Category Archives: memories

Dickson Street — Stayin’ Alive

Courtesy Fayetteville Visitor’s Bureau

The heart of Dickson Street runs six blocks east from the southeast corner of Fayetteville’s University of Arkansas campus. After one hundred years of industrial and commercial development that came with the railroad, entertainment took over. By the 1970s, bars and nightclubs thrived in the run-down buildings alongside old school barber shops, pawn shops, artist studios, restaurants, and head shops. The sound of live music filled the night air. Patrons from all over the region flocked to the street to mingle with co-eds, quaff a few beers and cheer on the rock ‘n’ roll. The alternative community centered at the street; walking down the sidewalk meant seeing and greeting old friends and meeting new ones.

The 80s saw further decline and the emergence of tawdriness and then with the arrival of the Walton Arts Center in the 1990s and concurrent rising rent, the magic started to drip away like water through fingers. Depending on the point of view, Dickson Street is now either a thriving commercial mecca or a faint shadow of its former glory. In 2004, an article in the bi-monthly tabloid All About Town addressed the issue of Dickson Street and the decline of the music scene. And not for the first time.  The first such complaints appeared in an earlier tabloid, The Grapevine, in the 1980s and periodically become the focus of community consternation. Some of it has to do with changing demographics. The people who packed the live music venues in the 1970s were staying at home to raise families in the 1980s. Each generation enjoys its high points on the street then subsides into other activities as years pass.

Nevertheless, the article does a good job of peeling back the layers to discover some basic issues. From that, city leaders, musicians, club owners, and other interested fans of the street might derive some workable ideas of how to ensure that the Dickson Street scene never dies.

Five reasons were cited, which have been added to for this piece.

1. Club owners have to pay the bills. That includes ever increasing costs for rent, utilities, wages for employees, advertising, insurance, supplies like glassware and napkins, and inventory of alcohol and any other items served. Back in the day, rent on Dickson Street reflected the run-down nature of the real estate. Now with gentrification all around, rent has skyrocketed. Also, there’s increasing pressure to pay higher wages, utilities keep going up, and … well, it’s all about the money. The clubs count on alcohol sales to generate the profits they need to keep their heads above water. Some bands don’t attract people who like to drink. And people who like to drink have increasingly begun to patronize stand-up bars.

“Stand-up bars are easier to operate,” said Dave Bass, formerly of Dave’s on Dickson and later yielding to the inevitable by opening two stand-up bars, The Blue Parrot and 414. “It’s impossible to make live music work during the week, and you can’t be open two days a week and make a living.” He admitted losing money with his live music at Dave’s.

2. People don’t want to pay a cover charge. Many people don’t realize that a cover charge is the only way to pay a band to play. As veteran performer Jed Clampit pointed out, “You don’t get free drinks, but you want free music. Think about going to your job and working for free.” Owner/operator of George’s, Brian Crowne said “People will think nothing of paying $7 or $8 for a two-hour movie but gripe about paying $5 for live, professional entertainment for four hours.”

Another problem for club owners and bands is that many young people today prefer to float from place to place depending on where their friends might be. A friend might text and want to meet them at a specific location. A half hour later, the two friends might decide to go to a third location. Cover charges don’t work for that kind of activity where the objective is socializing, not watching a particular band perform.

3. There are too many clubs and too many bands. Bringing live music to a particular venue requires a lot of upfront investment in securing the band, promoting the event, and doing as much as possible to bring in a crowd. If multiple venues compete for the club-going public, there’s less to go around. That’s the basic math. But there’s no shortage of aspiring bands whose goal of wealth and fame requires building a local following first. Also, painful as it is to recognize, there’s a big disconnect between the many musicians who want to write original songs and audiences who want to hear familiar music. This particular problem is exacerbated by the fact that record deals and other important steps on the road to wealth and fame depend on original music. Nobody wants to record the 38th cover of “Proud Mary.”

Wade Ogle, veteran of the Fayetteville music scene, says the quality of new bands isn’t what it used to be. “With today’s technology, practically everyone can record a CD cheaply. While I think it’s a good thing, the downside is that way too many new bands are looking to play live before they’re really ready.”

