Monday, October 1, 2012

Jim Crow Laws & the Stage Mother

School, music and movies prepare for success.

Sunny Nash 8 Years Old
Sunny Nash
8 Years Old, from
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's

After my singing debut, my mother became my music director, companion, confidant, partner and co-conspirator when we were pursuing a dream of mine or hers, mostly hers.

There was no You Tube when I was eight years old in third grade at Booker T. Washington Elementary School. My music teacher, Eloise King, discovered that I could sing the old-fashioned way. I knew I could sing along with the radio but I never thought I was good enough to impress my music teacher. And I had no idea singing would be part of my education.

I saw her walking up and down the aisle during music class listening as the we sang lines from an arrangement she had chosen. On one of her strolls down the aisle, she stopped close to me and stood there for a few moments and then asked me to sing the song without the group. 

Back then, in addition to there being no You Tube, there were no American IdolThe Voice or America's Got Talent

I was afraid, thinking I was singing the song out of tune or something, which I didn't have to worry about singing with my radio. Then she asked if I would come to the auditorium at recess. I did. She told me she wanted me to sing a solo at the Spring Festival. That was the last recess for me throughout most of my remaining elementary school days. When other teachers saw me on that stage, they started making plans for me as well. If it wasn't Mrs. King rehearsing a new musical selection with me, it was Mr. Pruitt's gymnastics team or Mrs. Jackson preparing a dance routine that required new steps, elaborate makeup, which I was otherwise not allowed to wear, and vintage jewelry, which I was.

The next day, Mrs. King began teaching me the music to the Academy Award-winning song, Over the Rainbow, from the 1939 film, Wizard of Oz, instructing me to sing it exactly like the Judy Garland recording, which she sent home with me to practice before returning to school. I was already familiar with the music because I had seen the film numerous times when my mother took me to the movies whenever it encored at our Jim Crow movie theater in the 1950s or was rebroadcast on local television. Singing along with the music on the recording was different from my singing along with the radio. With the radio, I was just having fun. Singing with the recording was serious business. It would have been so much easier if You Tube had been around.

Sometimes, for television broadcasts of movies like Wizard of Oz and other shows, my mother made large bowls of popcorn to pass around our living room for the crowd of neighborhood kids and adults, who did not have television and, some of whom, had never been to the movies, a weekly trek for my mother and me. We saw all the latest movies that came to the Palace Theater downtown. My mother was as enthusiastic about movies as she was about school, books, radio, television and music, and we had plenty of books, and jazz and classical music in the house, and a revolving series of modern electronic technology on which to listen.

My mother insisted that I read books, see movies, hear music and travel for exposure to a larger world than the Jim Crow world where I lived. 

My mother insisted that I dress a certain way and she strained our budget to make sure I had the appropriate wardrobe and shoes for a teenage girl in the 1960s. My cousins looked at me with envy. They thought I was pretentious, but it wasn't me. My mother dressed me. "Everything you do reveals who you are and who you want to be," she said. All of this my mother did to produce the person she wanted me to become. What she counted on was my cooperation in her plan. Doing well in school was the most important part of her plan. It all paid off when I won a beauty and talent competition and became a statewide celebrity.

We traveled on buses, trains and, when I was older, airplanes to our destinations. 

My mother took me to museums, galleries, beaches, mountain resorts, amusement parks, tourist sites, restaurants and sporting events. This was all part of my education. We left the state to visit these attractions. Jim Crow kept us out of them at home. She encouraged me to learn new games and keep up with current events that I was required to read about in our tiny home library.

I practiced the music to Over the Rainbow with the recording Mrs. King loaned me. Again and again, I tried my best to sing the song like Judy Garland. After studying the lyrics and melody and trying to stay true to the Judy Garland version, I gained a lot of confidence in my abilities. This confidence would extent to more places than on stage and my mother seemed to see something in me that she had not seen before the performance. I caught her watching as I sang along with the music and hoped she would not get the idea to find a Dorothy costume for my performance. The original Dorothy dress is now up for auction and estimated to bring between $400,000 and $600,000. Even so, back then, as much as I loved the song, I did not want to wear Dorothy's homely dress. I might as well show up at the school festival to perform the music wearing a Cowardly Lion mask to complete the outfit.I cannot imagine how many hits I would have gotten on You Tube wearing that mask.

