Monday, July 02, 2012

Tales My Mother Told Me

Ken McLintock
a memoir of his mother, Edith Cavannaugh

Savannah-born and Georgia-educated (Wesleyan Female Seminary, Macon), my mother came north to complete her musical education. Some of her musical instruction -- both piano and voice, I think -- was under a Miss Coburn, who was related to the actor Charles Coburn. The Coburns and the Cavanaughs (my mother's family) were good friends, and my mother always referred to Charles as Charlie. (She also had a way of slighting the r in his family's name, so that what I always heard were references to "Miss Cobin" and "Charlie Cobin.") Although he was always "Charlie", she was always "Miss Cobin," so I think she must have been his aunt rather than an elder sister. That he did have a sister I am sure because both of them were in the theater and even appeared on the stage together. As I said, the Coburn and Cavanaugh families were friends, and more than once Mother told me of the time Charlie saved her from drowning when she was caught in an undertow off Tybee Island.

For years, so far as I knew, Charles Coburn -- if he was still living -- was retired and still living in Savannah. But one day (I was probably in high school by then), I was reading aloud some movie advertisements in the newspaper to help my parents and me decide which movie to see. Among the cast listed for one movie was Charles Coburn, which I pronounced carefully "Charles Co-burn", not having the faintest idea who he was. "Oh! Charlie Cobin!" my mother exclaimed, surprised and delighted that her former "beau" was in Hollywood, having taken up a movie career. However, I thought I'd better tell her she was mistaken. "No, Mother, not Cobin -- Coburn." I don't recall what her reply was, but I think she was puzzled. After all, she had been pronouncing Coburn "Cobin" all her life.
P.S. We saw that movie, and nearly every subsequent movie in which Charlie appeared.

P.P.S. Coburn had evidently kept in touch with some of the Savannah people over the years. Mother's sister, Aunt Blanche, who had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, showed me a Christmas card she had received from him. It showed what had evidently become, over the years, his trademark: a tamoshanter and a monocle -- no face: just the tam and monocle.

Once she was in New York City, Mother studied with Mrs. Eames, mother of the Metropolitan Opera soprano Emma Eames. The Eameses were from Bath, Maine, and Emma was among the first American-born singers to sing at the Met. Needless to say, Mother attended many of Emma Eames's performances, and for years pictures of the singer in her various roles -- Elsa in Lohengrin, Marguerite in Faust, Desdemona in Otello, among others -- hung on the walls of our home.
Mother received excellent training; after all, her teacher had also been the opera singer's teacher. One result of the training was a fine sense of pitch. If she heard a singer on the radio singing flat, she would utter a cry of pretended pain and make upward motions with her hands as if to push the singer back up on key. Thanks to her training also, her pronunciation of German, French, and Italian was excellent. It was, if anything, too good. She once told me that after a recital, a woman who had been in the audience came up to her and began speaking to her in French -- an embarrassing moment. She had learned to sing French words flawlessly but had never learned to converse in French.

Mother's training, though, was not for the opera stage. Instead she sang with New York's Oratorio Society for years, and was soloist in a number of churches in the New York area. She also was a member of at least one church choir and even one synagogue choir (that of the famed Temple Emanu-El). Among the members of one of the choirs was Harry T. Burleigh, composer and arranger of Negro spirituals (as they were then called), including "Deep River". Burleigh was already well on in years when Mother knew him, and as the years went by, he would announce solemnly each year that this would be the last year he would sing "The Palms" at the Palm Sunday service.

Mother knew, directly or indirectly, a number of interesting and prominent (at least in their day) people in the music world. There was Frank Damrosch, brother of Walter. I don't recall what musical group he presided over, but my mother would say that he must have had something against tenors because he would tell the tenors exasperatedly to "sing with your brains as well as your voices." There was Victor Harris, director of the Oratorio Society, whom she admired. There was Kurt Schindler, who not only was choir director somewhere but also was compiler and arranger of a collection of songs by Russian composers (Glinka, Tschaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, et al.). One director (I don't recall who) had a stammer, and to break the stammer he would sweep his hand across his face. And there was Keith McLeod, who directed a male chorus on one of the New York radio stations, WEAF, now WNBC. It was he who got Mother a spot on WEAF for a short time. I recall seeing a note from him to Mother and noticing he had signed it with his initials, K. McL. -- my initials, too!

Most people, I suppose, who are fond of "classical" music rate the celebrated Beethoven Ninth Symphony highly. My mother did not. I think that was mainly because when the Oratorio Society performed that symphony with the New York Symphony Orchestra, the altos were always placed close to the kettledrums, and Beethoven could be unstinting with the use of that percussion instrument, especially in the Ninth, where the kettledrums attack the listener repeatedly with fortissimos. And, according to my mother, you never got enough used to them not to jump.

Besides her concert and church work, my mother did other singing: recitals. Early in this century, musicians were invited to the homes of well-to-do people -- either their New York mansions or their country estates. One such family, the Sooeysmiths (an odd name) had a place in Greens Farms, Connecticut, and my mother had happy memories of that family and that place. (I think they were the people who owned a St. Bernard dog named Clumsy.)

Finally, there were the army hospitals. World War I ended almost two years before I was born, but even as late as the mid-1920s, when I first heard about her singing to the wounded, the sight and voices of the men -- especially the faces of the "shell-shocked" casualties -- still haunted her. What did the men of the men of the hospitals enjoy hearing? I don't know, but I suppose the songs included "There's a Long, Long Trail", "Roses of Picardy", "Over There", and "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". These, particularly the first two, were probably the very first songs I heard (that must have been when I was three or four) and the first I learned to sing. (I was particularly fond of "There's a Long, Long Trail".)

I must not neglect to mention what we in our family called the phonograph, but which others called, perversely, the grammophone, and which still others, yielding to vulgar commercialism, called the Victrola. The one we had usually sat on the floor and usually in the way, though now and then it sat on a large round wicker table, which itself was even more in the way. (A more expensive model featured the standard record player at a convenient height, with record storage space below.) Our phonograph, made by the Victor Recording Company, was, in size, about a two-foot cube. It had a deep lid, with the familiar picture of the fox terrier listening to "his master's voice" inside. The front had two doors that opened out, revealing a slatted sound chamber from which came the music or speaking voices. The steel turntable, 12 inches in diameter and covered with green felt, was nominally one-speed (78 RPM), but the machine was equipped with a speed control that pivoted: "Fast" at one end of the arc, "slow" at the other end. Being a boy, I could not resist the temptation to find out what the music sounded like at either extreme -- an experiment that annoyed my mother exceedingly. Sound was picked up from the record by the old acoustical device, which simply amplified the vibrations produced as the rotating record grooves passed under the "needle" held by the pick-up. (Needles were either steel or "wooden" -- i.e., bamboo. Both wore out after only a few plays, so the phonograph was provided with built-in cups to hold new or discarded needles.) The turntable was powered by a spring-driven motor, and a removable crank was used to wind up the spring when necessary.

Like most of the things in our home during my early years, the phonograph had already been there before I became aware of it, but the reason for its presence was obvious: the many records made by some of the singers of opera's "golden age". Caruso was certainly among them, Alma Gluck was another. I'm not sure of any of the others, though we (that is, Mother) might have had a recording or two of one of the DeReszke brothers, Jean or Eduard.

Mother got memorable glimpses of musical people, which she shared with me. One was the sight of Australian composer Percy Grainger walking up a New York City street one winter day in a snowstorm, coatless, hatless and wild-haired, and carrying a harp. She would have agreed, one guesses, that Harpo Marx could not have looked more bizarre.


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