Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the five-string banjo or four-string banjo or any instrument for that matter. There isn’t a single person in Hog Holler or the surrounding countryside who doesn’t sing or play an instrument, even if it’s only a harmonica.
My second oldest brother Ernie Jim, for instance, once made it to the finals of the International Whistlers’ Competition in Louisburg, North Carolina, whistling his own rendition—a heart-stopping medley—of George M. Cohan songs from Yankee Doodle Dandy. When Ernie Jim puckered up and burst forth with “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” the whole audience got to their feet before he was even halfway through.
I myself am a singer of no small reputation. But, let me point out right now, that a person can sing all they want while they are doing other things like dishes and quilting and shelling peas on the front porch.
When you get to singing, you don’t have to stop what you’re doing and sit down and pick strings with one hand, while fingering chords with the other.
But more and more, after Zeke started lessons with Happy Jack Wilkins, that was precisely what he was doing—sitting down in the middle of the day. He would make a pretense of going to the barn, saying he was tending to chores, but in no time at all here he come again, slipping in, while I was standing at the sink up to my elbows in suds, like I couldn’t see him, because my back was turned, and taking his banjo from the corner, he would take a seat, and try “Cripple Creek” for the 482nd time without success.
In the early days of his lessons and practicing, honestly, I tried to be supportive as any good wife should and would even try to tap my foot in time with the so-called music to give the appearance I was entering into his joy.
But after a while, when Zeke was spending more time in the house than in the barn and the fields, I had to speak up. The undone chores were piling up, among them the needs of our animals and what they leave behind after their hay is consumed, if you know what I mean.
One morning after Zeke had been at his practicing for almost two hours, I said, “I thought you was going to the feed store this morning.”
“I am,” he said, eyes fixed on his frets.
“Well, it’s almost noon,” I said, wiping my hands on my apron. “And the hens can’t feed themselves, can they?” I was failing at softening my edgy tone. “I’m all for practicing and everything, but—”
“You go to choir practice once a week,” Zeke said, somewhat peevish, “and don’t even get me started on the night you didn’t come home till almost sunup.”
“That only happened once,” I said, indignant.
Zeke was still miffed at me staying out till almost midnight the year our choir director insisted on us attempting the “Hallelujah Chorus” at the end of our Christmas cantata.
It never did work out. We had only one tenor and he couldn’t hold his own against 13 sopranos, most of whom were too proud to admit they were really altos.
Zeke stopped lecturing to twist his fingers into a tricky chord pattern. “And you’re always walking around here singing, showing off. If I want to take a few minutes to perfect my skills—”
“Your skills?” I said, temperature rising. “In order to perfect something, it has to be there as raw material in the first place, and so far…bless your heart…” I added, hoping in vain to sound benevolent, “you haven’t managed to play anything that sounds remotely like—”
When he turned his eyes on me, I beheld the same fearsome look he had used to stare down old Blossom, the Hodges’ cow, who chased after Augusta one day on her way home from school.
That glare…directed at me…put me right in my place, believe you me.
“Happy Jack says I have po-ten-tial,” Zeke said with such deadly coolness I half-expected the banjo to freeze solid in his hands.
This was not a battle I was going to win today or anytime in the near future.
Choosing to live to fight another day, I untied my apron and hung it on the peg inside the pantry door.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll go the feed store. I need some yarn and some canning jars anyway. Winter’s coming, you know.”
My casual reminder was too subtle to do any good. Zeke went right back to practicing before I could get my purse and open the back door.
On my way to the truck, I kept reminding myself none of this was Zeke’s fault.
There was only one place where blame for his devil-may-care attitude could be laid and that was slap-dab at the unscuffed toes of the black-and-white wing tip shoes of Happy Jack Wilkins.
The minute I was done at the feed store—I didn’t really need yarn or canning jars—I was heading straight to WHOO to give Happy Jack Wilkins a piece of my mind.