November 9, 1915-March 28, 2015
If you have ever played or heard “John Short’s Tune,” a lively polka, then you have met my father, Erwin A. Thompson. He passed the tune on to many musicians so that it continues to live. But there’s more to his story than that.
Evergreen Heights, the Riehl homeplace in Illinois, across the river from St. Louis
A nine-month-old infant lay on a blanket under a maple tree, bathed by a breeze from the Mississippi River below the bluffs. He had double pneumonia and wasn’t expected to live. His family in Rushville, 100 miles north, struggled financially. His mother was doing poorly with three young children to care for. These days medicine would have some answers, but then the most sensible advice the family doctor could give was, “Send the boy down to your sisters and let him die in peace.”
The good news? “I didn’t die,” my father said more than ninety years later, “because I had three aunts and a grandfather who didn’t think I needed to die.”
To keep the farm going, each sister had a main job. His aunt Amelia (“Mim”), also recovering from an illness, took care of him while Emma and Judy took over the kitchen and chores.
Back to that blanket! Aunt Mim lay beside him, and softly sang the words to “Rainbow,” which Percy Wenrich wrote in 1907. This is the first song my father remembered hearing. He and Aunt Mim would learn to walk together, and she would become important to his musical training. At that moment on that blanket, music filled the air and he breathed it in. Music proved to be a powerful medicine that became his lifeline throughout almost 100 years of singing, playing, and serving.
Pop came by his music honestly from both sides of his family, growing up surrounded by a father, aunts, and uncles, who played violin, guitar, mandolin, and piano and sang hymns as well as popular songs of the day. Before radio became popular in the 1920s, families listened to music on the Victrola in the parlor and made their own music around the piano. Records were a real splurge, costing as much as a day’s wages for many. In the spirit of country living, neighbors shared the excitement of a new record. Pop recalled,
It was the custom then to write a song commemorating the triumphs and disasters of our country. Floyd Collins was killed while exploring a cave in 1925. Vernon Dalhart recorded the song “The Death of Floyd Collins.” The Bowman youngsters came over one afternoon with the exciting information that our neighbors, the Stankas, had this new record. What a thrill we got hearing this current happening set to music:
Oh, come all you young people
and listen while I tell
The fate of Floyd
a lad you all know well.
When radio came into popular use, it provided free music, and plenty of it.
In 1925, when I was 10 years old, we got our first radio that worked. That summer when the Oklahoma Cowboys came to town, their music was broadcast over radio station KSD, at that time the only radio station in St. Louis. Along with much of the rest of the Midwest, it was the first cowboy music I ever heard.
Over the next ninety years, music would become the unifying force in Pop’s life, a passion that he shared with his family, his community, and musicians of all ages. When he died in March of 2015, he had touched many lives, mastered several instruments, called square dances, fought in World War II, kept the old songs alive, written numerous songs, poems and novels, and, most importantly lived a life of grace and generosity anchored firmly in love and legacy.
One tune that became part of his legacy is one you’ve likely either heard or played: “John Short’s Tune.” My father learned this tune from Bee Lewis, his friend and mentor, who learned it from John Short. For the first generation of folks in the Midwest who played this tune, it could be traced back to my father. Lineage. The beauty of old-time music is lineage. It lives in the same family as oral history, which exists in every culture and time. When tunes are passed down in this way, there is a human warmth that is unmatchable in printed music.
Inevitably a tune changes as it is passed down from fiddler to fiddler, especially in the age of the internet. I’ve heard versions of “John Short’s Tune” that have the bones of the one I heard my father play in his parlor during jam sessions, and for square dances as couples swirled around the floor. But these renditions typically are more ornate and too fast to dance to. To play for a square dance you have to be on the beat and have endurance. My father would never have won a fiddle contest, but he played purely and with great delicacy, always there for the music and not to show off.
Curtis Buckhannon, a wonderful mandolin player, was one of the musicians who learned the tune through the musical grapevine.
I heard it from Lindell Blackford, fiddler and member of our group Cousin Curtis and the Cash Rebates. He brought it to the table through Erwin. Once the tune was recorded it reached a wider audience, and it has continued to remain a favorite. In 2001 the Ill-Mo Boys recorded it on their CD Laugh and Grow Fat. It’s become a standard among old time players across the country.
