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Changing Keys

by Jared Carter

17 September 2003

In retrospect, the five or six years immediately following the Second World War seem to have been for me, and also for several others with whom I have spoken, one of the last genuinely golden eras this country has known.

Such times are rare.  There might have been, in the late 1950s, for certain parts of the country, a similar stretch of two or three years during which everything seemed to be going well, at least domestically.  There might have been a similar period during the mid- or late 1920s. But in other parts of the country, during those same intervals, the situation may not have been so promising. Things may in fact have been quite miserable.  A genuine golden era for an entire country is a very rare occurrence.  Still, I believe the United States as a whole went through such an era in the late 1940s.

I experienced those days as a child.  I was born in 1939 and entered grade school in the fall of 1945. That immediate post-war era has remained in my memory as a halcyon time, and not simply because I was young and innocent.

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It was special for everyone, but particularly for me, since it was my good fortune to grow up in a small Midwestern town—the sort of place where the grownups never locked their doors, where children played in the streets and in the ball fields throughout the long summer afternoons, and where the countryside, with its hills and creeks and wooded areas, was never more than a few minutes’ walk away.

Steam engines pulling freight and passenger cars still plied the Nickel Plate tracks I could look out and see from my back doorstep. Once a year my brother and sisters and I would wave to the Circus Train going by.  When I was older, I sometimes walked out to the fair grounds on the morning the circus arrived, and earned a free ticket to the performance by helping the roustabouts set up a sideshow tent or unload the cages of the less ferocious animals.

In the fall of 1948, when I was in the fourth grade, all the schools in town declared a holiday, so that those of us who could find transportation could be taken fifteen miles west to a town in the next county, and witness something that everyone said would happen only once in a lifetime.

We waited at a railroad crossing, standing with hundreds of people from the surrounding towns and villages, until a special train pulled in.  A band played “There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and Harry and Bess Truman came out on the last car’s rear platform and waved at us and smiled.  We were actually seeing the president.  And we knew, in our hearts, that he would win the election.

Older persons, such as my father, who served with the Seabees in the South Pacific during the war, considered the period that followed as a time of great opportunity and promise.  It was not simply that cars and washing machines were being manufactured again, and sold at prices available to all.  It was more than that.  Banks were friendly; credit was reasonable, work was plentiful.

My father borrowed money to start his own company.  It was a ready-mix concrete plant. Within a few years it would fail.  But he was able to make his wartime dream come true. He, like thousands of other returning servicemen and women, was able to put into effect what he had talked about during those difficult years—what he would do if he made it safely home again.

Many years later, an older friend who had been in the Marine Corps, and who had seen three years of frontline action, beginning with Guadalcanal, told me that the period from 1945 to 1950 was “the greatest time” of his life. He felt as though his generation had survived the terrible ordeal of the war and had helped to rid the world of a monstrous totalitarian threat.  For him, and for all of those fortunate enough to come home unharmed, the future seemed unlimited.  “It was a time of great promise,” he said.  “There did not seem to be anything we could not accomplish in the years ahead.”

Such hope was premature, of course.  The Cold War was in its early stages; a witches’ brew of McCarthyism was heating up; and racial discrimination still prevailed in many parts of the country.  The Korean War, which began in the summer of 1950, signaled the beginning of a new and troubling decade, and the end of that brief, promising era.

But for a small boy growing up in a sleepy Midwestern town in the late 1940s, such cares seemed far away.  Far more immediate, and yet far less severe and troubling, were the occasional fights on the playground, the paddlings administered by the teachers for pranks and unruly behavior, and the town derelicts we sometimes encountered during our rambles through the streets and fields.

One of the local characters we met repeatedly was a woman who was old and misshapen, who dressed like a man in tattered overalls, who seemed to have no teeth, and who allegedly lived in a hovel, made from wooden skids, on the far side of the railroad tracks, in a disreputable part of town.

She had a name, although it is not relevant here. She survived, as far as we boys could tell, by searching through trash barrels for redeemable soda bottles and anything else she could find. It was rumored that a merchant in town gave her a penny apiece for wire coat hangers free of rust that could be used again.

Sometimes she pulled a child’s red wagon to carry what she found among the refuse cast out by the other people of the town. Often two or three gaunt dogs of indiscriminate ancestry followed after her.  I remember standing at the counter of the corner grocery store, after she had just left, and hearing the grocer remark, contemptuously, that the cans of dog food she had just purchased were for her own consumption.