So bands thread a narrow line, forced to invest in decent equipment and hours/months of practice until they can get booked to play and then play covers of popular music in their chosen genre while at the same time working on original songs that might be worthy of record label or promoter interest. If they manage to get booked into a club and they’re not ready, people who bother to show up are turned off to live music in general.

4. There aren’t enough fans. This wasn’t so much a problem in the ‘70s when the Baby Boomers came through en masse, the right age and right mindset to thrive on live music. You could almost say that live music was part of their religion. Alas, those days have passed. Somewhat smaller subsequent generations don’t necessarily take song lyrics as their personal anthems. Some might even allege that popular music today can’t hold a candle to the music being created in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With the rise of digital media, music suited to personal taste is available any day, any time, and any place. Free. Why go to a club and pay a cover charge when you can listen to what you like at home? One benefit of live music will never change, however, and that is the attraction of mingling in a crowd of enthusiastic fans, dancing to the same beat and being part of the ‘family.’

5. The town and Dickson Street itself have changed. Yes, this is a big factor. Fayetteville’s population has tripled since the 1970s, and University enrollment has increased from around 15,000 in 1980 to over 50,000 in 2019. More cars and the infill of properties near Dickson means much less parking plus much of the available parking is now metered. Clubs with occasional live music have sprung up along North College Avenue and near the Northwest Arkansas Mall, meaning competition for Dickson Street. Also, until recent years, Dickson Street was the place to party for the entire region. Now that Benton County allows alcohol to be served, clubs have sprung up there like dandelions in early spring. In particular, the Arkansas Music Pavilion (AMP) at Rogers has created a major performance venue for big name performers that in the past would have appeared only in Fayetteville.

Slogans like “Keep Fayetteville Funky” notwithstanding, times change. We change. It’s inconceivable to think that a day might come when Dickson Street would no longer vibrate with the heartbeat of live music and of people streaming through the doors to hear it, commune with each other, and let their hair down. But the world is, after all, what we individually and collectively make it, and it behooves us to not let such a good thing slip unnoticed into the shadows of the past. Dickson Street has been an institution as well as a collective of our entertainment experiences. We have to pay attention and do what we must to keep it that way.

