The Curses: Part II

This is the house where the boy was born, and where he played on the floor as a toddler while the Civil War began. The house was not where it is today, in a small park on the banks of the Wabash. It stood about a halfmile farther north, at 318 South Second Street in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a couple of blocks from the river, in a row of similar-looking structures that precisely one hundred years later were scheduled to undergo demolition as part of a “slum clearance program.” But the citizens proved unwilling to let this particular house be destroyed, since it had briefly belonged to a favorite son of Indiana, or to his family. People mailed in donations as small as a dollar to the county historical society, a couple of area businesses pitched in, and a government grant came through. Finally, moving day arrived: June 5, 1963. The number-one song on the radio was “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, a first big American hit for a young producer named Quincy Jones. In Terre Haute, a reporter watched workmen wrap the two-story Federal house in “cables and metal strapping, as though it were a large box.” A crowd cheered. A new foundation waited at the park, where, fifty-three years later, a person can still visit.

Look up from the floor where he’s sprawled in his rag diaper with his crude toys at the family as it existed at the start of the 1860s. The boy’s mother, Sarah Maria, had grown up in Ohio, but her parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, that term “Dutch” being in this case not our surviving word meaning Hollanders but a corruption of “Deutsch”—Germans who had left the homeland, settling among their own far-flung people in Pennsylvania’s evangelical townships. Pennsylvania, founded by early Quakers, had always been friendly to breakaway sects. Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites—the family belonged to all three, at different times. But her parents had met among the Moravians, radical Pietists from Central Europe and Saxony. By the testimony of Sarah’s daughters, she carried that mystical streak all her life. Much good in her, mixed with coldness. Considered a beauty in youth, in late-life pictures she looks out through a pleasant, round, half-smiling face. Now she is working “for fifty cents a day for Wabash avenue merchants” to make “miserably small payments” on the house. Her parents have disowned her for marrying a Catholic. There he stands, beside her, towering over the fat little boy, who later remembers him as “a religious fanatic.” He was German-born, from a place called Mayen, a small walled city in the west. When Indiana census takers came around, he identified himself as Prussian. A fiercely hard worker but contentious. The family never starved but was always poor while he ran it. The Civil War ended, and less than a year later, a board fell onto his head at the mill. After that he was thought somewhat simple-minded. “The old tyrant wore earrings and behaved like a cruel gypsy,” according to one who had known the boy. “He beat them unreasonably and made of their home a kind of noisy sepulcher.”

The boy already had a younger brother, Marcus Romanus, just a year old, and before these two, there had been three other sons, but all had died as infants. For this Sarah blamed herself. One night, in the exhaustion of young motherhood that runs to madness, she had wished herself free of the burden. Shortly after that, she saw three glowing orbs float past in a field (possibly ball-lightning, which occurs for unknown reasons with some regularity in Kentucky and Indiana) and considered it an omen. When soon thereafter her three boys died in just two years’ time, she viewed it as a fulfillment. Weeping by the third grave, she swore to God that if he would send her more babies, even as many as ten, she would never again indulge such dark and selfish thoughts. God sent her ten more exactly, boys and girls, and all of them lived. The ninth became the naturalist novelist Theodore Dreiser and changed the course of American literature, but that great and tormented man’s birth remains a decade off. The one who concerns us now is this little strapping round comedian, whom the sisters, when they arrive, will nickname Pudley. His real name, or the name we know him by, is Paul Dresser. He will grow into one of the fattest men in America, and for a time its most successful songwriter.

The Curses: Part I

In discussing twentieth century American popular music and its most essential genre, the blues, there have been two main channels for getting into the history, or, as we like to say, the roots, of that tradition. The first and more familiar involves the so-called “pre-war blues”—confusingly called so, if you stop to think, since the music referred to by that name was recorded between 1921 and about 1937; the term ought to be, “between-wars,” or entre deux guerres. Regardless, people who love old music know what you mean when you say it. A dim blue light comes on over crackly shellac. “Pre-war”: that’s the twenties and thirties, the Okeh and Paramount labels, southern blues queens and obscure rural guitar geniuses. The real business. The plutonium.

The second and less familiar way of grappling with the music’s roots, and the one to which this story belongs in a sideways fashion, has to do with what gets called the Early Blues or, in a few instances, proto-blues. These terms are more elastic, chronologically, and can expand at the user’s discretion to fill the whole span of time between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I, but they most often and most properly relate to the quarter century or so between, say, the late 1880s and 1915 or ’16, the years of formation, when the cultural elements that combined to form the music we call blues were active in the American test tube. This is an age not of “race records” but of Edison cylinders and sheet-music hits. It’s Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville, minstrel shows and medicine shows. Music happens by lamplight under canvas tents and in late-Victorian parlors, in brothels and churches. It comes from player pianos in taverns. If we hear a blues queen singing on the phonograph, she will be not Mamie or Bessie or Ma, but Nora Bayes, aka Dora Goldberg, a Jewish girl from Illinois, doing “Homesickness Blues” “This darky was some homesick, believe us!” reads the Victor Records catalogue. Or else she is Marion Harris, a white teenager from Indiana, from a miniscule place on the Ohio River called Pigeon Township (though she told people she came from the other side of the river, in Kentucky—it sounded better). She got famous, went to England, and married an English guy, but their house in London was obliterated by a German bomb in 1944, so she came back to America, only to die alone in a fire in her hotel room in New York City (cigarette, bed). All white girls. No African American singer was able to record a vocal blues for several more years, not until Mamie Smith did “Crazy Blues” in 1920 (and Mamie only got that job because Sophie Tucker—Jewish and from Connecticut—fell ill). A year or two later Smith’s contemporary, the black singer Sara Martin, a real Kentuckian (Louisville), found herself billed as “the black Sophie Tucker.” At times there’s a through-the-looking-glass quality to it all. Much that we think of as solid is liquid. Blacks and whites are both performing in blackface. Authenticity and appropriation play hide-and-seek.

A Conversation with Elisabeth Schmitz

In her role as vice president and editorial director at Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz has commanded the admiration and trust of hundreds of writers, publishing colleagues, and aspiring literary editors. We recently met at our NYC neighborhood restaurant, Community Food and Juice, to talk about editing, publishing, and the literary passion fostered by Grove Atlantic under the intrepid leadership of its publisher, Morgan Entrekin. In truth, our conversation began more than a decade ago . . .

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