The Buckhannon Brothers played two events at the Alton Hayner Library that included “John Short’s Tune.” For the first one, a few years before my father’s death, I recall loading up his “little red racecar,” a rolling walker, and tucking him in for our ride to our local library. Curtis and Dennis welcomed him warmly. During their first set they acknowledged my father and the tune he’d helped preserve. My father’s eyes teared up. The second time he would no longer be with us. In April 2015, shortly after my father’s death, they dedicated their performance to my father, and, of course, played “John Short’s Tune.” They’d especially invited us, and my brother was there with his wife as well. It was a fitting send-off from the musical community he’d contributed to.
Bee Lewis, who taught “John Short’s Tune” to my father, was a beacon in his life. He showed him how you could be a householder and go around your regular life while also having a rich, creative life. They met at a fiddler contest which my father reluctantly attended. When he arrived, he seemed to be the only fiddler. Another fiddle player was there, but he wouldn’t compete. “But maybe thought he would play with us for the fun of it,” my father said. “Well, I sure wasn’t wanting to compete either so that suited me fine. I asked him and he went home and got his banjo mandolin. It was a friendship that was to last the rest of our lives.” This inspirational period between the night he met Bee and when he joined the Army during WWII was a turning point. It awakened something in him. He started to write songs and his own poetry, which later we collected in Worth Remembering: The Poetry of Our Heritage (2009).
On a typical Saturday night Bee, his son Bill, and my father played for a square dance and then gathered at Bee’s house to play into the early hours of the morning. Amelia, Bee’s wife, would step from the kitchen to announce, “Bee wrote another poem.” The poems mingled with the music. This was a time when poetry was part of life. Poems were even printed in the newspaper, and the poet got paid! After Bee’s death his poems disappeared, only to be discovered years later in the trunk of an old car. My father took these, typed them lovingly with his two-finger method, and turned it into a 317-page manuscript which we published in 2008 as Gems of Yesterday: The Poetry, and Philosophy of Bee Lewis: Poet, Musician, Philosopher, Friend.
With his steel-trap memory, my father not only remembered the tunes and lyrics to hundreds of songs from his youth and young manhood, but he knew the year they came out, and when he had first heard them — and always, always there was a story.
I once heard how the song “After the Ball” came to be written. Charles K. Harris was a very popular and successful songwriter of that time. When asked to write a new song for a convention, he told them he couldn’t just “write a song.” His songs were inspired by things he had seen or experienced himself. He didn’t have any inspiration, he was bone dry. “How about that big ball you went to up in Chicago? Couldn’t you make a song out of that?” “No, that was just another big social affair. Nothing too inspiring. But after the ball—yes, that was something!”
Pop loved waltzes, and “The Goodnight Waltz” was a favorite.
I first heard it on the radio. Later when I began playing with Bee Lewis, I found he played it also. Like most things that are learned by ear and played from memory, we didn’t play it the same. We studied each other’s version and came to a compromise of how we thought it sounded best. I now have the music in a book compiled by the University of Missouri and their version differs from ours. However, this music was transcribed from another old fiddler. Probably there is no true original music available for this piece.
If anyone asks me what my favorite waltz is, I would say without hesitation, “Daddy’s Midnight Waltz.” I wish I could hum the tune for you, which slides from key of G to the chorus in C, but here are the lyrics.
The Midnight Waltz
by Erwin A. Thompson
After you’ve quarreled
And feeling blue
Been dancing with other girls,
The whole night through,
Then you find your sweetheart,
Hold her in your arms,
And as they play the midnight waltz,
Surrender to her charms.
When it’s time to say goodnight,
They play the midnight waltz,
You kiss her as you hold her tight,
Forgive her little faults.
For she’s the girl you love,
Beneath the stars above;
And as you dance, you find romance
To the tune of the Midnight Waltz.
Foolish to quarrel,
Or so they say,
Needless to miss you,
When you’re away
But lovers all have quarreled
As we have quarreled, too;
And as they played the midnight waltz,
I drifted back to you!