 

~~~

“A brief history of why artists are no longer making a living making music,” by Ian Tamblyn

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Gem’s Gems

Excerpted from the book, Gem’s Gems — a memoir of my mother, Carmyn Gem [Morrow] Pitts.

[Her father Tom Morrow] ventured east into Madison County and ended up at St. Paul where the logging boom was in full steam. He brought his family to live first in a small house northwest of St. Paul before settling into the Casteel place, a two-story house with a bay window and porches upstairs and down, high upon a mountainside overlooking the White River Valley. They enjoyed a glorious summer in this scenic valley before cotton-picking time called them back to Texas.

Tom gathered his St. Paul crops and left Grandpa Clark in charge of the house and getting the sorghum cane to the mill. Left behind was the furniture—a wood burning cookstove, iron bedsteads and bedding, a rocking chair, table and benches, a marble-top round table, Sylvia’s “Princess” dresser with oval mirror, a small drop leaf desk, and a “matting” box with hinged lid Tom had built out of lathe for Sylvia’s quilts [Carmyn’s mother]. The family packed their “batchin’” equipment—a camp stove, a few quilts, feather bed, and feather bolsters, a white enamel bucket with plates, cups, and two serving bowls, the iron skillet, and a deep aluminum stewer Sylvia used to soak whole grain wheat overnight—into the beloved Baby Overland and headed south. Not left behind were the family cat Snowball and the German Shepherd dog “Lightnin’,” who rode on the fender.

On the journey, they stopped along the road each night and made campfires to cook supper. They would stop at a house to ask if they could get water at their spring and camp for the night. Mama made pallets for the younger children to sleep on in the truck and Papa, Durward, Douglas and Graydon slept on pallets on the ground under the truck. Once when they stopped at a house and asked to use the spring, the lady of the house brought them fresh buttermilk.

Littlefield Texas cotton-pickin’ shack. January 1929 L-R: Douglas with dog Trixie True, Graydon, Joy with cat Snowball, Tomazine “Sister,” Carmyn holding her doll Prudence, Una Mae in Durward’s lap

Upon arriving in Texas, they lived first in a cotton-picking shack at one of Sylvia’s sister’s place in Grayson County. After picking for two weeks, they moved on to another of Sylvia’s sister’s farms near Vera in Knox County where they stayed for four weeks. The shacks were crudely built one-room structures about twelve feet by fourteen feet with two windows and a door. Aunt Lillian fixed up their shack at Crosby County for her sister Sylvia and family to live in, scrubbed clean with curtains on the windows. She loaned them a coal-oil stove with an oven. They picked their cotton for three weeks and then finished the season in a shack near Morrison.

In the winter of 1928, the Tom and Sylvia Morrow family moved back to the Casteel place in St. Paul, Arkansas, but Grandpa Clark convinced Tom that the ground was too rocky for farming, so they rented a house together—the Greenway place—about 1.5 miles southwest of Springdale (near the present-day Wal-Mart). It was a temporary home for the two weeks it took Tom to find “Trouble’s End,” the name of the place in Springdale that was their first home with a bathroom and running water. Their seventh child Una May was born here. They had apples and strawberries, and were joined again by the grandparents, who again kept the house when Tom began preparing his family for another summer run back to Texas to pick cotton.

Austin Place, Springdale Arkansas August 1929 Tomazine and Una May

Tom traded the Baby Overland for a big truck, made a wooden box for the pet cat and a puppy to ride in, and the German Shepherd rode on the fender. On the journey, Sylvia and girls slept in the truck while Tom and the boys slept on pallets under the truck. Back in Texas, near Littlefield, they lived in a shack and picked cotton, but the kids all came down with whooping cough, so they couldn’t return to Arkansas until March 1929.

Back in Springdale, they discovered that Grandpa Clark had failed to pay rent at “Trouble’s End,” and had moved three miles east of Springdale to the Crane place. He had rented a nearby house, the Austin place, for Tom’s family, but it was only one bedroom. Tom closed in the breezeway to the smokehouse to provide more room, but that fall he found the Nix place with three bedrooms and a big corner porch. He moved the family there and went to Texas to haul grain from November until February 1930.

Tom Morrow with his mule team, baby on the wagon seat

 

Read the rest of Gem’s Gems! Available at Amazon.com

My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.

His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.

From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.

He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”

I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.

Most women don’t get that kind of education.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.

I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.

Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.

If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.

But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.

As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist,  and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.

All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.

Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.

Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.

Ma Drake

Excerpt from Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, “History of Fayette Junction.”

By 1936, the canning business was the dominant regional industry. At Fayette Junction in south Fayetteville, a new facility sprang up right across the tracks from Sligo Wagon Wood Company and began its own railcar shipments of canned goods. The 1936 Sanborn maps document this enterprise as “Thomas and Drake Canning Company Warehouse,” remarking that stated building dimensions had been taken “from plans.” It was a state of the art facility: plans specified iron posts, concrete block pilaster, and gypsum board roof on steel joists. The Rev. Jake Drake and his son Ezra Drake joined with Rylan C. Thomas in this enterprise.

