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Fifth Martha * First Running Composer * Phil Ochs Plays Chess
by Martha Moffett
When I was a child, my mother heard the news that a famous foreign composer and pianist was touring in Alabama, and that he ran from town to town to fulfill his engagements.
Why would he do that? My father asked.
I believe he says he gets no exercise, sitting at his piano, and running keeps him fit, my mother said. You know, like an athlete. Running to keep in shape.
Humph, said my father, who walked to work every day, a mile each way. Later we owned a car, but at that time the rest of us took the school bus into town every morning, with my mother, who taught sixth grade. We occasionally borrowed the company car from my father's job for trips to the city to see the dentist or do our Christmas shopping.
My father plainly scorned the idea that there was something virtuous about walking for the sake of walking. But my mother, who treasured every clue to what people out in the big world were doing, whose hair was dressed like Gene Tierney's and whose eyebrows were plucked like Joan Crawford's, thought there might be something to it.
How did my mother get her news? I remember a country newspaper delivered to our mailbox, and The Saturday Evening Post. There was no library in our town. Fifteen miles down the road, we connected to a blacktop that came through St. Clair County from Birmingham, 60 difficult miles away, but the unpaved stretch ended in my town and did not continue through. If you had to come to my town, you came and then went back the same way. If you wanted to go eastward, toward Georgia, you had to cross the Coosa River below Ohatchee, on a ferry, and pick up a road on the other side. The first town you'd come to was Jacksonville, an old town, with a teacher's college and a civil war statue in the town square. And the next town you'd come to was Anniston, where there was a pipe factory that during the war was converted to make periscopes for submarines. It was said that Anniston, Alabama, was No. 3 on Hitler's list, and everyone was thrilled with that; a town so near to us. Encouraged by this, a local entrepreneur had some brochures printed to show that my town had some connection to business and industry. It showed a map with my town as a central hub, reaching in all directions toward Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga. Of course there was no way to get to these places. No bus, train, or paved road. My family kept a copy of this brochure for years.
My mother thought I should be interested in the composer because I had once been given piano lessons. That was when I was five or six, and the lessons hadn't lasted very long, because my piano teacher, Miss Sutton, told my parents that she could not teach me because I was too self-critical. I think it is interesting that a personality trait that plagues me to this day was observed so early.
I barely remember the music lessons. It all seemed mathematical, measuring the distance from one note to the next. But I remember Mr. Grainger's composition "Country Gardens." Dum te dum dum te dum-dum, dum te dum te dum...
My father borrowed the company car and my mother drove to the ferry. It was a warm day, but we did not beg to be allowed to swim behind the ferry; we were dressed in our summer best, my brother and sister and I.
In Jacksonville, we joined a crowd that had gathered on the low wall that circled the statue of Major John Pelham, "The Gallant Pelham," General Lee called him, and I sat on one of the three steps that led up to the major and leaned on the long rifle that he was leaning on and we all stared down the straight road that ran between us and Anniston. Soon, in the far distance, we could see a tiny black speck, followed by a black sedan that kept pace behind. Percy Grainger was running into town.
As the composer neared, jogging at a steady, slow trot, the noise rose a bit, there were a few cheers, and the wind picked up, making us more excited. It was not just that he was a famous composer, although many of us could play "Country Gardens." I can still play a pretty decent rendition of it, one of the few compositions that stayed with me after my distant piano lessons. And it was not that he was a foreigner, although most of us, including me, had never seen a foreigner before. No, we came to watch a mad Australian willing to make a fool of himself in public, pounding up State Road 21 to the college auditorium where his piano waited. We came to see a man who chose to walk when he could ride.
�Copyright 2015 by Martha Moffett - All Rights Reserved