Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Eavesdropping on that Royal Telephone

Davidene McDonald considers her gift to be, well, a gift --- and for that reason plays only gospel although there’s little doubt that if she wanted to, she could play honky-tonk, too. This amazing woman, now in her 80s, carries hundreds of hymn tunes (at the least) in her head and needs only a request to loose the music and let it flow out through her fingers.

We invited her down to the museum on Saturday morning to confront our musical monster --- that vast old square grand in the commons room of the Lewis Building; play as many of the old songs as she cared to; and engage in a round or two of stump-the-pianist (none of us could) with our Appreciation Day open house guests.

The old grand is truly a beast. She weighs a ton. The last guy called in to tune her several years ago --- a professional accustomed to servicing instruments with elevated pedigrees at colleges and universities in the region --- took one look at her and donned a back brace. When he was done, after wrestling with strings and pegs for hours, he swore he’d never touch her again --- no matter how great the financial incentive. No amount of tuning could eliminate her persistent rattle.

The grand arrived in Chariton more than a century ago by rail --- we assume. Many years later, when a descendant of her original owners headed south to live in Louisiana, she went along. Some years later, the old girl was loaded into the back of a U-Haul truck by museum volunteers who had headed south to retrieve her and brought home.

A couple of us who fancy ourselves up to the task, sit down at her keyboard now and then to see what we can do. She usually takes one look at us, recognizes hopeless amateurs for what we are and bucks us right off.

Davidene, however, eyed the old girl affectionately, pushed the piano stool (made like the piano to last --- in this case of cast iron) aside, pulled up a chair and the piano, knowing it had met its match, surrendered. It was wonderful and I wish you-all could have been there to hear it.


I figured I was in trouble right from the get-go when it came down to stumping Davidene and like I said none of us were able to, but pulled out an old favorite anyway --- “The Royal Telephone” --- just see. Should have known. “Oh yes, that’s an old one,” she said --- then turned to the piano and played it flawlessly. Darn.

“Southern Gospel,” a designation sometimes given to this old song, gripes me now and then, appropriating as it does in many cases what actually is Midwest Gospel. And “The Royal Telephone” is a good instance of that. It was written by an Iowa boy --- the Rev. Frederick M. Lehman --- back in 1919 and you can’t get more Midwest than that.

Although born in Germany during 1868, Lehman came to the United States with his family in 1872 and settled in Pottawattamie County over to the west. He was called to be a preacher and after the Church of the Nazarene emerged from the Wesleyan Holiness movement in 1907-1908 became affiliated with that denomination. He was actually living in Kansas City, where he’d gone to help organize the Nazarene Publishing House when it was written.

One of the odd things about “Royal Telephone” is that it may be better known in Australia than it is in the United States. It was recorded there by the legendary Aboriginal musician Jimmy Little in the 1960s and topped the charts, something it’s never managed to do in the United States.

Here’s a YouTube presentation of the old song by Billy Pollard, to whom I am devoted (his wife Willie, too). Although there are piano versions out there, Billy is accompanying himself on guitar here --- this gives you a chance to appreciate the words.

There are Philistines out there who do not appreciate “Royal Telephone” and I’m willing to admit that it does help to be able to remember those old hand-cranked wall-mounted telephones in universal use during 1919 when the song was written --- and for many years thereafter. Our number was “ought-four-on-nine.” That translates as a ring of four shorts on Line No. 9. Everyone on the party line knew everyone else’s ring, which made it easier to decide when you were going to pick up the receiver, put your hand over the mouthpiece and eavesdrop. When the line went down, the men of the neighborhood went out to fix it. And “central” was Jennie Haywood, an almost-cousin who wrangled the switchboard up in Russell.

No that has been a long time ago!

No comments: