Blue Eyed Soul
I grew up on the cusp; the cusp of the 60’s, the cusp of civil rights, the cusp of the north/south geographic declination called the Mason-Dixon line. In truth, I was raised about 40 miles south of the Mason-Dixon and 25 miles north of Washington, D.C. I was actually born in D.C., something few people my age and my race can claim but my parents were Washingtonians so, that’s where I landed. The rural, horse-strew, cow-pied, pastures of Maryland were where I spent my real childhood and my critical formative years.
Bucolic, it’s a thing
But farmland in the south comes freighted with the taint of the slave-driven past that we all, as a country and a culture, inherited in some form at birth. These pastoral properties that my friends and I were all uniquely privileged to be reared on came with their own, singularly unique, but collectively shared, slave history. These big houses and massive fields and hay and horse filled barns that we all discovered as kids held not only an amazing array of playful pastimes (better than malls and movies to us), but they also inferred a sense of “others” before us; others who had tended these same stalls and lofts and manicured lawns and white-washed fence lines, miles and miles of them. And the knowledge that they were NOT comfortably housed and fed while tending was always there. In one grove of trees in the pasture were the remains of a brick forge, the products of which made the foundation of the barn we still used then in the 1960s. Slave history in a real-life context. Education via experiential learning.
We mucked our share of stalls, baled and threw hay into the barn lofts in the sticky-hot summers and, like Huck Finn, tried our damnedest to trick our younger siblings into slopping the white-wash on those miles of fading fences. We considered our own young selves “slaves” to our chores but truth be told, we loved it all and learned a lot, so our tradeoff could hardly be considered indentured servitude even if our parents conditioned our expensive private schooling on the completion of our chores. First World White People problems.
As we left the rarified rural emporium and entered the land of teenage hell, our priorities shifted. Media was becoming the magic potion that gave us connectivity to the greater world that we hardly knew existed. In 1964 we would pack a bag lunch and a thermos, grab our transistor radios and extra batteries, saddle up the horses, and head out in the morning. The only parental instructions were to be back before dark, a fungible timeframe on long summer days. I can still clearly hear, “I Wanna Hold Your Hannnnnd” echoing through the woods as we followed the trails into oblivions we had yet to explore.
Music changed everything
I remember on my 13th birthday, my father (against my mother’s dismissive, “reading is the only entertainment a child needs” glare) gave me my first record player. It was portable, meaning I could hide in the basement or the barn and play it loud! It had 3-speeds, it was heaven.
With it, came my first album as well, The Loving Spoonful, “Summer in the City”. That summer marked the turn; the turn in culture, the turn in the world, the turn in society, and mostly the turn in our young, newly minted, teenage selves. From then on, the battle was waged.
Music vs The Mother.
There were songs that were deemed inappropriate for my young ears, The Beatles, “I’ll Get You in the End” (how the hell did she know? Oh. She obviously already did) topped the forbidden list with the Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” right there in the running although, I suspect grammar may have played a subliminal role in the latter. Mother was a school principal. But really, growing up in the shadow of the Washington Monument with the clubs and bars and dance halls literally pulsing with the local likes of Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, and Peaches and Herb, our own mid-hormonal pulsing bodies were rocking to an entirely new rhythm, and it was going global. The Philadelphia Sound was the benchmark from whence all other soul came.
But, back to the farm
Let’s just get this out of the way. I was a privileged white kid in a suburban 60’s world. It may look like a paean to pastural life on paper but there is no getting around the facts; none of us were ever in want of anything though we may have expressed frustration, often. It was mostly because Mrs. Hawkins, who ran the local grocery/butcher/sundry store, knew all of us kids, and our parents, and knew we were certainly not old enough to buy cigarettes……so we stole them from our parents in dribs and drabs; hardly the stuff that deprivation is made of. That is really the set-up for this next part of the story.
Historic Hardship vs Modern Music
In 1923, Clara May Downey bought the old plantation farmhouse of Granville Farquhar on the hilltop in Olney, Maryland, my hometown. She was an enigma even then; a socialite, a businesswoman (although few can name at what), and wealthy. She envisioned a country inn with bucolic views and southern-style ambiance and cooking. She opened with 3 tables in 1926 and forevermore put Olney on the map. The Inn served presidents, potentates, and politicians from around the world along with serving all of us our first date dinners, family feasts, and special occasion meals for generations. I once had a lunch there in 8th grade with my small (8 person) class to hear a lecture by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the widow of the famed Flying Tiger’s regiment commander from China in WWII. It was, literally, the center of town and town life.
