The sound of water screeching to a boil
reminds me of my grandmother’s
trembling hand pouring her steam-hissing
kettle over the Lipton’s teabag settled
in her white porcelain cup.
Those would be the mornings I’d have slept over
on the pull out in the living room, bundled in flannel,
watching lights from traffic below make angels on the ceiling.
My grandfather would already be out for the day,
picking up a nice brisket, a few carrots, nodding
to shopkeepers on his walk down Broadway, picking
the wrong horses at the corner OTB. He’d only bet ponies
with the same name as one of his daughters, or grandchildren,
a horse with a name that started with “K” or “J,” “S” or “N.”
In the evening I’d watch grownups as if studying another species:
Gretel with her bargains, “I got this sweater for 99 cents!”
Catherine the milliner, hat pins sticking out of the sides of her mouth.
Why did my grandmother hide money in a drawer
under the kitchen table? How was she able
to put her red lipstick on without a mirror, never going
out of the lines? Who was Uncle Joe? Why’d she shriek
at my grandfather when he returned from the store
without the dill after dark because he’d forgotten his way home?
Why did he never say anything back, but just look at me
sitting at the fold out card table where I’d been waiting all day to watch him
rip the cellophane off a new Bicycle deck, break it open, shuffle, “let’s play,”
I’ve got a hand like a foot,” he’d always say.
“Sleep Over” by Kim Dower from Last Train to the Missing Planet. © Red Hen Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed on this date in 1869. The project had been discussed since the 1830s when Europeans were settling in California in increasing numbers, but people couldn’t decide on the best route. Some argued for a central route through Wyoming and Nebraska, and others felt a southern route through Texas was better because it would avoid the Rocky Mountains. Over time the Pony Express proved that the central route was passable even in winter, and Texas allied itself with the Confederacy in the Civil War, so the central route won out.
The building of a transcontinental railroad was one of Abraham Lincoln’s big goals during his presidency. He signed legislation to construct the line in July 1862, and two companies were hired: Central Pacific would build from west to east, and Union Pacific would build from east to west. The law arranged to pay the companies per mile, and they exploited that provision whenever possible. The main stockholder of Union Pacific, who had been Lincoln’s employer before entering politics, arranged to add extra miles to the track and usually ran it conveniently through land that he owned, so he got paid for that too. When this came to light in 1872, it became one of the major scandals of the 19th century.
It wasn’t just corruption that marred the project. Chinese immigrants did much of the hard and dangerous labor, but were paid far less than their white counterparts. In violation of government treaties, the railroad route went through Indian lands and disrupted the hunting grounds. Once connected to new markets in the east by rail, professional hunters decimated the bison population.
On May 10, 1869, the two companies met up at Promontory Point, Utah amid great fanfare. When the route was finally completed, the journey from New York to Sacramento took about a week — a considerable improvement over the previous travel time of nearly six months.
It’s the birthday of “Mother” Maybelle Carter (1909), born Maybelle Addington in Nickelsville, Virginia, a small town in the mountains of western Virginia — the Poor Valley area. One of the pioneers of American country music, Maybelle Carter was a member of the Carter Family, a musical trio consisting of Maybelle, her cousin Sara, and Sara’s husband, A.P. Carter. They popularized a more melodic style of rural folk music, then known as “mountain” music — with songs like “Wildwood Flower,” “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” and “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
They were one of the first groups to have a female lead singer, and to use the guitar as the lead instrument, which is what Maybelle played. She’s responsible for inventing what became known as the “Carter scratch,” in which she played the melody line with her thumb while her fingers strummed the rhythm — essentially, this meant she was playing both melody and rhythm on one instrument.
About her unusual technique, Maybelle Carter said: “I started trying different ways to pick it, and came up with my own style, because there weren’t many guitar players around. I just played the way I wanted to and that’s it.”
Carter was the sixth of 10 kids. Her father owned a local general store and dabbled in moonshine. The entire family was musical and Carter learned banjo and Autoharp when she was young. She taught herself guitar at 13. In Poor Valley, folk songs were passed down orally from generation to generation and Carter learned many songs from her mother. She grew up happily walking miles to revivals to listen to hymns. She had an excellent ear.
When she was 15, she dropped out of school to play full time with A.P. and Sara. They’d christened themselves “The Carter Family” and played at churches, schoolhouses, and “singing conventions.”
In 1927, when Maybelle was 18, married, and seven months pregnant, the Carter Family borrowed a rickety Model T from Carter’s husband, Ezra, and drove 18 hours across rough dirt roads in sweltering summer heat to reach Bristol, Tennessee, where a producer from the Victor Talking Machine Company was recording rural artists. His name was Ralph Peer, and he was convinced that there was better country music to be heard than what Vernon Dalhart, a former opera singer, was selling. Dalhart simply imitated what he thought singers from the mountains sounded like, and that sounded like mockery to Ralph Peer.