Every time I played music with him, I’d request this one. And, in turn, he asked that it be one of the tunes played at his memorial. It was.
Pop’s life centered around the Riehl homeplace for nearly a century. He grew up there, worked on the farm, raised his family, nursed his wife during the last five years of her life, and breathed his last in his own bed. The only significant period he was gone from the place was during his time in the Army. From 1863, when the house was built, until the present day, it’s been a gathering place for music, dancing, and good talk
A good friend, Gerry Mandel, told me a few years ago that he was interested in doing a video conversation with my father. I agreed. As Gerry tells it,
I first heard about Erwin Thompson, sometime during 2011 from his daughter Janet. She knew I was interested in recording videos of older people for their families as living legacies. Her dad’s story fascinated me, so she said to come on over. One autumn afternoon of comfortable temperature and gentle breeze, I found myself at the Thompson home on the bluffs. Erwin was 96, which led me to expect I might have a somewhat difficult time holding a conversation with him, someone dealing with old age infirmaries. Erwin eliminated those preconceptions from the moment I met him. He was energetic, alert, conversant. True, a little slower in getting around, with eyesight and hearing not as sharp as they used to be, but a man still brimming with life and eager to tell his stories. We sat on his front porch, the Mississippi glistening in the distance, as he talked about his life, his friends, and his adventures, which included stories of his service in World War II, and – most of all – his music, poetry, books and family. Either singing or speaking his voice was strong. I found myself thinking I was listening to a young Erwin Thompson in the prime of life, playing music, calling square dances, and telling stories. For the next two hours, with pauses only for a sip of water or to take a short breather, he talked and sang and recited poetry.
My parents hosted music groups in their living room that became “The Tuesday Nighters.” The group kept growing, and sometime in the 1970s the River Bluffs Traditional Music Society was formed and met in the local YWCA. In his nineties, Pop held a weekly musical open house on Sunday afternoons and continued to train new fiddlers, guitarists, and mandolin players, including two of his great-granddaughters. My father showed me that what makes a true musician isn’t technique. It’s generosity in spirit and action. Young players were welcomed and brought into our musical community.
Pop was named a Folk Treasure by Arts Across Illinois and featured on WTTW Chicago Network River Stories. In school assemblies he performed music, told stories, and pulled the kids down to perform in skits based on his songs. In one performance, Pop and I played our fiddles in a school gymnasium while mother led the yelping and barking during “Rattler,” one of our favorite family songs that we often sang in the car. After the assembly, Pop stood by the edge of the bleachers and reached out to hug armfuls of children as they passed back to their classes.
Square dancing was part of our lives growing up. When I was a teenager, we cleared the furniture out of the dining room for the winter and threw a square dance party every month. Pop knew how kids worked—especially how shy boys can be. To select partners, the girls lined up on one side of the room and the boys lined up on the other. Then, we started backing up. Whomever you bumped into was your partner. Of course, you might choose your position in line or look over your shoulder to influence the outcome! He also devised a game by putting a 2” x 4” board on the floor with two strong sets of hands holding either end. The boy started from one end and the girl started from the other. In the middle of the board, the couple had to pass each other with a maneuver my father demonstrated. If it didn’t work? Why then the board fell over to much laughter. In my father’s version of old-time square dancing, there were many calls that were like games: “Chase the rabbit, chase the squirrel, chase that pretty girl round the world.” He showed us how a boy could stiffen his arm to pick up the girl when they came back home in the figure. In order for it to work, the girl had to cooperate, of course! He also showed us how two couples in the middle of the room could brace themselves and whirl the girls with their legs flying out, like gymnasts’.
His square dance calling began during of the Great Depression.
I rented the Elsah Town Hall, and managed to get the music together for these dances. The village board let me have the hall for fifty cents, what they paid the janitor. For the first square dance of the evening, we asked the men dancing to donate a dime which paid for the hall, coffee and sugar, coal oil for the stove that heated the coffee plus a string fund. Musicians playing that long and hard break a lot of strings! In my fiddle case I had a string for every instrument. If a musician broke a string, they got a new one. That was the only pay any musician ever got, except the thrill of furnishing music for a group of dancers and their neighbors.
