Mom hunched on the living room couch, studying lyrics she’d written on yet another Big Chief tablet. Then she sat up straight, strummed chords on her Gibson guitar and sang her work, trying first one melody, then another. It seemed to me like torturous work as I stood near the front door, listening to her wrestle with words and guitar expressions. I was probably about 7 years old and fully capable there in the early ’50s of reacting to sad songs. Mother was writing another one.
I’d heard her work on similar, equally dreadful pieces. The heartbreak she sang about so mournfully on this day drove me crazy with child angst. I was driven to ask a question I’d long thought of asking but had kept to my tortured little self whenever listening to her work. “Mama,” I asked sharply, “why do you write such sad songs?” To my surprise, she smiled her beautiful, loving smile, choked the guitar and looked at me for a few seconds. Finally, she answered: “You’ll know someday.”
In 1951, as mother’s songwriting career was taking off, Louisiana Hayride artist Red Sovine gave her a beautiful 1951 Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar in a black case lined with dark-green felt. A long, green braided cord served as a shoulder strap, but that worked fine for mother. The J-45 was the perfect size for her 5’3” frame and small hands. It was an important tool to have, Sovine told her, because she needed to be making demo tapes of her songs accompanied with a guitar. She loved that guitar and played it well. When it needed a new string or a set of strings, dad would take care of that and the tuning.
Mother’s guitar fascinated me and my brother. We would play with it, slowly strumming the strings to create ghostly, transcendent sounds. We were gentle with it, as warned. When we heard her playing that Gibson, we knew she was working on a song.
On warm, sunny days when my brother and I were out of elementary school for the summer, mother would drive us to Spring Lake Park in Texarkana. She would take her trusty Gibson guitar, a Big Chief tablet and pencils. Mother would park next to the pretty little lake and send us off to play. Spring Lake Park seemed huge to us with scores of tall pine trees, picnic tables and stone guard towers at the entrance that were wonderfully spooky. Mother would sit in the car, working on songs, while we skipped stones on the water and ran around the shady grounds.
Eventually, she’d either honk the car’s horn or call to us, “Boys, time to go home.” We didn’t want to leave, but we’d trot back to the car and ask: “What’d you write, mama?” She’d smile and reply: “More corny old songs.”