Martha Harper’s Haint
Avant-garde, revolutionary, even touted as a miracle worker, Mother Ann, an illiterate factory worker from Manchester formed the Shaking Quakers, better known as The Shakers. Their utopian, strictly celibate, and self-sufficient communities grew from a small group that immigrated to America in 1774 into flourishing communities, the southernmost of which was formed where I sat swatting mosquitoes in the humid night air. At their height in 1840 more than six thousand believers lived in nineteen communal villages from New England to Ohio and Kentucky, and there were twenty thousand members over a century.
The most eccentric and defining aspect of the Shakers was their form of dance, the earliest of which was spontaneous. They whirled themselves around, trembling and shaking ecstatically until they fell to the floor in a trance.
In the early 1800s choreography entered the worship service. An anonymous visitor described the preparation:
"At half past seven p.m. on the dancing days, all the members retired to their separate rooms, where they sat in solemn silence, just gazing at the stove, until the silver tones of the small tea-bell gave the signal for them to assemble in the large hall.”
They believed the dance kindled the fire of truth and the shaking warded off evil. As described in an article in The Telescope in 1909, the choreography became ritualistic and stylized.
“A number of singers, probably a dozen or so, both sexes, would take their position in the middle of the room, half of them facing the other half, and begin a kind of song or chant. While doing so they would step back and forth in a fashion resembling a double shuffle. If the spirit seemed to move the watchers, they would rise and, two abreast, would begin marching round the singers in the center. Soon the march would turn into a dancing step, the faces would be uplifted, and the hands outstretched, palms upward, with a gesticulation as if the worshipers were grasping for blessing falling down from heaven. This would be continued indefinitely, sometimes the marchers and dancers falling from sheer exhaustion."
All of their hymns, songs and music were composed and written by their members, generally, under ‘divine inspiration’. They developed their own form of music notation known as the "letteral system" using letters of the alphabet rather than conventional notes.
In 1944 one of those tunes was resurrected and hit the world stage. Aaron Copland said he was thinking neither of Appalachia nor Spring when composing his now iconic ballet. Martha Graham renamed Ballet for Martha by using a line from a Hart Crane poem. Spring represents a body of water, not the season.
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Copland, who was known for using folk music in his ballets, steered away from this habit in Appalachian Spring with the exception, ironically, of one obscure Shaker tune – “Simple Gifts” – which he used as the basis of the finale and which then went on to become the most famous melody of the ballet. "Simple Gifts" was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett and originated in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine in 1848. It was not a hymn, or song of worship; it was written specifically as a Shaker dance song.
A century after the queer Shaker dances were formalized and the lyrics ‘Tis a gift to be simple were penned, the collaboration between Copland and Graham was born and lauded as groundbreaking. One wonders if she studied their movements for the similarity is striking.
By 1911 that last of the original Shakers were dying. To attend a funeral of a Shaker one would think it was anything but. The funeral was an important religious service in their community and they looked upon death as a joyful occasion. Funerals were attended happily and with smiles. The women wore white along with their strange, tight-fitting bonnets with a frill at the back.
In the former Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts lies a unique, one acre burial ground. The tombstone markers of individual Shakers including their death dates have been preserved. Created in 1792 using stone markers, a few of which are still in place today, approximately three hundred Shakers are buried here. In 1879, the town removed most of the stone markers and replaced them with cast iron markers in the unusual shape resembling a lollipop.
Whenever I’m asked where I’m from I always say, ‘Originally’, pause for originally to sink in, ‘from Kentucky’. Compelled to further qualify the answer I add that I’m not from that part of the state - not those eastern mountains where the hillbillies live. The barefoot, gun toting, moonshining, coal dusted people from the hollows - that wasn’t, that isn’t, me.
Then I feel badly about working so hard to convey that not all Kentuckians are the same. Truth is though, there is a sizeable difference in the section of the state where I grew up that lies within a kiss of Tennessee, and the eastern half that borders the Virginias.
The Scots-Irish influence in the Appalachians was prominent in the 1770s when the first flow of settlers blazed across the Wilderness Road, over the Cumberland Mountains and into a region that was too dangerous for most to conquer.
But by the late 1780s the eastern region of Kentucky could be considered a Little Europe where the Ulster-Scots, English, Scottish Highlanders, German Lutherans and the French Huguenots settled.
Eastern Kentuckians have always suffered from dialect prejudice. The twang is strong, and the dialect is a-prefixing heavy. “I’ll come a-moaning and a-crying.” One might hear, “He clomb a tree,” and “I’m agin that idea.”
I’ve scratched my head several times trying to understand this older form of their language, still spoken today. Hilarious really, given that my Southern accent was once as deep as the yellow loam of Mississippi.
It is true that there is a darkness, a bleakness to the mountains raped of their coal.
The most isolated families somehow survive an incredibly harsh life. But from the depths of the desolation rises the beauty of the old bluegrass music, their gift for storytelling and a poignant tradition that is still honoured – a home wake.