Music in the Army
My father served in the Army during WWII. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry above the call of duty as well as a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in battle. Although regular playing was impossible after he got into the Army, he still couldn’t give up altogether. As sergeant, his first rank before he deployed, he prepared new recruits for battle in two training camps, Camp Robinson in Arkansas and Camp Fannin in Texas. My parents were married in Arkansas, and my older sister Julia was born there. In Texas, because he had a family, he was allowed to live off the base in the old Methodist parsonage at Winona.
At Camp Robinson he found “a fair-sounding fiddle in a pawn shop for $7.50. I even got a bow and an oil cloth case. That might sound cheap, but I was getting twenty-one dollars a month with a chunk taken out for life insurance.” I’ve kept three violins from the collection of fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos that flowed through my father’s musical life throughout the years. Pop played what he called his “Arkansas fiddle” the rest of his life. There’s a rose decal on the back, and its tone is as fine as ever.
In June 1942 he played “Cincinnati Sidewalks” in a regimental show where he learned “The Last Letter.” He took his fiddle to Camp Fannin, where it got a workout.
Sergeant Groves knew I played and invited me to a get-together at his trailer. Like me he lived off the post with his family. There was a fellow who picked a 5-string banjo and a second Lieutenant who played guitar and sang. I have never heard music sound better. There was something in the quality of the air that was perhaps an illusion, but it seemed that the whole night was filled with the music that we made.
But no matter where or how I seek
I never hope to find
Music that will thrill me
Like what echoes in my mind.
(From Pop’s poem “The Music in my Mind,” 1977)
When the time came to ship overseas, the company was gathered in a parking lot close to a movie theater. There was a camp rule that no one could get into the movie without a Class A uniform.
But we’d already confined our duffel to essential “wearing clothes.” Somebody with a little gumption and common sense decided they could relax the rules and let us go to a show while we waited for the midnight train that would start us on our way. I heard Lulu Belle and Skyland Scottie sing “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.” That song stayed in my mind all the time I was gone, and one that would stay with me all my life. When my dear wife Ruth was close to her death, Janet and I serenaded her with that love song.
While recovering from his life-threatening shrapnel wounds in an English hospital, Pop heard Lily Ann Carol sing “I’ll Walk Alone” live on a British broadcast. When he played the song later in life, he always included her special ending: “You know that I don’t want to walk around with anyone else but you. I’ll walk alone.”
After V.E. Day, in one of those lucky twists of fate, Bee’s son Bill discovered that he was only forty miles away from where Pop was stationed and came to visit. What a thrill it was for them both see a familiar face and play together again. They’d both made it through.
On the way back home to the U.S., the S.S. Marine Fox carried 2,500 troops. I’d sold my guitar to one of the ship’s cooks. He asked me to help him entertain on deck. This was the biggest audience I ever had, and they enjoyed it because there was nothing to do unless one wanted to read or play cards. This ties in with my philosophy of life. I think the true value of what we do is not being the best musician in the state or the U.S. but using that talent when and where it is needed. I have always tried to do this.
Music, the international language
After their retirement, my parents traveled all over the world, mostly to visit their two daughters in Africa, Europe, and Russia. My father was a reluctant traveler compared to my mother, but once launched, he engaged with the people he met in other countries as if they were relatives.
When I taught in northern Botswana in the early 1970s my dad managed to teach my students to square dance. Added to the language barrier the group of dancers were all girls—which we solved by labeling every other girl with the large sign marked “boy.” One of the teachers translated the calls—which produced the rather amusing effect of delayed motion in the space between my father’s calls and her translation.
Did you ever hear hymns sung in two different languages at the same time? One would naturally expect confusion and discord, at best. But it didn’t come out that way. The hymns missionaries brought to Africa in the 1800s lived on. “When Ruth and I were there,” Pop remembered, “folks in the village sang their version and we sang ours. Although the words were different, the melody was a beautiful blend of voices sung with close harmonies.”
When I was teaching in Northern Ghana, people my parents met in the village were entranced by their tape recorder— resulting in instant friendship as my parents recorded and played back the villagers voices. They offered mom and dad a drink of pito, their homebrew made from millet. At that time outdoor markets were scheduled every three days, the amount of time it takes millet beer to ferment.
