[This was first published in 2006]
Elsie McWilliams is one of America’s greatest songwriters. She has penned such songs as MISSISSIPPI MOON, YOU AND MY OLD GUITAR, EVERYBODY DOES IT IN HAWAII, THE LULLABY YODEL, THE SAILOR’S PLEA and WAITING’ FOR A TRAIN. She wrote most of these songs for and with her brother-in-law, Jimmie Rodgers, the Legendary Singing Brakeman. I’m not the only one who believes this, since she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979. She, Jimmie and I all share the same hometown.
Mrs. Elsie was a member of East End United Methodist Church in Meridian. So was my Aunt Rubye and Uncle Wallace Lang, their son, Skeeter, and their granddaughter Sylvia. My mother and I joined that church in 1975, and she played the piano there until December of 1979, when she married my stepfather, Ike, and they moved off to Dallas. My wife Debbie and I were married there in January of 1980. Mrs. Elsie came to my wedding.
Our pastor there was Ken Morrison. Ken was a great songwriter himself, and I enjoyed his music. I was playing in a rock-and-roll band as well as a bluegrass band, when one day, Ken asked me if I might care to entertain the folks at a Sunday night pot-luck supper at the church. I readily agreed, since my Sunday morning music skills were lacking, and Ken had told me that I would be able to play anything that I thought was appropriate for the venue.
When that Sunday night got there, I was glad enough to go to the pot-luck supper, because the food was always good and plentiful. After the supper was near about complete, Ken Morrison got up and introduced me to the folks as their entertainment. While I knew all these people, and they knew that I played music, they had never heard me play. Those were all virgin ears for me. I don’t remember what I played, but it was probably a harmless folk type tune or two, and perhaps an old bluegrass standard thrown in. When I got through, the folks all clapped, and I smiled and looked forward to returning to my seat because I had spied some left-over pecan pie, and I sure wanted another piece.
I knew who Mrs. Elsie was, but the significance of that had escaped me, for I was completely ignorant of such things as how important to the history of American music she and Jimmie Rodgers were. I had heard all the stories, and of the millions of records sold back during the 20’s and early 30’s, but none of this seemed to be of any significance to ME, since I was smarter than anyone else that had ever lived. Being that smart, I just knew that if it wasn’t significant to me, then its significance was also overlooked by the world at large. I suppose that was just about as wrong as a person can be.
As I was returning to that seat, my mouth salivating excessively over that brown-crusted pecan pie, the kind that had the WHOLE pecans on the top, and another row underneath that; not the kind with the stingy, thin, single layer of pecan chips sparsely spread on the top; but with enough syrup in it that it was thick, and sticky, and just absolutely delightful, and I just couldn’t wait, and as I walked past Mrs. Elsie, oblivious to anything but that pie, she grabbed my right arm and spun me around. I had been very rudely awakened from my pecan-pie dream, and was somewhat put out about it.
“Play us a Jimmie Rodgers tune,” she demanded, but more of a plea than a demand, really.
“I don’t know one, Mrs. Elsie,” I replied, thinking that was the end of that.
There was a long pause as she gazed into my eyes. She seemed to be hunting for some sign of real intelligence. I suddenly realized that through that gaze she was trying to find the real me behind the façade we all carry around. Apparently she found it, or at least I think she did. When the real me, not the cool me, not the cocky me, not the smug-smarter-than-all-these-old-folks-glad-I’m-21-and not-old-like-you me came to the surface, my head dropped and I was embarrassed. My face flushed, my head dropped even lower, and all the starch just seemed to melt away like it had been seared with an iron that was too hot for the fabric.
Only then did she speak again. “You mean to say that you’re a musician, born and raised in Meridian, Mississippi, and you don’t even know ONE Jimmie Rodgers song?”
“No ma’am,” I said, far louder than I meant to, and even more embarrassed at the sound of my own admission.
