes and doing stunts. They shouted and guffawed in exaggerated Amos and Andy accents with their faces each painted black as a moonless midnight.

The audience roared with laughter, and I watched with glee as they volleyed risqué punch lines, poked each other and carried on like that for 5 minutes or so. One bit involved pushing a hen’s egg across the stage with a broom. I've never heard that one explained.

The next day, after overhearing their arguing about last night’s show, I mentioned the blackface men to my parents. It seemed to be the centerpiece highlight of the show. My father responded by brusquely mumbling, that it probably had been the last time for that act to appear, and that was also probably a good thing. He said sternly that it wasn’t nice to make fun of colored people that way, and that lots of folks had been upset about it.

Another year passed and it was again time for the Lions Club Minstrels Show. Mom and Dad rehearsed, mom got sick, dad did the number with another lady and there were jealous arguments before and after the show. I recalled the black face minstrel men, and my father’s remarks a year earlier. He once more uttered something about their not doing black face anymore.
The opening number of the show that year was again jovial, rousing and as harmonious as only grown-up singers and performers can deliver. The solos, duets and dance routines were met with rousing hometown appreciation. Intermission came, and I was wondering what would be the central “funny” bit, as I was already impatient to see it.

Back in our seats, we waited as the lights went down. A fat moment of silence was pierced by the wailing siren announcing the clown men who emerged in their flapping tails, bright scarves and bow ties, top hats and bowlers. They scurried and crowed, howled and hammed while the audience reeled with delight. I was only 6, but I knew that what I saw was something sad, silly and very, very wrong. 

My Dad was right and so were the other good folks who had raised their concern about the men with the black grease painted faces. Those folks who wanted to keep the act in the show decided on the only thing that they felt would make everyone happy: They painted their faces white.

A few years later I was entered into another Kiwanis Club Talent Show. I played piano--a Clementi Sonatina which was abruptly followed by an “original” boogie woogie composition. The crowd liked it, and I won the $25 first prize in the Elementary Division and used it to buy my first guitar at Bill Ross’ Music store, where I spent a lot of my after school afternoons and Saturdays. Mr. Ross was a pretty stiff lipped fellow most of the time, and it felt good to see his faint smile as we made the deal.
After that year's show dress rehearsal, I was waiting in front of a closed store across the street from the school near a pay phone where I’d called my mom to come and fetch me. The late afternoon sun had sunk and the street corner was falling into early nighttime. A group of neighborhood kids was walking down the sidewalk toward me. As they came closer I heard their laughter turn to whispers, and one of the three came up to me and asked for money. One of the other kids started patting my pockets hard then harder, and the others began shouting until the first piped up and said to stop because I was “the boogie woogie boy”. 

My dad was gone two years later when I served up the same Sonatina/Boogie Woogie formula for that talent show. He had already been around for the first time, though. It was pretty much the same deal too, except that I was now 12 and old enough to win the Grand Prize:  a trophy and another 25 bucks, I think. 

My big sister had taken me to those try-outs where there was a black kid whose act was singing along with Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. I wondered if he might have been one of the kids from last year’s phone booth convergence.

I loved that Otis record. The kid snapped his fingers, tapped his feet and sang it like he felt right at home. 

One day that summer I was in the kitchen singing along with the radio playing  Aretha Franklin’s Respect  and my mom asked me to turn it down because she thought those records “sounded like angry colored girls shouting at someone”. 

But later that year, we would sit at the kitchen counter and listen silently to the radio until the very last note of Brook Benton’s A Rainy Night In Georgia was done flowing past. My mother looked at me with an accepting distance in her eyes and said “you know what? That was a really great vocal performance”. 

A year to the day after my father died, our next door neighbors took me with them to the second annual Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife on the Mall in Washington D.C. The live concert that night was to be Muddy Waters as well as the Chambers Brothers. The field was packed with folks of all shapes and colors, and I had not heard or seen anything like the sounds and sights of that night. Muddy’s slide guitar came straight from the heart of someone’s holy heaven and hell, and the Chambers Brothers’ voices weaved around and pounced upon the beats like a funky orchestra. They moved forward and toward the crowd while wearing brightly colored double breasted suits and proud floppy wide brimmed hats. One singer danced to the edge of the stage, then sat down on its edge. Time Has Come Today…!

Like most childhoods, mine flew by like a bittersweet breeze in Summer. My adulthood allows me to stand and look back on those few years from Boo Radley's porch, if you will, and appreciate the social changes that were happening above, beyond and all around me. I can still hear my father’s and my mother’s voices like so many other sounds that continue to echo down a long hall, and I think about the Yellow Bird girl more often than I probably should. And when asked an honest question by a child--questions such as why is that wrong? and why not?--I also think carefully before uttering my answer.