The glories of sorrow

The year I turned fourteen, my brother came home with a gramophone, an antique he picked up for almost nothing from a second hand store somewhere nearby. He put it in one corner of the lounge room near the stereo system that played records on a turnstile you operated electrically. The gramophone you cranked up with an Allen key and wound till it stopped and was ready to play at least one of the songs on your standard LP record all the way through.

During the long summer holidays when we were away from school and my parents were away at work, my brother did not complain when I played his gramophone for hours, one song after another.

On the couch, feet curled under my torso, I listened to the deep voice of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. The notes flooding my veins.

‘He don’t say nothing but must know something. It keeps on rolling…’Robeson’s words gave me permission to sit indolent, hour after hour, to listen as the Mississippi rolled along.

Paul Robeson’s voice was powerful but sad, the sorrow of an American slave living on a plantation back in the barns with the other slaves and handlers and with no life of his own other than church on Sundays and long hours of work, planting ‘tatas’ or picking cotton, while ‘Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along’.

The more I listened to Paul Robeson, the less I felt like a ‘motherless child’, the more I recognised the struggle of the slaves to lead a life of dignity, while I in my adolescent angst fell prey to the whims of others, especially my father, but could see others had it worse than me.

The gramophone was heavy and sat like a rectangular boulder on the floor beside the couch and I needed to bend down to crank it up, its brass horn opened like a flower.

‘Lissie, go and clean you room, please,’ my older sister called from the kitchen where she was busy making sandwiches for lunch. ‘And when you’ve finished, we’re going outside to get rid of those weeds along the fence. I can’t even reach the washing line, they’ve grown so high.’

My sister relished household chores, or so it seemed to me then when I wanted only to sit and dream. I wanted only to listen to the voice of the singer, even as I knew I must get on with these tasks, that hardship was ‘character building’ like the learning of Latin at school, and that going against your own wishes was the best way to cultivate a mature and considerate personality, and so become a person others might admire.

My mother’s mantra played in my head over and again, the value of suffering to make you a better person, the glories of sorrow to lift you into a better place in readiness for Heaven.

But these ideas clashed with another voice in my head that railed against the notion I should be grateful for my lot. That I should not complain and that I should not presume anyone was there to look after me. I needed to go it alone, despite my many siblings, despite my prayerful mother, despite the nuns at school.

At the same time, it did not feel right that I, still a young person, budding breasts and all, should have to work all the time, cleaning the house like my sister before me, clearing away after the others, weeding the garden, when all I wanted was to sit on the couch lost in my thoughts as the mournful voice of Paul Robeson filled my head.



4 thoughts on “The glories of sorrow”

  1. I remember those long, indulgent teenage years vividly and the music that accompanied them.
    Recently, I have been sharing the company of two 18 year olds who have been spending too much time together, for lack of other interests, and becoming quite testy with each other. I enlisted the help of the boy to break the tension by asking him to help me with a simple half hour task.
    His albeit, very polite refusal left me dumbfounded as though it was an optional activity for him and I suddenly saw a completely new generation. I would NEVER have refused an elder and if I ever heard that one of my sons did, well, in the words of my father ‘they’d still be coming back from next week!’
    Footnote: When I heard he was visiting again the next day, I told his gf to let him know I was expecting him to do the task in question. It was done, along with a couple of others since. But boy, do these two need to get jobs!

    1. I too would never ever have refused an elder, Karen, but times have changed and younger folk, at least in the western world, are more confident in their expressions of desire. Still it’s good you got through to him in the end. After all the help you offer. To me life is about an exchange, a give and take, not just a transaction in that it need not be exactly equal but there needs to be a sense of shared concern for things to work well. Thanks, Karen.

  2. I guess I’d be about thirteen when our house acquired its first record player. Before that all we had was an old radiogram. I don’t remember much about it other than it was a nice piece of furniture, solid. The record player was not new and it looked like this: One of the lads in our congregation was getting rid of it and I think all we paid was maybe a fiver and he threw in a few records. The only one I can remember was a compilation LP that included part of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, maybe Danse Macabre and a very strange version of The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives which someone had decided worked well as background music to Prospero’s lines from The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1( That was, I’m sure, my first introduction to the works of Shakespeare. The narrator wasn’t credited but I’m pretty sure it was Richard Burton or at least a Richard Burton wannabe; there was fire in his delivery.

    I’m not sure when I became musical. I suppose it must’ve been when I moved to secondary school and Music became a subject as opposed to singing which was what passed for music lessons at primary school, The Skye Boat Song and the like. I mean I must’ve heard classical music in passing over the years—if only the inimitable Victor Borge—but this was the first time I’d been required to sit down and listen, just listen, to a symphony or a concerto. I remember the teacher before he put on The Planets referring to it—to Mars at least—as being the “most frightening piece of music ever written” and that certainly piqued my interest although I can’t say I agree with him although I’m struggling to think of any music that’s actually frightening and I’ve listened to a lot of music over the years.

    From the start I was hooked though and the handful of records I owned—which included a couple of symphonies by Tchaikovsky; Beethoven’s Sixth; an album of overtures, von Suppé and Rossini; a LP of Liberace and some Mantovani—were played over and over again. Later I joined the local record library and so every week there was something new.

    I’ve no idea when I first heard Ol’ Man River although I’m pretty sure it would’ve been Paul Robeson’s version. I imagine I must’ve seen Show Boat on TV sometime. I mean we watched whatever was on. And not a bad thing. I know they talk about the current so-called Golden Age of TV but I don’t think too much choice is necessarily a good thing. It encourages niche watching. Seriously there’s so much science fiction on right now I could watch it and nothing else and still not see it all.

    1. A bit slow to get back to you on this, Jim, but thank you anyhow. Life’s a bit up in the air with all the toing and froing I’m doing visiting hospital so Paul Robeson and gramophones are a distant memory but soon enough I’ll be back in the swing of things. Thanks Jim.

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