I've dabbled a bit with songwriting myself. Granted, no one outside of these four walls will probably ever hear any of these songs. There are only two souls on this planet who have heard me take out my guitar and sing some of them - my wife (because if you write a song about your wife and you don't sing it for her you will go to hell when you die) and my buddy Mark (a helluva songwriter and singer with whom I spent many long nights back in the days when I had hair. Most of the time we were killing brain cells and either listening to or making some music.) Those yellowed and tattered notebooks containing dozens of songs may never serve as anything more than something that keeps my creative juices flowing. But, because I have dabbled, I always enjoy finding out what inspires songwriters. So I did a little digging on this tune about a comet and a baby. I found out it's not just a good song, it's a true story.
The first thing I found was a video of it being performed at the Ryman Auditorium back in October 2012. Because a visit to the Ryman is high on my bucket list I played this video to start my search . The quality wasn't about much (someone holding up a phone?) but before she sang it she told the story of how the song was born. Turns out she'd read a passage from Eudora Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings" about how her father had told her that he'd held her up to a window when Halley visited Jackson, Mississippi (and the rest of planet earth) in 1910. Just as the song illustrates, he prayed that the baby he was holding would be around to wave at Halley on its next visit. Intrigued, I felt compelled to see what I could find out about this Eudora Welty and whether or not she had any other good stories to tell.
I immediately got my hands on a copy of "One Writer's Beginnings." It's not a long work, based actually on a series of speeches she'd given. I'm not through with it yet, but one passage quickly caught my eye:
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
― Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings
Looking back on my childhood, I remember being surrounded by and fascinated with good stories. I honestly believe it's because it was a time when people communicated whenever they found themselves sharing time and place with someone else. What resulted was conversation and conversation that became the foundation for memories and the passing down of stories that were part of everything that made your people what they were. A simple "how was school today?" could become drama when recreating the day for everyone else at the supper table. Even if our primary connection to the outside world WAS lying on the breakfast table (we called it the morning paper) I remember family perusing it together - not sticking their noses in it and ignoring everyone else. "The Braves can't get any pitching!" "Cost of milk is going up again!" "There's a man that lives in Sandy Springs who's had the hiccups for two years!" As the youngest of four children I was always the youngest in the room (I was usually the only child, in fact, always surrounded by adults.) Children were - generally speaking- to be seen and not heard. Consequently, I did a lot of listening. From my spot at that dinner table, that breakfast table or even the backseat of a big 1964 Chevrolet I absorbed plenty of stories. People, places and events that were either well beyond my years or things of the past that came alive for me in their first-hand recollections. Most of my peers at school had parents younger than my own. Often I was jealous of that. But now I realize the treasures I was privy to.
My mother used to often talk about "porch-hollerin' " After supper, in a part of the country where we're blessed with warm weather most of the time, folks retreated to the front porches and front stoops of houses in neighborhoods that were part residential and part "village" (in that "it takes a village..." sense of the word.) Everyone had a father, an uncle, a brother, a cousin, a friend who was off fighting the world there in the 1940's. My Uncle Hank, Mother's brother, was himself a prisoner of war and listed missing in action for a long time before they knew where the Germans were holding him. Folks hollered the news of these loved ones from porch to porch and no was alone in their grief and worry. And then, just as in my childhood, the young ones were sponges to all that information and all those emotions. Consequently, a generation later, my sisters and I had the gift of knowing what those days felt like and what they did to your insides. It wasn't U.S History in 4th period...it was part of your family's living, breathing storyline. It's why I learned to love a good story.
I pity the families I see in restaurants where every member (young and old) has a phone out, checking facebook or texting earth-shattering information to friends. I pity the cars I pass on my morning commute where the backseat is illuminated with media displays showing cartoons or kids' movies,,,anything to keep the kids quiet. They don't play games that involve counting cows and cemeteries? They don't play "I spy"?? Forget games....they don't TALK? My father never talked around the house - but put him behind a steering wheel and he laughed, told stories, hell he SANG. I didn't have many memorable conversations with the man (he died when I was relatively young) but most of the ones I remember occurred during a ride to somewhere (and I'm not talking on long trips...I'm talking a run for milk or gas or to the hardware store.) IT'S WHY I LEARNED TO LOVE A GOOD STORY.
Mama Ginn and Miss Dunn were the two saints who watched the nursery there at Martha Brown United Methodist Church on Moreland Avenue in East Atlanta. (I THINK that was their names?) When my parents left me in the nursery, I apparently had no interest in playing with blocks or pulling around the Fisher Price telephone with the scary eyes. Rather, I'd put a little stool in front of the two rocking chairs where Mama Ginn and Miss Dunn rocked and fed the crying babies. From my perch I would tell them many outlandish adventures that my family had been through since I'd seen them the previous Sunday. We're not talking about "we went to the bank Thursday and I got a lollipop story" stories. We're talking about "one night my daddy killed a mountain lion in the backyard" stories. I'm not sure if they're still alive but, if not, the fact that they had to sit and listen to me week after week got them into heaven, even if nothing else in their lives did. Later on, the projects and assignments I remember enjoying most from my school days all involved telling stories. A poetry anthology - some original, some from the classics. A story I wrote about the War of 1812, only written from the perspective of "someone on the ground" (a historic figure from that war whose name completely escapes me now...I had to write a daily journal that sounded like they were actual excerpts from the man's journal.) I wrote some story (again, don't even remember the subject matter) in ninth grade and the teacher wanted to know where I'd heard it or where I'd copied it from. "I asked YOU to write a story! Not copy one from some book somewhere!" It took much convincing including a note from my mother to assure the woman that I'd written the damn thing myself. She apologized and suggested that I write more. In high school I had a sports column in the school newspaper. I seriously doubt anyone still has copies of "Extra Points" that appeared in "The Galleon" but my dear mother saved all of them (probably fearing it might be the pinnacle of success for this goober son of hers!) I'm not bragging about my ability to tell a story (then or now.) I say all of that to say this - I told stories because I HEARD stories. And I still love telling stories. I like to have people listening to my stories. My nieces and nephews probably grow very weary of them. I'm probably now the crazy uncle at family gatherings ("Oh crap,,,,Uncle Tim just shook up another martini....pretty soon we're going to hear about the time he met Dan Akroyd or the time Hank Aaron tipped his cap to him...") The next time you're around a kid - yours or anyone else's - talk to the child. Tell it something interesting. Perhaps the passing down of good stories will be the one thing that keeps us all from turning into robots.