This is ‘Home Funeral’, a photo taken by Shelby Lee Adams in 1990.
At a home wake in the mountains, friends and families would file into the home of the deceased from the coal mines, the farms and the factories to pay their respects, and then gathered in the kitchen for sandwiches and coffee. A country wake in the mountains might last days as opposed to what was then the normal practice of a two-night maximum at our funeral home on the other side of the state. In our town, my father was responsible for turning the tide in the length of visitations by encouraging people to sit for one night instead of two. Even though he was heavy on the charm, I’m not sure how he managed that, come to think of it.
I remember only one family that chose to hold a home wake instead of settling down in one of the dark, cool rooms in our funeral parlour. There may have been a few more, but it was very rare by the time I came along. I thought it would require less work for my father, but instead, there seemed to be an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing and detailed organization. The phone rang constantly with calls from the townspeople who were unused to home wakes. Aggravated and confused, ‘Where the hell is he, Frank?’ It came to that.
Mr. Watson died of a heart attack at a frightfully young age. Not yet fifty the day he fell to the floor in a silent heap, our community was shocked by the news. First, my father collected him, brought him to the funeral home and prepared him, then carted him back to his home. The Watsons (not their real name) lived just up the street from us, but my father couldn’t exactly wheel him across Main Street, so the hearse was employed to transport Mr. Watson back and forth. After he was laid out in his living room in a casket, the Watson’s home was open for visitation for a few days until the funeral. During the unusually long wake I pestered my father with questions. Why so young? Why no warning? What is heart disease? And most doggedly, why wasn’t he here with us? Mr. Watson’s family wanted him near, he told me. Couldn’t bear to part with him, not yet.
Because he was fairly well known and suffered a particularly tragic death, Mr. Watson’s family decided to hold the funeral service in the church, a space large enough to deal with the overflow. My father drove to their house once again to transport him to the church, also on Main Street, and then, finally, to the cemetery.
Mr. Watson was the father of a girl who was only a year younger than me and this made his death more memorable to me than his age, or his home wake. She and her older sister were father-less before they graduated high school. After Mr. Watson was buried, the grief took hold of them like a grief I’d never seen.
Mrs. Watson and her daughters were always late to church on Sunday mornings. No matter what time they arrived for the service, they walked the long aisle all the way down to the front, everyone’s eyes upon them, and sat in the second row from the front, which was always, without fail, empty.
When our hell fire and damnation preacher got going, the three females huddled closely together. They inched towards each other, leaving a long empty space at both ends of the pew. Then my friend placed her head on her mother’s shoulder and soon her little body trembled. The shiver turned into silent convulsions. The harder she tried not to make a sound, the more violently her body shook. She remained silent and animated, lost in her grief throughout the service. Their Sunday ritual did not end in just a few weeks; their grief rode them for a very long time.
Both of Mr. Watson’s daughters were brilliant and eventually thrived…until one day the girl who was my friend fell to the floor in a silent heap. Dead. Heart attack. Before she was fifty.
Funerals used to be so simple. They were never called a Celebration of Life, or a memorial service. Just funerals. Tom’s funeral. Jane’s funeral. As a child I never said, "You can’t come over to play today because we’re having a celebration of Mr. Slater’s life."
It never looked like a celebration and it never sounded like a celebration.
In 1888, when the successful novelist and phenomenal social reformist Mary Ward buried her mother in the Lake District, she called upon a group in Ambleside ‘who form a little society for performing music at funerals’ to play a hymn, some organ music and the ‘Death March’. She thought the ceremony was beautiful, simple and peaceful.
For the sixteen years I lived in our funeral home the soft tones of the Hammond organ rose above the quiet chatter and hypnotized me and whatever audience the day brought. From that efficient music box poured the notes of one hymn after another.
Our town was seeped in religion. A plethora of Southern Baptist churches outnumbered the one Presbyterian, the one Catholic, and the one Episcopalian church and thus defined the region.
Holy Roller churches and their glittery loud services sprang up overnight.
Tent revivals dotted the fields in the summer.
I always thought it might be nice to change the repertoire. I wondered how my father would have reacted if a widow insisted that he use Chattanooga Choo Choo to open the service because it was her husband’s favourite. Or, could he substitute That Old Black Magic for The Old Rugged Cross? But there was no chance that a funeral service in our town would host anything other than a hymn played simply.
The melodies of How Great Thou Art, Shall We Gather at the River and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder were played on the smooth keys of that organ over and over… And over. So I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for a certain numbness that washed over me when after a few years I no longer heard them. They remained in the background like a ghost sound and one refrain dissolved into another, into another.
When I moved away, returning only for short spurts, then not at all, the world changed and funerals and their music changed with it.
