By Betsy Cross Thorpe
“I hate to see the evening sun go down,” from, The Saint Louis Blues by W.C. Handy
It was the night of March 24, 1980. Day 142 of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Me and my husband Peter were staying at my grandmother’s house in Cottage Grove Oregon. We had just moved back to Oregon after living in Austin Texas for four years and were staying with my grandmother until we found a place to live.
My Uncle Frank was also staying at my grandmother’s house. He had recently retired from the Navy after thirty years of service. His oldest daughter Susan was attending the University of California in Berkley at the time. He planned to move his wife Yasue and his youngest daughter Joy from their home in San Diego California to a new home Springfield Oregon.
He was staying with her while he looked for a house to buy.
My grandmother’s television set was on in the living room and the four of us gathered around it to watch the premier episode of Nightline. It was a new late-night news show that would soon become the most popular news show in America.
The next evening, we had a bowl of pinto beans and buttermilk cornbread for supper. After we were finished eating and the table was cleared of dishes, Peter picked up his guitar. My grandmother loved music.
Whenever the two of them got together she would ask him to sing with her. He would play his guitar while she sang along.
On this evening his guitar was out of tune. He hummed an old blues tune while he turned the tuning pegs on his guitar.
My grandmother came out of the kitchen. I “know that song” she said, “my papa used to sing it.” With his guitar in tune, Peter stummed the melody he was humming while from the dining room doorway we heard the mournful sound of my grandmother’s singing voice. “I hate to see the evening sun go down” she wailed.
She belted out the lyrics to The Saint Louis Blues with the bluesiest voice I had ever heard her use.
Later that night while we were waiting to watch the second episode of Nightline I asked my grandmother how her papa learned to sing and play The Saint Louis Blues.
I knew it was one of the most popular songs of 1918, but I didn’t understand how such a song became known to people like my great grandfather at a time when there was no radio shows or television programs to promote and advertise it.
“Peddlers” she said. “Music peddlers would come around and sell copies of sheet music. They knew that almost every family had someone who could play the piano, or fiddle and they would stop at most houses and sell sheet music of the newest songs.”
The television cast a soft glow in the corner of her dimly lit living room, while she sat in her rocking chair near me, my uncle and my husband. We watched as the words, Day 143 of the Iranian Hostage Crisis filled up the screen. We listened as the newscaster announced, “This is ABC News Nightline, reporting from Washington D.C. here is Ted Koppel.”
Thinking back on what she told me about sheet music makes realize how much the world changed over the course of her life.
How did she feel about the technical advancements that were made in the forty two years that passed from the time her papa bought a copy of The Saint Louis Blues sheet music from a door to door peddler to the time that the four of us sat in her living room and watched live news from Iran unfold before our eyes. We watched while viewers all accross the country watched Ted Koppel the same time as us.
Popular culture had really changed since she was a little girl and it is my regret that I didn’t have the foresight or the brainpower to think to ask how she felt about that.
And now she is gone and I will never know.