"When the first whippoorwill called and the dogwood trees came in bloom, it was time to plant corn. The first full moon in May was the time for soft crabs, and the hardhead fish would bite better after a storm. Papa always knew the times for everything." --From "My Book of Precious Memories" (St. Mary's Press, 1983) an autobiographical account of sharecropper life by Helen Rebecca Mason Curtis, St. Mary's County native and lifelong resident. You can steal my tongue, Go on and try to hush my song: My scream of freedom will flood the air Of your children centuries unborn. Nothing but an echo of the past, Nothing but an echo of the past. --From "Echo," a song by Bernice Johnson Reagon of "Sweet Honey in the Rock," Copyright (c) 1979, Songtalk Publishing Co.
I don't know whether Helen Curtis went to hear "Sweet Honey in the Rock" in concert at St. Mary's College of Maryland the other weekend. And I very much doubt that the Washington-based singing group picked up a copy of the memoirs of Helen Curtis during its brief trip to the county.
But even if they didn't encounter one another directly, these black women crossed paths in my mind, and perhaps in the minds of some others: the unassuming narrator of sharecropper life in St. Mary's and the stunningly beautiful voices singing social justice to the world. Though their styles differ--the one simple and unpolished, the other exquisitely wrought--I found them resonating in my thoughts in a single, compelling appeal.
Helen Curtis is rooted here, born 74 years ago on a farm in Great Mills. The slender book of her life, more a personal album than a documentary, moves among familiar county places--Tiny Point, Compton, Valley Lee, Abell's Wharf--and familiar county names: Barber, Mattingly, Dyson, Swann.
But the life Curtis recounts is anything but familiar to most of us today, native and newcomer alike. It comes to us from another time, another class, and another culture.
Helen Curtis remembers nightgowns and dresses made of feed sacks, ills treated with roots or pine tar, and school composition tablets with paper so coarse she could see pieces of wood in it. She tells about trading eggs for thread and sugar, drying fruit on a board in the sun, and improvising toys for children--push wheels made of tobacco sticks and basket bottoms, baby dolls sewn from old socks stuffed with rags.
The casual asides in "My Book of Precious Memories" can give us somber pause: Curtis saved the children's castoff toothbrushes from a household where she worked, boiled them in baking soda, and gave them to her own children, so that each might have one.
The funny anecdotes are all the funnier for their remoteness: there is the day, for instance, when Curtis found the missing turkeys stone drunk from having eaten mash near an old whiskey still.
But the overwhelming impression left by this book is that of the sweep of an individual life: an ordinary life of extraordinary labor and extraordinary fullness. Always there are long days of work--chopping wood, milking cows, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, buying, selling, bartering, cooking, cleaning--for the bosses' family and for one's own.
The rhythms of days give unto the rhythms of seasons--planting and harvesting, trapping and fishing, quilting in winter, and singing hymns beneath the big sycamore at day's end in summer.
Through the seasons wind the larger seasons of existence: growing up, marrying, bearing children, aging--and, in Helen Curtis' case, endlessly moving on. Again and again, we see her moving, first with her parents' family, then with her own, from one tenant farm to another.
Helen Curtis has lived more life than most of us. One of eight children, she had 11 children herself. (The ninth she delivered alone, while her husband was out getting the midwife.) She has survived three heart attacks. She has seen her home burn twice. She has buried a son and a grandson.
All of this she presents with simplicity and straightforwardness.
"Moving from place to place, farming and trying hard to make a good living"--that is how she sums up her life toward the end of the book.
A voice more textured and complex flows from Sweet Honey in the Rock--a voice of astonishing harmonies, myriad rhythms, and powerful convictions. The five women in the group, singing a cappella, range through and freely mingle a multititude of black musical styles--gospel, African, jazz, rock, Caribbean, soul.
What emerges is a distinctive sound that combines the purity of unaccompanied singing with the limitless versatility of the human voice, to make every song seem utterly new, a fresh miracle.
The spirituals pierce all the more profoundly, the love songs caress all the more sweetly, the flights of whimsy dance about the ears all the more playfully.
The songs of social action--which is to say all of them, in a sense--stir all the more boldly.
Every song rises from and asserts the value of the black experience. Many of them, moreover, deal expressly with such subjects as racism, sexism, and political oppression. And unlike many other overtly political songs, these debase neither music nor politics. Rather, they embrace us quite completely; they inspire us.
What was a group like Sweet Honey in the Rock, with its tributes to Salvador Allende and Sojourner Truth, doing in quiet, conservative St. Mary's County? In inviting them, the college certainly wasn't catering to the tastes of the mainstream--either the mainstream of the county or that of its own students.
But the crowd that gathered under the college tent by the waterfront to listen, marvel, and cheer, intrigued me far more than any mainstream crowd. I recognized a number of people whom I think of as part of the county's small intellectual counterculture. And there were a good many people from the county's black community--a community that, like many of its counterparts elsewhere in the nation, lives more or less separate from the whites, who dominate public discourse.
In effect, by bringing Sweet Honey in the Rock to the county, the college was creating an occasion for people little seen, for music seldom heard, for ideas that the mainstream doesn't much entertain. And the occasion itself was an assertion of the worth of these people, music, and ideas. For during the course of that rapt evening, it was impossible not to be enveloped in the certainty that the splendor and vision of the songs would prevail.
In some strange way, it was the concert that led me to read Helen Curtis' "My Book of Precious Memories."
When I finished the book, so different from the concert--so full of uncritical cheer and gratitude where the songs proclaimed protest and struggle--I began to sense the connection. The book, too, affirmed lives that we normally don't see, don't learn about, or prefer to ignore: lives out of the mainstream. And the book, like the concert, offered a vision of wholeness: not the songs' vision of social wholeness, but the simpler, equally profound vision of wholeness in a life lived with dignity.
"I remember when I went to Uncle Arthur's farm to milk the cows," Helen Curtis writes at the beginning of her book. "Sometimes, he would be down in those large fields with two horses hooked to a 'No. 19' plow, walking up and down, one row at a time, plowing land. . . . I could hear him singing real loud. . . . He could really sing good, just like my brother, he could sing good too. But his talent was only heard by the birds and the big crows."
Helen Curtis and Sweet Honey in the Rock, in their own ways, have called upon us to hear such songs.