According to the 1939 city directory, “Drake and Hargis Cannery” was located at 605 W. Dickson. Crates of canned tomatoes, greens, and other produce from this cannery would have been warehoused at Fayette Junction. In 1947, the business was called “Thomas and Drake Canning” and had offices at 19 East Center. Several Drakes may have been involved as a venture of the extended Drake family of Drake’s Creek area, Madison County. It is not clear whether the Fayette Junction property built by Drake ever served as more than a storage facility.

Drake’s brother Bill and sister-in-law Vida (Ma Drake) operated a favored local café known first as “Bill Drake’s Place,” no doubt taking advantage of his brother’s access to inexpensive local canned goods.  At some point before 1951, Drake and Thomas was taken over by Hargis. Among the litter later found on the old Sligo mill’s vast dark floor were cancelled checks of Drake Canning Company and Thomas and Drake Canning Company with dates in the 1950s.

Hargis and Drake canneries rode a wave of profitable commerce as Arkansas fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, captured a significant market share nationally. But by 1950, production and sales of tomato and strawberry crops comprised a mere one-fourth the volume it had in 1930. Disease, economic forces, and stringent new sanitation regulations began to crush the local canning market.

Vida Drake continued the business after Bill’s death. Frequent winner of awards for Best Plate Lunch, “Ma Drake’s” continued her café even after suffering a heart attack in the early 1990s. Her lunches included a meat, mashed potatoes with gravy, three vegetables, salad, and a roll for $3.75. Homemade pies rounded off the menu, usually available in apple, cherry, lemon, chocolate, coconut, and pecan. The café was first located at the northeast corner of Sixth and S. College, but later moved to 504 E. 15th Street. Drake’s closed after her death in 1997.

Fayetteville Legends

Ronnie Hawkins, 1959. From his official website, http://www.ronniehawkins.com Toronto, Ontario Ron Scribner Agency, courtesy of Toronto Hawk Records

“I remember running the red light there,” Hawkins said, referring to Leverett at the top of Garland hill. “I had the daughter of one of the biggest lawyers in Arkansas with me, underage of course. We ran that red light. She did.”

Robert Cochran, interviewing Ronnie Hawkins: “I think I’ve heard that story. That’s where you switch places with her, so you’d take the hit.”

“Yes, I’d take the hit,” Hawkins said. “Pearl Watts was the sheriff. He smoked those old rolled Bull Durham tobaccos. He always had one a fraction of an inch long in the corner of his mouth, [smoke] going right up into his eye while he was interrogating you. Judge Packet said I was a menace to the highway, and I’d better straighten up… They were sitting right behind Leverett school. When we were going over that hill, we were in a hurry to get out to the university farm. That’s where everybody parked.”[1]

Hawkins was indeed in the company of an underage girl, none other than Marcia Perkins, daughter of Rex Perkins. Even though technically too young to hold a driver’s license, she drove a brand new 1956 red-and -white Chevy Bel-Air, courtesy of Rex’s close professional relationships with Fayetteville car dealers.

From Rex Perkins – A Biography:

“By the time Marcia was fourteen in 1955, she had developed a secretive months-long relationship with twenty-one-year-old Ronnie Hawkins, a fledgling star in the music world. Older sister Carole had started college, but Marcia had her own ideas about her future. One night, Marcia attended a slumber party and ended up on the phone with Hawkins. Whether the slumber party had been a strategic maneuver to give her a means to meet him is unknown. But the upshot was that she slipped out of the slumber party to join Hawkins at the golf course where he and other members of his popular group “Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks” were hanging out and jamming in what turned out to be an all-nighter.

“One version of this story claims that Roy Orbison was in town for this jam session, which wasn’t completely unusual. The early form of rock and roll (later named ‘rockabilly’) blossomed around Huntsville-native Hawkins and his friend Levon Helm, along with other members of this group. Other music notables who came to Fayetteville to jam with Hawkins and/or to play at a favorite nightspot, the Rockwood Club, included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Conway Twitty.

“An acquaintance of Hawkins remembered those early years. ‘Ronnie was a natural athlete and a ‘Greek god’ of a life guard at the Wilson Park swimming pool. He understandably received lots of attention from a wide range of women.’[1]

“It was assumed that Marcia and Hawkins were sleeping together, although whether they were intimate during the night in question is not known. One of her slumber party friends confessed the story of Marcia slipping out to her mother, Jane McDonald. Jane told Georgia, Georgia told Rex, and the proverbial mess hit the fan. Marcia was Rex’s baby, Daddy’s little girl, and like most fathers in similar circumstances, Rex wasn’t prepared for another man in Marcia’s young life.

Rex Perkins

“As the story goes, even though fourteen was the legal age of consent at that time in Arkansas, a fired-up Rex gave the young man a choice: leave town or suffer my wrath. The result was that Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks made a hasty departure from the region. The official version of Hawkins’ life story states he began touring Canada (date unspecified) and later made it his home (1958), and that he ventured there on advice from Conway Twitty.[2]

“Contacted regarding this biography, Hawkins confirmed that Rex made certain threats. ‘Rex was the biggest lawyer ever in Fayetteville at that time,’ Hawkins stated. ‘I would have married her but I was afraid somebody was gonna kill me.’”[3]

If Marcia’s girlfriend hadn’t spilled the beans, Rex would have found out anyway. Pearl Watts knew Marcia’s car and would have made sure Rex knew that his daughter had been found in the company of that rock-and-roller Hawkins, flying through that stoplight.