My friends and I, who sometimes searched through those same alleyways, looking for something—anything—that might amuse us for a few hours, encountered her now and then, as she looked through the same fifty-five gallon barrels of trash.  We had heard all manner of stories about her.  We were afraid of her, and I regret to say that we were not nice to her.

We shouted at her and called her names and told her to go away. We never threw anything at her, but we were afraid of her dogs, and we were not above chucking a stone or tin can at one of them if it came too close.  Sometimes our own dogs stood there barking. General mayhem prevailed during such meetings. These were confrontations we did not want our parents to know about.  We knew they would disapprove.

She was not entirely an outcast.  She had a name and a shadowy past. She was a minor fixture in the west end of the town where I lived. Often she could be seen trudging back and forth along the Nickel Plate tracks; this enabled her not to have to greet anyone during her comings and goings.

People said a freight train would pick her off eventually, but this did not happen.  Instead, she was killed accidentally by the driver of a car, many years later, on a side street not far from a small house in which I was living. People said she had lost her hearing, over the years, and did not hear the car coming.

She was a prototype of a kind of person who would not be named and identified until many years later—she was a bag lady. She was harmless and she did not really matter.  She was not quite homeless, but she was marginal, and there was really no one to care about her.

Four or five hundred years earlier, for her appearance and her contrary ways, she would have been in danger of wild accusations and cruel punishments.  In the 1940s she was an eccentric, a throwback to the hard times of the 1930s—an era of soup kitchens and bread lines that we young people knew nothing about.

It was said that she once had been part of a family.  That made sense. Everyone has a family, at least originally.  Even during the time that I remember her, she seemed to have a few friends and acquaintances.  I was told that there was a certain storefront tavern—the Green Front, over on 9th Street, not far from the abandoned glass factories —where she would go sometimes at night, to sit in a wooden booth and sip a glass of beer, and find some sort of companionship or acceptance among the other neighborhood people who stopped in there.

She survived throughout the golden years of the 1940s, and during the prosperous decade of the 50s, and into the turbulent 1960s.  It was in about 1966 that she was hit by a motorist and killed. I had been away attending college.  After that, I had been in the military and in Europe.  For many years I had thought little about her.  Yet her death, when I learned of it in the summer of 1966, struck a chord.  A strange part of my childhood, a figure from that golden time back in the 1940s, was gone.

A few years later I wrote the poem “Walking the Ties.” Clearly it describes this woman and her world, and my innocent reaction to her way of life.  It was neither a tribute nor a lament.  I could not grieve, since I had never known her. But I could present her as I remembered her. Certain of the details I have mentioned here, in this account, ended up, albeit compressed and abbreviated, in the poem that I wrote.

Many years after I wrote and published “Walking the Ties,” and many years after her death, while I was visiting my home town, I heard her name mentioned again.  An older man whom I encountered in one of the local taverns said that he had known her in the 1920s, and that she had been odd and unfathomable even then. She had always been a loner, an outsider. He remembered one vivid thing about her.

“She had relatives in another town,” he said, mentioning its name. I knew the place; it was fifteen miles to the east.  “And when she decided to visit them, she traveled as the crow flies. You remember that she always walked everywhere. You would see her marching up and down the railroad tracks by herself.

“But when she decided to visit her kin, she did not take the roads or the train tracks either.  She went cross country, and she always traveled in a straight line. I don’t know how she did it, since she didn’t carry a compass. Maybe she steered by the stars. But she would cut right through back yards and across fields and fences, until she got where she wanted to go. Nothing got in her way, not gullies or creeks or woods.  She crossed them all, and she kept going.”

I was intrigued by this account.  It seemed to sum up her solitary nature, and to give her a measure of renewed dignity, one sorely needed to replace the shallow antipathy I and my playmates had shown toward her when we were much younger.

In truth, I had never known her, never spoken to her. She was always “the other,” and as a child I had known nothing of the ways in which encountering and coming to accept an “other” can contribute to one’s own development and growth. One finds, as time goes by, that “the other” is almost invariably an aspect of the shadow—an unacknowledged dimension of the self.

It had taken half a lifetime, but at last I had begun to feel some sympathy for her.  I had begun to grasp what she and I might have had to share, had the barriers between us been less severe. And that was, quite simply, our common humanity.  But my failure to understand her was not a total loss.  Belatedly, her self-reliance and her indomitability had come to life in my own imagination.

A few years later I wrote a much longer poem called “Spirea,” which was published in The Iowa Review in 1993. In that poem I dealt again with a character based in part on my early memories of this woman.  Except this time I visualized her as a much younger person, and I set the poem in a different post-war period—the years immediately following the First World War. I imagined that her insistence on traveling in a straight line, regardless of the obstacles encountered, was a symbol of her solitary life.

