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History and Music in Alabama

PJ and I just had our second visit in 10 days to the Quad Cities area of Alabama.  This is in northwest Alabama and consists of the towns of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, which are all so smushed together that you can’t really tell where one leaves off and the next one starts.  “Smushed” probably isn’t the best word to describe their configuration as it implies compression, which isn’t the case at all.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It’s a beautiful part of the state and very interesting to drive around both in and outside of town(s), as you can’t predict whether the next mile will bring a new subdivision, a corn field, signs of previous life that are rapidly being overtaken by kudzu, or a Dollar General and a gas station.  Although it’s only a couple of hours from Birmingham, I had only traveled to the area once before, for a church convention, years and years ago.  Our first trip last week was planned well in advance, to Florence for the Front Porch Storytelling Festival, and we were accompanied by our nine-year-old granddaughter.  Storytelling festivals are truly one of our favorite forms of entertainment and I’ll probably write about them sometime, but I’m not here to talk about them now.  We realized while we were there, or perhaps re-realized, that there really is a whole lot to see and do in that part of the state, and a few days after we got back, on the spur of the moment, we decided to return for a couple of days minus the nine-year-old who could not be depended on to be interested in the same things we were.  (Among other things, I wanted to practice with a new camera and I had a delightful time walking around downtown Florence doing just that on our first evening there.  If you’re on Instagram, you can check out some of my pictures at lbjontheroad652.)  By no means did we get to see everything we wanted to, but we did pretty well for one full day and one morning.

If you’ve ever seen the play or the movie The Miracle Worker, you’re familiar with the story of Helen Keller.  Born completely normal in 1880, she went deaf and blind at the age of 19 months due to what was probably either scarlet fever or meningitis.  She was the first deaf-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating from Radcliffe College.  She learned to speak, became a world-famous lecturer, and wrote twelve books.  She had many famous friends and met 13 U.S. presidents, and she inspired the Lions Club to make blindness their primary service project.  Her IQ was measured at 160.  At the age of six, however, living with her family in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she was bored, lonely and frustrated, largely imprisoned in her own mind because, aside from a few hand signals she worked out on her own to communicate with those around her, she was completely isolated.  She was also spoiled rotten, since her family had allowed her to get away with doing pretty much anything she wanted to.  They didn’t even punish her when she locked her mother in a closet for three hours.  Finally, instead of taking her to yet another doctor who couldn’t make her well, they went instead for help to Alexander Graham Bell.  He persuaded them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind about a teacher for Helen, and Anne Sullivan came to live with the family.  (Helen wasn’t the only person to fail to learn a lesson from the closet episode, by the way.  Her family evidently didn’t learn not to leave keys lying around the house, which would have seemed pretty obvious to a lot of people.  She locked her new teacher in her room and hid the key so Miss Sullivan had to be rescued with a ladder through the window.)

Helen’s childhood home, Ivy Green, is well worth a visit.  Most of the furnishings in the house are original, and one room has been turned into a museum with some of her papers and other items of interest.  You can look into the cottage where Miss Sullivan was given 10 days with Helen alone, soon after she arrived, where the little girl couldn’t run to her family for protection from this terrible woman who was forcing her to behave like a normal civilized child.  You can even work the handle on the pump—THE pump—where Helen finally understood the “game” her teacher had been playing with her.  All the finger motions that Miss Sullivan had been making in her hand, and that Helen had been making back to her perfectly but with no understanding—suddenly fell into place at the same pump where you can stand today.  Everything has a name.  The magic of language was unlocked for Helen Keller at the moment she realized that W-A-T-E-R meant the liquid that was spilling over her hand from that pump.

Another place that’s pretty cool to visit, just because of the history, is the Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals.  If you weren’t looking for the building, you’d probably drive right by it and never notice it.  It’s not a very prepossessing place.  Come to think of it, the inside isn’t much to look at either.  It’s a working studio and they’re not in the business of trying to impress people with their looks.  They began giving tours after a 2013 documentary, when people started stopping by and asking if they could come inside.  They only do a couple of tours a a day, and if both studios are booked, they may not do them then because their artists come first.  It’s interesting to hear about some of the work that’s gone on at Fame, though, and hear stories about some of the artists who recorded there since it was founded in 1959.  There’s somebody for almost every taste, from Aretha Franklin to Mac Davis to Etta James to Alicia Keys to Liza Minnelli to the Osmond Brothers.  (We saw the piano used to record “One Bad Apple”.)

