I was poking around in my parents’ wardrobe when my fingers struck something wooden — so I pulled it out to find a tiny mahogany instrument with four beige-colored strings. I did not know what it was, until I found a picture of one on the cover of an instruction booklet, with a drawing of a smiling ukulele player and three happy singers, and the promise that I, too, could play the uke in five minutes because this course had “no confusing notes or keys to learn.”
“The 5-minute Ukulele Course” had line drawings of the instrument’s fingerboard, with black dots to show where to place your fingers to make a chord. So I sat down on the floor and tried to make the one whose diagram showed dots for my index finger on the secondnd string, and for my middle on the fourth. I only glanced at the instructions, then made the chord my own way, and strummed the strings with my thumb.
Instant awe came as that tiny box issued forth the most glorious sound I had ever heard. I played the chord again, and again. Then I stood up and called, “Mama!”
“I’m back here,” she answered, perhaps with hands wet from feeding clothes into the wringer of her new Maytag, wringing out water from the wash pot and the well.
When she saw me, she did not say, “What are you hanging around here for? Get outside and play ball.” Nor, when she saw her ukulele, did she say, “Have you been plundering in my wardrobe again?” Instead, she stopped the washer mid-wring, wiped her hands on her apron and came over.
“Listen to this, Mama,” I said, as I formed my new chord with my left hand and strummed the catgut strings with my right. She did not even wince at the dissonance, which I now know would have made John Cage shiver.
Instead, she smiled and said, “I just love the ukulele,” then she put her arm around me and patted my shoulder, touched the fingers of my left hand and gently moved my index finger from the first to the second string.
“Now,” she said, “play it again.”
When I strummed the new chord, I found it even more beautiful than the first.
“I just love music,” she said, as she patted me again, and turned back toward the Maytag.
After I got back to the wardrobe, I strummed my chord, then hers, then mine, then hers — again and again — wondering how she was able to hear sounds which I could not — until she showed me how.
I returned to the “5-minute Ukulele Course,” and as soon as I could make three chords, I chose one set of lyrics and chord diagrams for a song from the booklet. I had the words and the chords for “I Wandered Today to the Hill, Maggie,” but did not have the tune.
When I asked Mama, she sang the words for me:
I wandered today to the hill, Maggie
To watch the scene below
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie
Where we used to long, long ago.
The she sang “Maggie” over and over until I could sing it, too, for only then would I be ready to learn to play it.
After that day in 1954, I learned songs from Mama, which she got right because she played from sheet music, which I had not learned. But I got most of my music from other people’s singing: Mama and Daddy singing around the house; the hymn singers at church; Ernest Tubb “walking the floor”; and Hank Snow ”moving on” via WADE’s “Dinner Bell Time”; from live shows at school, like the singing of “Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys” and “Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers”; from TV’s filmed series “Stars of the Grand Old Opry”; and from Flatt and Scruggs’ live show on WBTW-Florence; from “Carolina Calling” where Arthur Smith grimaced through “Guitar Boogie”; from Jimmy on “The Jimmy Dean Show” and from his back-up guitarist who played two chords per measure in “My Window Faces the South.” So when I started learning guitar, my model was neither Elvis nor Jerry Lee nor Buddy Holly nor Chuck Berry — but Ray Price.
But flowing deep beneath the country music was another music that profoundly influenced me, represented by songs like “Heartaches” and “Whispering,” which I tried to play, even though I did not remember ever actually hearing them. And over the years, I envied players like Arthur Godfrey who could play all the hard chords on songs like “Seems Like Old Times.”
After Mama died in 2002, I got a few of her song books and two pieces of her sheet music and stuffed them away. Over the last few years, I have devoted myself to banjo, learning to play songs with the hard chords that you are not supposed to play on such a rustic instrument. Wanting to work out “The Shadow of Your Smile,” I found a play-by-numbers solo, but the banjo arrangement had only arpeggios, no simultaneous tones. By now I had learned to read music enough to get by, so I looked for a lead sheet for the song online — melody notes and chord symbols — so I could work out the song the way the writer intended.
I found a bootleg arrangement there, but did not copy it, opting for only chords and lyrics for “The Shadow of Your Smile.” When I tried to work out the tune, I found my efforts as futile as they had been when I tried to play “Maggie,” because chords and words do not a make a song. Only then did I remember Mama’s sheet music, and there in “Best of Popular Music Magazine Feb-Mar 1978” I found it, and worked out the melody. From her books I found other songs I remembered; here are a few of the titles I copied down:
• “Edelweiss” (from “The Sound of Music”)
• “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (from “The Wizard of Oz”)
• “Somewhere My Love” (from “Dr. Zhivago”)
• “Cruising Down the River” (from the movie of the same name)
• “Love Letters in the Sand” [from Pat Boone’s movie “Bernadine.”)
As I looked through the lyrics, in my mind I could hear Mama, playing the Kimball piano she bought with money earned at the shirt factory, and singing with her family.
But there was one other song that I could not find, a simple one, but with a deep significance: “Mighty Like a Rose”
Sweetest little fellow, everybody knows
Don’t know what to call him but he’s mighty like a rose
Lookin’ at his mama with eyes so shiny blue
Make you think that heaven is comin’ close to you.
The first time I heard Mama sing this, she did so with the joy of a new mother, but it made my baby sister cry. Mama tried to comfort her, but my sister could never tell us why she cried, until a couple of weeks ago, when she responded to the list of Mama Songs I sent to her.
“I must have heard something in Mama’s voice or something in the music that made me cry,” she wrote. “It wasn’t a sad song, it was a love song. It still makes me want to cry.”
Then she told me that she had the copy of Mama’s sheet music for “Mighty Like a Rose,” which was published in 1901, but the song was featured in a movie of 1943, the year after I was born. Mama probably played that old sheet music in 1932, while awaiting the birth of her and daddy’s first child. Mama named him “Frank Thomas,” after her favorite of the ones who raised her, even before her child was born, but little Tommy never received the name, for he never saw the light of day. Now she had a son and two daughters.
We think Reba sensed Mama’s joy, as well as her sadness, as she sang “Mighty Like a Rose.” Over the years, we have learned to sing that way as well, losing ourselves in music, and often in songs whose source had perplexed us, until now.
They’re the ones we call Mama Songs.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.