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Musical Memories

The other day, my wife declared that it was time for her to plant her sweet potatoes.

For some reason that I can't explain, my mind suddenly recalled a folk song that we kids had sung in our music class at Halls Elementary School just north of the Knoxville, Tennessee, city limits. I found myself humming the tune and trying to recall the lyrics. They began to come back to me as the tune haunted me throughout my shaving and showering that morning.


Make my living in sandy land,

Make my living in sandy land,

Make my living in sandy land,

Ladies, fare you well.


Plant sweet potatoes in sandy land, etc.

Ladies, fare you well.


Dig sweet potatoes in sandy land, etc.

Ladies fare you well.


I always thought it funny that although our area didn't have sandy soil, we were singing about engaging in agricultural pursuits in sandy land.

On the other hand, we also sang songs about raising beef cattle on the range, but only a few people in Halls were raising cattle on a large scale at that time and one could hardly call their pastures the range. To my knowledge, just about all of the farmers in the community were dairy farmers. My grandfather was one of them. He had a dairy farm that was a test-demonstration farm for the Tennessee Valley Authority. And Walter Coomer, who lived across the road from Pappaw, raised dairy cows. And closer to Halls were the dairy farms of Gene Hall and Clifford Sauder. Those four pretty much made up the entirety of the Halls cattlemen.


Nonetheless, we kids sang about little dogies getting along on the vast expanse of the Western range.


As I rode out one morning, so early

I spied a cow puncher aridin' along.

His hat was thrown back and his spurs was a jinglin',

And he was singin' his dogies a song.


Whoopee ti-yi-yo, get along little dogie.

It's your mistfortune and none of my own.

Whoopee ti-yi-yo, get along little dogie.

You know that Wyoming will be your new home.


We kids could hardly have found Wyoming on a map. Even fewer had ever been there or could even imagine what it looked like.


As so often happens when the mind begins to chase a rabbit, I began recalling other songs we sang in that music class, taught by Mrs. Smelser, who happened to be married to Joe Smelser, the local veterinarian. He was a frequent visitor at the local farms. There was "Home on the Range," "She'll be Comin' Around the Mountain," "Ol' Dan Tucker," "Oh, Susanna," and other silly folk songs, many of which made absolutely no sense to us kids.


But that wasn't the point. We were learning to appreciate music. And, without realizing it, some of us were laying up a store of memories.

One song that sort of prefigured my future interest in military history was "The Field Artillery March." Little did I know at the time, but my Uncle Dillon had served int he 391st Armored Field Artillery during World War II, and I would one day write about what he had witnessed during that conflict in my forthcoming book Dillon's War. (Stay tuned for the announcement of its release date.) I had no idea what I was singing about at the time, though.


Over hill, over dale,

We have hit the dusty trail,

And the caissons go rolling along.

In and out, hear them shout,

Counter march and right about,

And those caissons go rolling along.


Then it's hi, hi, hee

In the field artillery;

Shout out your numbers loud and strong.

And where're you go,

You will always know

That those caissons go rolling along.


I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket at the time. As a matter of fact, I still can't. But I enjoyed singing. But more than that, although I couldn't read a note, I enjoyed playing the various instruments available in the class. Whether it was clicking the castanets, shaking the maracas (I thought they were seed-filled gourds), or simply rubbing or shopping two sticks together in time to the music, I put my heart into it.

But most of all, I liked playing the lap autoharp. I thought it was neat to cross my wrists, my left hand pushing down the bars across the strings to form the chords and my right hand strumming the strings with a plastic pick. Fortunately, I didn't have to be able to read music; the book we used had letters printed to show precisely when we were to press the right chords. I could follow the words and play reasonably well without any notes.


I should have paid attention when Mrs. Smelser tried to teach us note reading. It would have made the Music Appreciation class that all education majors had to take when I got to college a lot easier. I squeaked through that class with a C minus, a lot of mercy from the teacher, and an ability to recognize tunes and the names of their composers.


When I was in sixth grade, the las year I would have Mrs. Smelser before moving to the middle school building across Maynardville Highway from the elementary school, she auditioned all of her students to participate in an All-Knox-County choir concert that combined the student choirs from every school in the county. It would be performed on the campus of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before a huge audience of parents, music teachers, and musicians from UT.


She lined up all of us boys and instructed us to sing some song together. As we sang, she moved down the line, listening intently to each boy.


I had no fear that I would be chosen for the choir; that would have been impossible with my decidedly unmusical notoriety. Knowing my inability to carry a tune and not wanting to be embarrassed, the closer Mrs. Smelser got to me, the softer I sang. By the time she got in front of me, I was merely lip-syncing. (I was far ahead of Milli Vanilli!) Not a sound was coming from my mouth.

Mrs. Smelser moved her head closer to me, her ear almost touching my mouth. I was sweating, but nary a sound did I permit to exit my mouth. As she move on to the next boy, I was triumphant in my assurance that I would not be chosen.


I still made the choir! She must have heard something, but it hadn't come from me! To this day, I can't understand how I made it into that choir.


I can't remember all the songs we sang at UT. In fact, a lot of them were in Latin. During one of our rehearsals, someone complained that we didn't know what we were singing, couldn't understand the words were sere supposed to be singing. Mrs. Smelser replied that we should just "sing what you hear."


I did just that.


Pawnee soon jelly goose.

Pawnee soon jelly goose.

Pall bearers, pall bearers.

Soon we will see the end!


I still remember the tune, and every time I hear it, I think of the Pawnees and pall bearers. I never did figure out what Indians had to do with the song or whose funeral we were singing about. But somehow we made it through, and the audience applauded loudly.


That was the end of my less-than-illustrious musical career. But to this day, whenever I hear one of those tunes--or even a phrase from one, such as "time to plant sweet potatoes"--I recall Mrs. Smelser and the music class at Halls Elementary School.


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