Sideman - Chapter 02

Thursday  /  August 29, 2019 / Stories

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Sideman Chapter 02

After that I went out in the field and scared some cows practising the call, for as many times as it took, to try and get it right. The day came and I bluffed my way through it. There was a smattering of polite applause, or none as the occasion warranted, a couple of glares at the bad job and I became the town bugler. Not often, though often enough on every holiday.

Entertainment was a big deal and even though times were hard people still wanted to have some fun. People got together for food, card games and music. There was the radio. There was the rodeo and a local football team. The Church held socials.

One of the greatest things were movies. These were a rare and special treat. I was getting older and the movies and comic strips introduced me to the lives of the people in the big city. I experienced the adventures of pirates, medieval swordsmen and sophisticated city folk.

It fuelled my thinking. I wanted to be where that was happening. I was a selfish young man thinking about adventure without consequence.

My older brother did errands, driving our old truck between our farm and the next few. One day as I accompanied him, I got him to pull over near the highway. I just got out and started walking.

“Mum and Dad are going to go crazy.”, he said, and I felt bad about that. Still he looked like he wished he had thought of it first.

He drove off dejected and I felt the lowest I ever had, almost turning back. My Dad once said: “you have to be bad sometimes to be good”, I don’t know who he heard it from, though I hung him there by his own words and trudged on.

My parents never forgave me.

I walked a lot, I mean a lot. It was hard going, except when I got rides. There were questions, I guess ‘cause of my young face. I shrugged mostly and nobody pressed too hard. Some lone drivers were just glad of the company.

The scenery got more filled in, with houses closer together, and the buildings taller. More people too, cars, dogs, less yards and trees. I was entering the city.

“Here you go son”, said my current ride and I got out thanking the man.

I had arrived. New York City. It moved at the speed of speed.

The depression continued and my move turned out to be stupider than even my brother could have imagined. I was often hungry, going without food and without the street smarts, I couldn’t talk my way into opportunities. A bit of soup kitchen, occasional bad work and then something worked in my favour. I was young and strong and I got hired by a restaurant to do whatever. I washed dishes, swept up, lifting boxes and some other nastier stuff. The hours were long, and the money was barely enough to survive.

I learnt the city and got smarter. In the midst of all the poor, some people still had money, a lot of it and weren’t afraid of spending it. I viewed them from the kitchen, in all degrees, the American middle class. It wasn’t a high-class place, though it did alright. From where I stood, that was the vision of success.

I guess it was a kinda classy, better than diner place, with nice tables and chairs, not booths, with tablecloths, though simple and uncomplicated. They served Italian or the version of it we have become used to, I didn’t know any different. It was all pretty foreign and strange to me. I liked it whenever I got to try it, which was not often, and it was a bit past sale when it got to me. There was coffee though, lots of coffee, black and hot, maybe to keep us up to the job. No booze, prohibition was still in effect. Imagine that. An Italian restaurant without wine.

People who cared for booze, knew where they could get it. By the time I was interested Prohibition had ended. I never really took to it.

I was eating better, though my soul wasn’t getting fed. Out in the world it was all glamour. Greco shoes, diamond clips and blue, silver or gold lame dresses. Maybe a number or two by Chanel or even the ‘Greek Revival’ style. To me it was just a blurred wonder. Everyone just looked richer and more interesting than me.

I got old enough to officially drive a small truck, a medium sized van with a cabin at the front and enough room in back to pick up crates and supplies. Back in my town I had been driving for a long time. Different rules in the city. No refrigeration, so deliveries had to be quick. Bringing back spoiled goods was not an option. I developed a kind of reckless driving style, favoured in gangster movies.

I was getting a few extra dollars now and could actually save or see a movie, I did a bit of both. I got to know the names of women I would dream about like Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford or Marlene Dietrich (for the more adventurous). Every woman wanted to be like them, every guy wanted to be with them.

People were starting to do better. Optimism was growing. Guys with the green in the restaurant were wearing suits like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire or Gary Cooper. The music of the day was a sweet sort of sound I can’t really describe, although there were chorus lines of dancing girls, vaudeville and soloists.

I was incredibly ignorant of any kind of history at the time. It was all about survival. There were Americans, men and women whose ancestors had been brutally stolen from their home in Africa and brought here into forced labour. Now free they were still living in a different stream and the depression had hit them hard.

Already in the lowest paying professions, they had very little to fall back on when the economy collapsed. They were unemployed in greater numbers and this with the ongoing struggle would continue to grow into the Civil Rights Movement so many years later.

In New York I guess there were no Jim Crow laws like in the south, essentially putting African Americans into a new type of servitude. I imagine though that the great depression, although dire for a lot of people, the lack of recognition or social programs made it a living hell.

That’s the second set of stories I urge you to understand. Our inhumanity sometimes to each other for ugly and stupid reasons.

Now ugly and stupid reasons also have consequences and sometimes those are about rising above. I think that is part of the story of Jazz.

Imagine that band at my demob dance. That music had its beginning before the war. Even further back are the roots of that music.

Before the turn of the 20th Century, the pattern and timing of West African speech was the start. Groups of people would dance and sing single line melodies. Out would go the call and a response would come.

Creole. Music on jugs, washboards, tubs and sticks. Pick it up and play it at a place called Congo Square in New Orleans. There would be dancing. European instruments such as the cornet or violin appeared and were added.

Slavery had been abolished in 1865 due to the Civil War, though segregation still made it hard to get jobs. Entertainment was more open, you could play at dances and vaudeville.

West Africa, brass band marches, blues, church songs, classical and European music. Pick it up and use it. You made it up and it was always different.

Then came Ragtime. The ‘ragged’ rhythm. Scott Joplin on the piano and Jelly Roll Morton (who wrote King Porter Stomp). Joplin had an international hit with Maple Leaf Rag. White composers and players began to take it up.

Poor Sidney Story the alderman who wrote the guidelines to control prostitution and drugs in the city was rewarded (probably to his horror) by having the New Orleans red light district named after him. “Storyville”

You know the names of the border streets Basin St and St Louis St (Basin Street Blues and St Louis Blues).

Liquor, gambling, drugs, prostitution.

Over time Cornetists such as Buddy Bolden and King Oliver were playing in Basin Street. W.C. Handy incorporated Blues and other influences that became part of the music.

There were audiences and musicians who wanted to play. Jazz as it was known, was very personal, each musician who played it added to what had come before.

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