En route between West Africa and America my parents stopped in Rio de Janeiro. Relaxing in one of the small open-air cafes dotting the main street, they heard a two-man mariachi band playing guitar and mandolin.
Without thinking, I gestured to the man playing mandolin. He smiled and handed it to me. Like the joke of the dog that caught the train, I wondered what I could do with it. Then I remembered “Spanish Two Step,” a piece Bob Wills played back in the forties. The guitar player joined in as smoothly as if he had played it with me the day before. I didn’t speak Portuguese, but we could play music together and enjoy a few moments of friendship and pleasure.
Wherever he was in the world, he always kept to that philosophy: music was meant to be shared.
Ruth and I liked to walk and talk with the children we met. Ambling along this way we came upon a group of youngsters carrying an old guitar. Again, I wondered. I reached out in the direction of the guitar and they gave it to me. After a little preliminary experimenting I found that they were using the old Spanish tuning. That was what Dad used, and I understood the theory and the progressions. I picked out “Under the Double Eagle” to an appreciative audience.
A few years later they traveled to the South Seas. As they relaxed in a café, Pop heard…
…what in the 1920s we called “Hawaiian Guitar.” The nut was raised, and the strings tuned to a chord. This may have been the fore-runner of the present-day steel guitar and the Dobro. At any rate, this is what I was expecting. Not so. Their choice of music was tunes such as “Harbor Lights,” “Isle of Capri,” and “Red Sails in the Sunset.” As we got acquainted, I offered to sing some of the choruses. They were glad for the help. The waitresses stopped and beat out the rhythm when they had time. It felt like an open society, the way that music should be.
Music Breathed the Family
When my father came home from the war, he encountered a toddler who had no idea that he was her father. My mother, wisely, devised a way to go on an errand in order to leave them alone. My father, at a loss, turned to music, his old friend. He sat my sister Julia on his lap and sang the haunting song “In the Valley of the Moon” by Charles Tobias and Joseph Burke.
Down the lane we strolled ‘neath the roses in the valley of the moon
And I lost my love ‘neath the roses in the valley of the moon
We kissed and said goodbye she cried and so did I
Now dear you wonder why I am lonely
But we’ll meet again by the roses in the valley of the moon
Well, what do you know but that my sister burst out crying! After that she’d request it by saying, “Daddy, would you play me the crying song?” That moment created a bond with my father and his daughter until the day in 2004 that a car crash cut off her life way too soon.
My father responded with a song. When Julia was young, Pop drove her to her activities and they sang songs along the way. When she was in high school, they wrote a song together with one verse and one chorus. Some twenty years later he thought that there should be a proper ending, and wrote the second verse and chorus. Julia had been thinking the same thing and had come up with almost exactly the words that he had. Their letters crossed in the mail.
The Town is Talking
by Erwin A. and Julia A. Thompson
You know the town is talking
About our love affair
I guess you know they’re jealous
Because it isn’t theirs!
They say a trail of broken hearts
You’ve left along the way;
They say your fickle fancy
Is here just for today.
Here today and gone tomorrow
What shall my answer be?
You say your heart is lonely,
And beating just for me.
Should I worry ’bout tomorrow,
And the things that people say?
Or should I love you and make you happy,
For I know you’re here today!
The town’s no longer talking
About our love affair.
To them it’s just a memory
Across the passing years.
I know the trail of broken hearts
You left, so people say,
Has long been healed by other loves
They found along life’s way!
Here today and gone tomorrow,
The answer’s plain to see.
You said your heart was lonely
And beating just for me.
I didn’t worry about tomorrow,
And the things that people say;
But I loved you and made you happy.
And I know you’re here today!