~~~

[1] “Long on Nerve: An Interview with Ronnie Hawkins,” Robert Cochran and Ronnie Hawkins. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly Vol 65, No. 2 (Summer 2006) pp. 99-115.

[1] Scott Lunsford interview, by email June 26, 2014. Author’s notes.

[2] From there, the story of Hawkins’ group is well known to music buffs. After 1964, fellow-Arkansan Helm and other band members regrouped to form ‘The Band,” toured with Bob Dylan in 1965-66, and went on to fame and fortune. Hawkins continued his musical career to become a mentor to other musicians as well as an award-winning performer.

[3] Scott Lunsford interview, his email relating phone conversation with Ronnie Hawkins August 15, 2014. Author’s notes.

~~~

Rex Perkins: A Biography, by Denele Campbell. Available in ebook or paperback,

Thoughts on Graduation

As I sat in the massive sports arena, outfitted in its overhead screens meant for close-ups to penalty shots, I thought of the other times I’ve joined such crowds for ceremonies deemed important in our society. People of all kinds rubbed shoulders in the steep rows of seats, all of us suffering the interminable wait for things to happen. A brass quintet played, their image projected onscreen so that we could see the puffing of the tuba player’s cheeks, the hand stuffed in the bell of the French horn. August cadences of heraldic composition by Bach and other Baroque composers echoed off the high dome of steel and glass. Attendants rushed from place to place.

Finally the processional began, resonate strains of that long familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 in D by Sir Edward Elgar (1901). Led by deans and faculty and pages carrying medieval banners announcing the insignia and names of colleges that would be conferring degrees, leadership of the university headed the long lines of graduating students, their robes descended from Middle Age dress just as many buildings on campus continue an ancient architectural tradition.

The caps or tams and variously colored hoods or stoles designated the degree and college—doctoral robes with three velvet sleeve bars, master’s robes with the pointed sleeve extension, or bachelor’s degree regalia with their open sleeves.

Once seated, the 1,700 graduates and attending university trustees, chancellor, and deans joined the audience in standing for the performance of the national anthem and a musical invocation by the university’s Schola Cantorum, yet another name and tradition of the Middle Ages originally organized to perform plainchant in the early church. The music brought a catch to my throat. How many times had I experienced the rush of emotion at this music, each occasion a milestone in my life or the life of someone dear?

Then the speeches, a reminder that from education comes what we value most as a society—the rule of law, the exploration of science, the marvelous inventions of mathematics and engineering, the preservation and creation of language through literature, history, philosophy, the magic of the arts.

Then the graduates, no longer embroiled in intense study and eager to harvest the product of their long labor and expense—a diploma. One by one their eager faces appeared on the big overhead screen, each called by name, each striding toward the dean of their college to accept the red leather folder with its heavy parchment page bearing their name and the title of their accomplishment.

My mother, at 95 hardly able to stay current with the rapid changes of our times, expressed muted shock at all the “foreign” names. “They live here, too,” I whispered.

Later, as I drove her home, I thanked her for coming to this ceremony honoring her granddaughter. “So many people,” she mused. “Nothing like when I went there.”

“No,” I said laughing. “A lot has changed in seventy-five years.”

Old Main, University of Arkansas Fayetteville

Later as I reflected on the emotion still swelling in my chest, the realization came again as it has in the past. Especially in times changing as rapidly as ours, we need our traditions, our ceremonies, to remind us of why we are what we are. Education forms the heart of our civilization. No wonder we house our institutions of learning in buildings modeled on the earliest designs of Western culture. No wonder the prestige of educational leadership appears in the same garment style as medieval Oxford dons wore a thousand years ago.

Graduation isn’t simply the conferring of degrees. It’s a rite of passage into a special tier of human endeavor celebrated by those who have committed to heart and memory the facts, rules, and practices of a particular profession. They have taken the traditions of our ancestors to their own safekeeping in order to serve us all, to preserve and enhance, to invent and expand the talents and knowledge upon which our lives depend.

The fact that a winter commencement at the modest yet ambitious flagship university of a lesser state such as Arkansas has advanced the ambitions of 1,700 individuals gives me good cheer in a time when so much about our world seems dark. From these and thousands of kindred graduates across our land will come the solutions. This is the future. I’m thrilled to see it.

Folk Song “Billy Boy”

From a YouTube recording of the spoken poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bKJHwNzXAs

As often happens, at 3 a.m. I was lying awake with a song running through my head. I hadn’t thought about this song since I was child when my mother sang it in the style of the Andrews Sisters’ recording.

Why Billy Boy? I have no idea. But in the need to put this to rest, this morning I looked up the lyrics. And as happened before with other folk songs, I discovered this one has a long and not so nice history.  Wikipedia states: “Its lyrical structure is thematically complex and modeled after the question and answer form of traditional ballads” that served as Bob Dylan’s inspiration for a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