A muffled, but nevertheless quite audible gasp went through the crowd in the room. The folks were trying to let me off the hook, but they could not muffle that gasp. In fact, my ears had locked on that frequency in such a manner as that gasp is still audible to me today. It rings and it stings my ears just as it did that day at East End United Methodist Church. That gasp, and the pain of seeing that Mrs. Elsie saw that I did not grasp her significance, nor the significance of her brother-in-law are frequent memories, once harsh, but not so any more. They are just a powerfully poignant reminder of a real event through which a young person must grow so that they can LEARN. I learned that lesson well.
The in-rush of air into the people’s lungs seemed to go on for hours as that gasp got louder and louder, though they tried to conceal it. Perhaps it was my mind speeding up that made it seem so. They say that when your life flashes before your eyes in that near fatal accident, that it is because the adrenalin released by your own body has made you speed up so that time seems to pass slower. It seemed like an eternity to me.
“Mrs. Elsie, I don’t know any Jimmie Rodger’s tunes, TODAY,” I said, recovering a little bit of the charm and wit that had fled at the first sign of a real challenge, “But I promise you that the next time you see me I’ll know one.” That seemed to satisfy her, as she relaxed her death grip on my right arm and I was permitted to return to my seat, having been glad to escape such an awkward situation without even more damage having been done to my over-inflated ego.
I was as good as my word. I went home that night and learned PEACH PICKING TIME IN GEORGIA, which I sang for Mrs. Elsie several times afterwards. She forgave me of my youthful ignorance and was always gracious enough not to mention that PEACH PICKING TIME IN GEORGIA was a song SHE did not write, but seemed genuinely satisfied that I at least knew one. They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Mrs. Elsie seemed happy that I had taken that step, though I suppose she thought that due to her age, others would watch over my progress on my journey. Mrs. Elsie, they have, they have. I’ve had many teachers and guides along my way, but few who literally stopped me in my tracks.
Nowadays, I know far more than one Jimmie Rodgers tune. In fact, I know dozens; some written by Mrs. Elsie, some by Jimmie, some by the pair of them, and some by the Tin-Pan Alley writers who wrote for Rodgers late in his short, brilliant career.
Mrs. Elsie? She’s long gone off to her reward in heaven. She was probably eighty when all this occurred nearly thirty years ago.
Me? I’m still singing Jimmie Rodgers songs, and enjoying the fact that I can tell this story, and that it’s a true story; that people from all over the world are fascinated by the fact that I went to CHURCH with Elsie McWilliams, and knew her, and that she once rebuked me for not knowing any Jimmie Rodgers songs. Folks from other continents seem to enjoy this bit of information that adds to the mental picture they already have of this great, great American songwriter. The significance of that does not escape me now.
I never did get that extra piece of that good, mouth watering, double-layered pecan pie. My appetite had abandoned me like a gardener who, previously, had defiantly stood his ground in the face of real danger, and with his hoe killed a water moccasin, and just a few short minutes later, recklessly and precipitously abandoned that same hoe after disturbing a small but unseen yellow-jacket’s nest; his weapon now utterly useless and completely unable to protect him from this new, unwelcome onslaught. Had I got it instead of the rebuke from Mrs. Elsie, I would not even remember that pecan pie now. It and its memory would have been long consumed with not even a wisp of that memory left. To this day, I still think about that pie. It seemed so good, but perhaps it seemed better than it really was because of the crow I was forced to eat, instead. Perhaps it seemed so sweet because of the bitterness left in a young man’s mouth due to the chewing down of a much-deserved comeuppance.
Last year, I told this story to Nolan Porterfield, author of Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler, when he was at the University of West Alabama, and a guest on the SUCARNOCHEE REVUE. He said I should write it down. Dr. Porterfield, here it is.
I still think about Mrs. Elsie. I still think about that pie, and wonder who made it. Perhaps it was Mrs. Elsie. Maybe not. Probably not. But I like to think so, and after all, it is MY story.
©2006 Mississippi Chris Sharp