We left the Fame Studios and kept up the musical theme by visiting the W.C. Handy Birthplace and Museum.  We were shown around by a very pleasant and knowledgeable woman, who told us about Mr. Handy, his life and history, and the museum, and then turned us loose to wander around on our own.  William Christopher Handy was the first person to publish a song with the word “Blues” in the title, thus earning the nickname “Father of the Blues.”  He was born in Florence in a 2-room log cabin built by his grandfather, a former slave who became an AME minister after the Civil War.  His father was a minister as well and Handy himself was deeply religious, although it sounds like his father was enough to turn anybody off of religion.  When Will saved for two years to buy a guitar, using money that he’d earned by selling berries and nuts that he had picked, along with homemade soap, his father called it an instrument of the devil and made him take it back and use the money to buy a dictionary.  Poor kid.  A sympathetic teacher who realized his gift for music worked with him after school for years, but Will had to keep it a secret, pretending that he’d gotten in trouble and was having to stay late as punishment.  I can only imagine how well that went over at home.

The Handy cabin and property stayed in the family for many years.  Eventually, after Will had become famous and successful, the city of Florence approached him about selling them the property for a public housing project.  He agreed, with the stipulation that the city would move the cabin to another location and use it for a W. C. Handy Museum.  They agreed, and when they wrote him a check, he immediately endorsed it back to the city.  They dismantled the cabin, numbering the logs, and stored them, and nothing was done for a number of years.  It was well after his death in 1958 that the Handy family said, “Hey, City of Florence!  We see a housing project where that cabin used to be.  When are you gonna keep up your end of the deal?” and Florence replied with the proverbial “Oops.”  The cabin doesn’t have any of the original furnishings, but the museum has Mr. Handy’s piano, other instruments, and a lot of personal effects and memorabilia.  Two of my favorites were a tiny accordion given to him by Ella Fitzgerald, and an autographed score of “Rhapsody in Blue” from George Gershwin that said, “To Mr. Handy, whose early ‘blue’ songs are the forefathers of this work, with admiration & best wishes.”  By the way, if you’re ever in the neighborhood and want free cake, drop by on November 16.  That’s his birthday and they have cake and punch every year.

We ate that night at a Mexican restaurant.  The shrimp fajitas for two could have served four people and were quite tasty, but what I’ll remember about the place is the décor.  In addition to the usual sombreros hanging on the wall, there were marionettes dangling from the ceiling, a collection of gourds, and an unlikely combination of cows, elephants and a couple of cynical chimps wearing aprons.  The chimp leering at us from the wall over our booth also had a sombrero and a beer in his hand.  PJ could see him from the back in a mirror and immediately figured out the reason for the aprons.  The chimp—er—that is, the chimp—well, gee whiz.  The apron only covered his front and let’s just say the chimp should have been wearing pants.  This was a family restaurant.

The last place we visited before leaving for home the next day was the Rosenbaum house, the only house in Alabama designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  This is the third house of his we’ve visited, and the one we’ve liked the least.  Parts of it were really dark and somehow seemed a little claustrophobic.  To be perfectly honest, while I enjoy touring his houses, they don’t appear to be particularly comfortable or easy to live in.  This one was built in 1940, some 30 years after the Meyer May house that we saw a number of years ago in Grand Rapids.  I will say that Mr. Wright seemed to have learned somewhere along the line that however aesthetically unpleasing drawers and closets may be, people really need a place to store their stuff.  The furniture, however, looked just as uncomfortable as it always does.  Mrs. Rosenbaum thought so too.  She argued with him about it and told him she didn’t like it but he ran roughshod over the Rosenbaums as he did over other clients and made them take the furniture he thought they ought to have.  She gave away most of it and ordered other things as soon as his back was turned.  I suppose people put up with him because he was Frank Lloyd Wright, but gee whiz.  I wonder if anybody ever fired him?


4 comments on “History and Music in Alabama

  1. There is a wonderful documentary called Muscle Shoals which covers the musical history of that area. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it. I also recommend the novel Loving Frank which is a fictionalized account of a period of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. It is fiction, but historically accurate. Very interesting.

  2. Watching the documentary is on my to do list. I hadn’t heard of the book but it sounds interesting. We learned a good bit about Wright when we visited Taliesin West in Phoenix. It was his winter home and studio for many years.

  3. Judy Bates says:

    I found you! I’ve looked for you online a number of times & I was so happy to find this. Great article! I have the Muscle Shoals documentary on DVD. I’m sure you’ve seen it by now. I’ll start moving forward through these articles & see what you’re up to these days. I’m still Bargainomics on Facebook, website, Twitter, etc.

    1. Hi Judy,
      It’s so good to hear from you! I’m glad you enjoyed the blog and I’ll look up yours as well.

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