While the tone of the nursery rhyme is ironic and teasing, both the question and answer form and the narrative of the song have been related to “Lord Randall”, a murder ballad from the British Isles, in which the suitor is poisoned by the woman he visits. Wikipedia

Here are the lyrics I always heard:

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my whole life
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Where does she live, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where does she live, Charming Billy?
She lives on the hill, forty miles from the mill
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she bid you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she bid you to come in, Charming Billy?
Yes, she bade me to come in, there’s a dimple in her chin
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she take your hat, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she take your hat, Charming Billy?
Yes, she took my hat and she threw it at the cat
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she set for you a chair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she set for you a chair, Charming Billy?
Yes, she set for me a chair, she has ringlets in her hair
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she cook and can she spin, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she cook and can she spin, Charming Billy?
She can cook and she can spin, she can do most anything
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?
She can bake a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink her eye
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a feather bed, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a feather bed, Charming Billy?
She can make a feather bed and put pillows at the head
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a pudding well, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a pudding well, Charming Billy?
She can make a pudding well, I can tell it by the smell
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she milk a heifer calf, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she milk a heifer calf, Charming Billy?
Yes, she can, and not miss the bucket more than half
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she often seen at church, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she often seen at church, Charming Billy?
Yes, she’s often seen at church, with her bonnet white as birch
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

And is she very tall, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
And is she very tall, Charming Billy?
She’s as tall as any pine, and as straight as a pumpkin vine
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Are her eyes very bright, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Are her eyes very bright, Charming Billy?
Yes, her eyes are very bright, but alas, they’re minus sight
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she sing a pretty song, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she sing a pretty song, Charming Billy?
She can sing a pretty song, but she often sings it wrong
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

How old may she be, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old may she be, Charming Billy?
Three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she fit to be a wife, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fit to be a wife, Charming Billy?
She’s as fit to be a wife as a fork fits to a knife
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

But now with the information about an earlier darker version named Lord Randall, I had to know what it said. Here’s the Wikipedia description:

“Lord Randall”, or “Lord Randal”, is an Anglo-Scottish border ballad consisting of dialogue between a young Lord and his mother. Similar ballads can be found across Europe in many languages, including Danish, German, Magyar, Irish, Swedish, and Wendish. Italian variants are usually titled “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man”) or “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will”), the earliest known version being a 1629 setting by Camillo il Bianchino, in Verona.

Of course the Scots are in it! Here are the lyrics, by one version.

Lord Randal

“Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall, my son!
And where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man!”
“I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“An wha met ye there, Lord Randall, my son?
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?”
“I dined wi my true-love; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And what did she give you, Lord Randall, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young man?”
“Eels fried in broo; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randall, my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsome young man?”
“My hawks and my hounds; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“What become a yer bloodhounds, Lord Randall, my son?
What become a yer bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”
“They swelled and they died; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi huntin, and fain wad lie doon.”

“O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall, my son!
I fear ye are poisoned, my handsome young man!”
“O yes, I am poisoned; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m sick at m’ heart, and I fain wad lie doon.”

Several performed versions may be found on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed this one by Giordano Dall’Armellina .  Some versions include a couple of final stanzas where he curses his treacherous lover to hell fire.