Ralph Peer promised to pay $50 on the spot for each side cut and 2½ cents for each single sold. Sessions were held on the third floor of a hat and glove factory and when Maybelle, Sara, and A.P. walked in, Peer was skeptical. He said: “They looked like hillbillies, but as soon as I heard Sara’s voice, that was it. I knew it was going to be wonderful.” The Carter Family recorded six songs, including “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “Wandering Boy,” and “The Storms Are On the Ocean.”
It took the Carter Family three days and three tire patches to drive back home. Five months later, they had their first hit record with “Single Girl, Married Girl.” By 1930, the Carter Family had sold over 300,000 records in the United States. Their music influenced Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, who tinkered with the melody to “Wayworn Traveler,” added his own lyrics, and turned it into the song “Paths of Victory.” Johnny Cash later married Maybelle Carter’s daughter June, who would go on to write the seminal country song, “Ring of Fire.” After the Carter Family disbanded in the 1940s, Maybelle formed “The Carter Sisters” with her daughters Helen, June, and Anita.
Billboard Magazine describes the Carter sessions at Bristol, Tennessee, as “the most important single event in the history of country music,” largely responsible for the development of modern country music.
The recording machine at the hat and glove factory astounded Maybelle Carter. The heavy, spinning turntable was covered with an inch and half of wax. There were pulleys and weights in a wooden tower. The microphone ran off electricity. Maybelle Carter said: “When we made the record and played it back, I thought it couldn’t be. I just couldn’t believe it, this being so unreal, you standing there and singing and they’d turn around and play it back to you.”
She said: “I have loved music all my life. I guess I was just born that way.”
Today is the birthday of novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford (books by this author), born in Leeds, in the United Kingdom (1933). She grew up in Yorkshire and left school at the age of 15 to join the secretarial pool of the Yorkshire Evening Post. A year later, she was promoted to reporter, and by the time she was 18, she was the Woman’s Page editor. She moved to London when she was just 20 years old, to become a reporter, fashion editor, and columnist.
In 1961, she went on a blind date with an American film producer named Robert Bradford. She fell in love with him at first sight, and two years later, they were married. She moved with him to the United States, where she worked as an interior design and lifestyles columnist.
Even though Bradford became a well-established journalist, she liked to write fiction in her spare time. She started by writing her first story at the age of seven, and she sold her first story to a magazine when she was 10. After her marriage, she wrote a few children’s books and made a few stabs at novels that didn’t go anywhere. In 1976, she signed her first book deal. That first novel was A Woman of Substance (1979), which has since become one of the best-selling novels of all time. She’s written 28 more since then, and each one is dedicated to Bob Bradford, her husband of 52 years. He produced all the movies and miniseries based on Barbara’s books, and served as her agent for more than 30 years.
On this date in 1872, Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman candidate for president of the United States. She had almost no formal education, and women at that time were not allowed to vote. But Woodhull had a history of breaking new ground. Her father, a petty criminal who sold snake oil, put her to work telling fortunes and communicating with the dead. She made good money, especially during the Civil War. In 1868, when she was 30 years old, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin met Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York City; he had recently become a widower, and they worked as his personal clairvoyants. He thought so highly of them that he set them up in business. They started the first Wall Street brokerage firm run by women. Two years later, the sisters started Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a radical journal that published the first English translation of Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.
Woodhull was a strong and outspoken proponent of women’s suffrage. She was the first woman to address a congressional committee; she argued that women should have the vote because they were citizens, and “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” She organized the Equal Rights Party, which nominated her for president at their convention. Her platform was women’s suffrage, abolition of the death penalty, an eight-hour workday, and the nationalization of the railroads, among other planks. She named abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate — although he never publicly acknowledged this. She appeared on ballots in a few states, but her votes were never tallied. She spent Election Day in jail on obscenity charges, for publishing an article claiming that Henry Ward Beecher was an adulterer. She was found not guilty, but not before Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, called her a “vile jailbird” and an “impudent witch.”
Woodhull fell out of favor with the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and she moved to England, where she spent the rest of her life.
It's the birthday of Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz, in Omaha, Nebraska (1899). He started dancing when he was four, and when he was six he formed an act with his sister, Adele, which became a popular vaudeville attraction on Broadway. When Adele retired in 1932, Astaire made a screen test. The movie executive wrote, "Can't act, can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Still, Astaire got a part in Dancing Lady (1933). It starred Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Three Stooges. He's famous for the movies he made with his dancing partner Ginger Rogers: classics like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936).