Julia wrote this thank-you poem for Pop on his eightieth birthday
Thanks for Eighty Years
During the last five years of my mother’s life (January 4, 1916 – May 1, 2006), we were able to keep her at home, after a major stroke in 2001. My sister’s death shaped the last part of my life story as a country girl who roamed the world and then came home. In fall 2004 the rhythm of my life changed. I stayed six weeks at Evergreen Heights helping my father care for my mother. Then, back to northern California for three weeks. Returning to my folks, I took care of mother during the day and Pop cared for her at night, which was a killer job of waking up every few hours to respond to her needs. Anyone who has ever been responsible as a full-time caregiver knows how stressful it can be. Music helped my father and me cut these tensions. We sang to each other, often coded about something that was going on, and to mother. In a stunning surprise she even started to sing—this from a woman who had barely hummed during the time I’d known her. In her case she would sing quietly while I dressed her, for example. She sung in the spontaneous way children do, with no need for a tune. When I listened, I learned about what went on in her inner life, especially what frightened her. Then we sang songs to comfort her.
Out of the truth I found about my life during this trying time between my sister’s death and my mother’s, I wrote Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary (2006). In 2009 we expanded it to an audio book Sightlines: a family love story in poetry and music. We recorded the music that appears on the audio book in my father’s parlor. Since the tape (yes, that long ago!) ran throughout the music session we caught the jokes and stories that were part of playing music with my father. I also had my father read some of the 90 story poems from my book. Hearing his voice and his music on the discs means the world to me. In Nashville I spent two days recording poems. Over the next nine months, in a true collaboration, my sound engineer worked his magic as we swapped files back and forth. My father worked closely with me during the process of producing the audio book. The poetry book had been my project. The audio book was our project.
My father lived almost ten more years after my mother died. I moved back to the Midwest in 2007 to be part of the care team that allowed my father to stay in his beloved homeplace. During our time together he continued to have music sessions at home, and sometimes played for nursing homes with the complete crew that included his two great-granddaughters. At times he became morose, feeling that the music he’d worked so hard to pass down would pass away with him. A line from one of his poems expresses it best: “I cry not for my death, but for the music that will die with me.” But he hadn’t reckoned on the internet! Often when he mentioned a tune, followed by the lament “That tune’s gonna die,” I’d dial it up on my phone and put the music to his ear, watching his slow smile stretch across his rugged and still-handsome face. He got so used to this routine that he’d say, “Janet, look that one up on your jukebox.”
Not only would his music not die with him, but his music accompanied him to his last breath. One night he told me, “Janet, I feel tired.” I said, “Well, it’s early, but why don’t you lie down.” The next time I checked on him, it was clear that he’d started traveling toward his death. Family and friends stopped by over the next two days to pay their respects. In keeping with my father’s love of hospitality I served refreshments and hugged people when they emerged from his bedroom with tears in their eyes. Pop’s passion for documenting his music on cassettes stood him in good stead during this last passage. We kept music playing night and day. It helped keep our spirits up, and I’d learned that hearing is the last sense to go. When my great-niece arrived from the East Coast, we played for him beside his bed. Pop had always been the genius at starting us off. Without him to guide us, we faltered at first. Then we discovered that what one didn’t know the other did, and we felt comfort that all he’d shared with us hadn’t been lost.
For our father’s memorial, my brother Gary Thompson and I included the poetry and music that he had loved. A dear friend sang two songs, without accompaniment, in his resonant bass voice: the hymns “Further Along” and our all-time favorite, “Evening Prayer.” Our band of four musicians played “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You,” “John Short’s Tune,” “Midnight Waltz,” and “Leave Me with a Smile.” At the end of every music session we played a series of good-bye songs—some funny and some lyrical. Our last song of the evening was always “Evening Prayer.” It distills my father’s philosophy of life, and I always found it comforting. Once, in a time of crisis, I called my father and asked him to sing it to me, and he did, his gravelly voice trembling with emotion. By the time I hung up, my agitation was replaced by a deep tranquility. It feels appropriate, then to leave you with the words of “An Evening Prayer” by C. Maude Battersby.
If I have wounded any soul today,
If I have caused one foot to go astray,
If I have walked in my own willful way,
Dear Lord, forgive!
If I have uttered idle words or vain,
If I have turned aside from want or pain,
Lest I offend some other through the strain,
Dear Lord, forgive!
If I have been perverse, or hard, or cold,
If I have longed for shelter in the fold,
When thou hast given me some fort to hold,
Dear Lord, forgive!
4 Forgive the sins I have confessed to thee;
Forgive the secret sins I do not see;
O guide me, love me, and my keeper be.
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