It is easy to romanticize the outsider or the pariah, and to attribute to such a made-up character behavior or notions that would never have fit the original model.  Was the period following the Second World War in any conceivable way a golden time for the woman I have described in this essay?  I doubt it.  My original thoughts about that time, and my longtime habit of viewing it as though seen through a golden haze, are somewhat tempered now.  Golden for me, perhaps, and for many others. But not for all.

Art must select, and, in the process, leave out, even distort. One takes such a risk, I think, with each new poem or story.  As a child, I lacked the imagination to accept this woman as a human being, as another like myself.  The ethical awareness necessary to accept the alien and the outcast is, I think, something that must be learned from those who are older and wiser.  One also learns from one’s own mistakes and experiences in life.

As a child, I was unable to put myself in her place, or to understand her hardscrabble reality.  When I was much older, and attempting to make poems out of what had already happened to me—by drawing on the places I had visited and the persons I had known—I realized that she had assumed a much greater significance.

Of necessity, all poems have their roots, their origins, in our own lives and our personal experiences.  Art transforms the raw materials of daily existence. It re-casts and re-vivifies those memories that seem to be disappearing from our own lives.  It cannot save them.  But it can grant moments of illumination and insight, and thereby provide a momentary stay against the oblivion that awaits all human endeavor.

I have given this essay a title based on an earlier, rather unusual recording from the 1920s—”Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues.” On first glance, both this title and my own might seem unrelated to the matters I have discussed here.  Yet there is a certain appropriateness in my telling you, at the end of this piece, about two men who were blues musicians back in the 1920s.  Their names were Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson.  Here is what one jazz archivist has to say about Lonnie Johnson:

Johnson was a pioneering Blues and Jazz guitarist and banjoist.  He started playing in cafes in New Orleans and in 1917 he traveled in Europe, playing in revues and briefly with Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra. When he returned home to New Orleans in 1918 he discovered that his entire family had been killed by a flu epidemic except for one brother.  He and his surviving brother, James “Steady Roll” Johnson, moved to St. Louis in 1920 where Lonnie played with Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and with Fate Marable in their Mississippi riverboat bands.

It is a remarkable tale.  I do not know of anyone who, after experiencing such crushing losses, could have gone on to develop any better jazz credentials. Lonnie Johnson is one of the early guitar geniuses, a predecessor of the much better known Robert Johnson, and an early influence on the legendary Django Reinhardt.  And in the mid-1920s Lonnie Johnson had the great good fortune to meet up with still another guitarist, Eddie Lang, who was clearly his equal.  And who became his friend. They did what geniuses often do: they teamed up.

They teamed up and made a series of recordings in New York in the spring and fall of the year 1929.  Evidently they invited many of their friends to stop by and join the sessions. Hoagy Carmichael added rhythm and did some scat singing; King Oliver sat in with his trumpet; Frank Signorelli played piano.  When I listen to the sounds they made together, I think it is some of the happiest music ever recorded.

They are clearly having a marvelous time. Some of the titles of the tunes they put together, probably on the spot, give away their great good spirits: “Blue Blood Blues,” “A Handful of Riffs,” and the unforgettable “Bull Frog Moan.” A title that I particularly like, “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues,” prompted the title I have chosen for this essay.

Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang made their marvelously high-spirited recordings in 1929, on the eve of Black Tuesday and the stock-market crash, and at the beginning of the great depression that was to follow. They could not have known what lay ahead, and they seem to play as though they haven’t a care in the world. I doubt that they did.  It is possible that they, too, were living through a golden era of a few months’ or years’ duration.  The late 1920s always strike me in that way: as the calm before the storm.

I find a certain poignancy in the phrase “Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues.”  I had to change keys, too, when I thought back to the golden years of my childhood in the 1940s, and remembered the strange derelict woman who used to pull her red wagon through the alleys.  I had to reevaluate my original assessment of her.  Out of that change in keys, something fruitful eventually emerged—the two poems that I wrote, many years later.  If I did not quite play the blues in those two poems, perhaps I came close.

Good musicians change keys effortlessly as they play.  Really talented musicians can play in any key.  Perhaps that is all that I am really saying.


About the Author

Jared Carter is a poet and critic who has published three books of poetry, seven chapbooks, and a website, JaredCarter.com, where you may read more about the man and his work.

This is his first article for Poetry X.

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