For the night of my performance,
fortunately, my mother and Mrs. King agreed that I should wear a dainty pink dress that I already owned. I stepped upon a stack of soda pop crates in front of the microphone. I was very small for my age and needed a boost. I had practiced with the microphone and amplifier several times before the performance and felt very comfortable with the electronic equipment, as if I were a real entertainer in the music business, a recording artist in a recording studio or on the radio.

Standing up there on the stage in front of the audience, I was not nervous as a full house stared at me. Mrs. King played the introductory music to the song on piano and gave me the nod. I took a deep breath silently through my nose as she had instructed and sang the song the way we had rehearsed, paying close attention to microphone technique. When I hit my high strong notes, I held my face away from the microphone to control the amount of sound going into the microphone. 

Mrs. King had told me at rehearsal, "Back off! You're going to blow out their ears!" My own ears rang with feedback, produced by a voice untrained in mic performing. By the time that rehearsal was finished, I knew how to handle my voice using a mic. Of course, stage electronics back then were nothing compared to the ear buds and mini mics modern entertainers strut around with on stage today, to mention sophisticated HD video instantly available for instant upload to YouTube

I sang Over the Rainbow as if the song belonged to me, instead of Judy Garland. And I knew I had nailed it as I hung onto the last note of the song before I got a standing ovation from my neighborhood friends, classmates and teachers at school. That night prepared me for many things to come in my life, including hearing my own song on the radio one day.

Mrs. King was so pleased with my performance, she gave me the Judy Garland recording as a gift. My mother, more pleased and surprised than Mrs. King, had no idea I could sing until she heard me practicing, but she was quiet about it until the performance was over. I have Mrs. King and the Judy Garland recording of the song, Over the Rainbow, in the film, Wizard of Oz, to thank for giving me the confidence that helped to shape my life.

All of my singing and seeming joy with it stunned and pleased my mother because she couldn't get me to sing a Christmas song around the tree with her. She didn't realize I had been embarrassed to sing in front of her. She had such a wonderful voice and I felt my voice was inferior to hers. Feeling that her own time for singing professionally had past, I believe it was on the night of my song, Over the Rainbow, that my mother got ideas about entering me in The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and other competitions.

Nearly a quarter century ago, Judy Garland sang the song originally. More than a half century ago, Mrs. King picked the classic for my first song on our little school stage. In 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts voted Over the Rainbow as the #1 song of the 20th Century. When I read the announcement, memories flooded back to me of my childhood. 

Popularized by the film, Wizard of Oz, produced before I was born, Over the Rainbow had been part of my life throughout my life and had a great deal to do with my education, confidence and career choices. The song Mrs. King taught me helped to bring me to the place my mother worked so hard to get me, in spit of Jim Crow Laws. 

Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's
by Sunny Nash

In the 1990s, I began writing a newspaper column based on my life during the era of Jim Crow laws.

My mother encouraged me to change the focus to family topics, involving the experiences her mother, my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama. These topics still involved Jim Crow laws, but did not center on the subject of discrimination. "People have heard enough about segregation and they're tired of it," she said. "Aren't You? I know I am. Write about your family and let their lives tell the story of civil rights. That way people won't blame you for preaching to them."

My mother's tactic worked. People loved hearing stories of our lives, even when mixed with a little non-preachy racial politics of the day. Then she advised me to use the local column to build my reputation as a writer. She was right again. The local column led to a regional column, then a syndicated column and eventually gave birth to my first book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press).

My mother was delighted when this book came out. The idea that I had written about her mother and other ancestors pleased her. After one book signing, we were sitting at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. "You're doing better than the drug dealers in the neighborhood," she said. Although, she was just guessing how much money the neighborhood drug dealers made. There were no drug dealers in the neighborhood when I was growing up and my mother was teaching me how to have good posture at the same time that she was teaching me to use power tools. Time passes. Things change.

Thank you, Littie Nash, for being my mother and taking the job so seriously. I wouldn't be who I am without you.

Sunny Nash Author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't
Shop At
Sunny Nash has also co-authored, edited or compiled several books, written three newspaper columns, created a major photographic study and exhibition, produced and written for television, and conducted public speaking tours. “Fortunately, writing comes easy to me and I am able to produce all kinds of copy and media—movie treatments, television scripts, book manuscripts, proposals, commercial jingles, whatever a client needs,” Nash said. “I also produce video for broadcast and Internet marketing and distribution. My client list includes corporations, cities, chambers of commerce, nonprofit organizations, real estate companies and all kinds of groups and individuals, The balance for any artist is making sure their own work does not suffer, while giving the client the best work possible.”

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