Fast forward just a couple of years and I had the opportunity to go to Europe for the summer with my parents. This is where privilege trumps poverty in the tale. My sister had conveniently married an army dentist and had a baby over there so my parents were gung-ho to go see this newly minted family member. I needed a job to earn my “spending money” for the summer. And we circle back around to Clara May Downey’s institution of a restaurant that had employed hundreds of people through the decades already.
My First Job: Dish Washer
I also learned to make the infamous Rum Buns and watched them whip the souffled sweet potatoes into pans of perfection. Mr. Bill, the head chef, ran a good ship; affable, loved by the diners and the staff alike. The rest of the staff were literally liveried waiters in true Southern, elegantly attired, servitude. Black dinner jackets, starched white shirts, crisp white linen cloths draped over their forearms. It was a scene out of a movie; a movie about a past that seemed to live, still, in this remote, rural, backward-looking institution. But as with many things in life, there is an underbelly that often provides a richer context, and a glimpse, into the times that the real people were actually living in.
Think, Dirty Dancing
Yes, the movie. Most all of the waiters and service staff lived in downtown Washington, a 50-mile round trip that was not a practical commute in 1967. By now, the Inn had new ownership but held to the same standards Clara May Downey had imbued it with over 50 years earlier. There was a small gift shop now, Olney Inn memorabilia, cookbooks, stuff. Out behind the main buildings were some sheds; long rumored to be original slave quarters but to my farm-kid eye they looked like chicken sheds that had been “converted” into bunkhouses for the men who worked the Inn, used mostly from Tuesday-Sunday nights. They left their families home in D.C. and spent the better portion of their weeks earning what, back then, was great money in a prestigious atmosphere, albeit one that really, really, looked like a remake of Tara in “Gone With the Wind”, house staff, etal.
The real fun started after the last table had been cleared but I didn’t know it, at first. The kitchen had been cleaned and readied for the next day’s onslaught. Bread dough for the Rum Buns rising on trays covered in cloth, sweet potatoes peeled and blanched in buckets. And then the waiters shed their coats and disappeared out the back. I was the last to leave the kitchen. Every pot and pan and plate and fork had to be dried and polished and set out for the next shift’s easy access. I was a sweaty, wet, hot-mess when I tossed my apron into the giant laundry bins. And then, walking out into soft night air, I heard the thump and roar of horns and drums and the ecstatic laughter of my fellow workers seeping out of the bunkhouses and lifting the air around me to a different, lighter, plane. Junior Walker and the All-Stars crooning “What Does It Take?” was all it took for me to slip a little closer and maybe catch a glimpse of what seemed another world entirely and a really fun one at that.
Peeping Tom in Paradise
From there, it only took one of the waiters from the staff to catch me listening in. He almost had to drag me inside, shouting at his buddies to “Come see what all I found us out here!” “I thinks he might to wanna come on in and see where the real fun is now that the works is done!” And so, my personal odyssey with music and dance got credentialled in the most amazing fashion. Also, my life-long love of Jack Daniels was cemented then and there. I liked Jack a lot better than the super-sweet (to me) Crown Royal that most of the men preferred but hey, it was liquor, I was a teen, what the hell? The liquor only lubricated the scene that was now just a nightclub in a barn. Everyone was dancing, laughing, joking, and I was pulled into the mix and challenged to step up and step out; out of my white-boy-ass comfort zone and show these grown men that I could hold my own.
Something changed in me. Those late-night dance-a-thons melded into the fabric of my being as spring morphed into summer; blooming in my soul and wandering through my body like the burning warmth of a swig off the Jack Daniels bottle that was passed around, frequently. These joyous, drunk, family-deprived men with time on their hands and coin in their pockets, released their energy into the music, the dance, and the companionship of their shared situation. They dared me to join in.
And so, I did
They dared me to dance for them, with them. Honestly, at that age, I had cotillion classes. Seriously. That and some early B&W TV dance shows that showed the Boogaloo, the Twist; the machinations of the masses back then. I threw caution to the wind (again, liquor) and started to dance, with and for these much more worldly guys than I. They laughed at me, and with me, at first. Then they began to step up and in and show me steps, turns, dips, what to do with my long-ass arms and my super long legs to form a semblance to the viewer of someone with real “chops”. It came easily to me, and I loved it! Dance movement as an expression of the repression I had always felt in my own skin. Maybe they recognized this in me, I’ll never know but I bless the memory of these guys now, a half century later. And I cherish the nicknames bestowed on me by these remarkable men. Spider Legs. Those awkward teenage limbs that they taught me how to control, show off, and use to my advantage in the end. But most cherished and welcomed was the name they called me in the end, when I got to be a regular drop-in at these after-hours dance hall wind-downs.