In 2006 a survey of five thousand Britains revealed their vote for the year’s
Top 10 Requested Funeral Songs:
Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt
Angels - Robbie Williams
I’ve Had the Time of My Life - Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
Wind Beneath My Wings - Bette Midler
Pie Jesu - Requiem
Candle in the Wind - Elton John
With or Without You - U2
Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
Every Breath You Take - The Police
Unchained Melody - Righteous Brothers
Moving right along to the
Top Country Funeral Songs of 2011
Dancing with the Angels - Monk and Neagel
Angels Among Us - Alabama
I Can Only Imagine - Mercy Me
There You’ll Be - Faith Hill
When I Get Where I’m Going - Brad Paisley
Go Rest High on that Mountain - Vince Gill
Daddy’s Hands - Holly Dunn
Holes in the Floor of Heaven - Steve Wariner
If I Had Only Known - Reba McEntire
My Wish - Rascal Flatts
‘Glee’ Season 2 Episode 21, Funeral Song List
Try A Little Tenderness - Otis Redding
My Man – Barbra Streisand
Pure Imagination - from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Some People - Gypsy
Back to Black - Amy Winehouse Death makes its own music.
Once a piece of music is heard at a funeral, whatever the tune may be, is it ever heard in quite the same way again?
“She’s the one with the bun who looks like a grandma,” said the manicurist of the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan. The jaded employees of the grand hotel barely noticed the train of celebrities who normally paraded through reception and they were blasé about the international heads of states who’d slept there. But when Pauline Tabor waddled in on a bright March day, the manicurist and bellhop bounded up the stairs to catch a glimpse of one of the South’s most famous madams.
Pauline’s story began sixty-eight years before her trip to New York. Roughly thirty miles north of the small community where we lived in my father’s funeral home, a two-lane road stretched past tobacco farms, cow pastures, a slew of churches, and the surviving buildings that the Shakers once owned, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, a sleepy little university town.
Pauline was born to strict church-going parents in 1905. They made sure her virginity remained intact until her marriage at the age of 18 to a rogue who gave her two sons and nothing more except headaches and heartache from his carousing. Soon she was a divorced woman, a Sunday school teacher no less, with no means of support. She and her two children moved back into her childhood home. With her parents’ business swiftly failing thanks to the trickle down effect of the 1929 stock market crash, Pauline needed to contribute.
She knocked on the doors of the few commercial streets in Bowling Green, but faced the prospect of no work as the Great Depression deepened. She tried door-to-door selling, but housewives tried to steal her merchandise, dogs bit her, lonely men at home propositioned her, and the commission checks were always late.
With the help of an older man with whom she had a longstanding platonic relationship, she found her way to Louisville, Kentucky where she worked in a tobacco company until she was stricken with typhoid. For six months she languished and recovered so slowly that she had to call upon her parents to take her back to Bowling Green. Due to “damaged glands” she ballooned to two hundred and fifteen pounds, (15 5/14 stone) a burden upon her 5-foot, 6-inch frame.
Almost penniless, again Pauline slogged along with samples of cosmetics and silk stockings to the doors of Bowling Green’s residents. One day while tired and hungry she decided to treat herself to lunch in a downtown hotel. After she dined, the bellhop slipped her a note from a gentleman who had noticed her arrival. Pauline met him in his room and asked him for ten dollars. He responded, “Honey, I don’t want to buy you. I just want to rent you for a while. Five bucks and nothing more.” The deal was agreed and thirty minutes later she left the hotel “not feeling a bit unclean or guilty” and realized there was money to be made.
Miss May, the madam of a brothel in Clarksville, Tennessee kindly gave Pauline a two day crash course in whorehouse etiquette, health and safety, and how and when to grease palms of the people who ran the town. In addition, for the very short time Pauline remained a prostitute, Miss May taught her how to attract men in spite of her girth and lack of beauty.
Bad luck followed her in her first attempts to set up a brothel. One house was destroyed by fire, another by a flood from which she was rescued by a man who floated by her house in a raft. Finally, in 1944 she settled into her most famous home, a red brick house on Clay Street located daringly close to downtown Bowling Green.
When the house opened at six o’clock each evening Pauline expected routine. She inspected the girls’ grooming, cranked up the jukebox and opened the door. She required the girls to be flirtatious, seductive and to attract as many men as possible. If any one of the girls couldn’t muster enough bravado on a regular basis, she was out.
The turnover for each client was about twenty to thirty minutes. Money was collected first and stored safely away. The prostitute then carefully washed the man with soap and water. A certain amount of foreplay was included, the job was performed, the girl washed the man again, and herself, then they both dressed and went back downstairs.
A prostitute could service two to three men an hour. On busy nights, and most of them were, she could turn twenty to thirty tricks. When moralists accused prostitutes of being lazy, Pauline responded with, “Try working a twelve-hour shift in a busy house sometime.” No matter how busy the evening, Pauline knew exactly how much she was due. She split the proceeds fifty-fifty with each girl and any who tried to cheat her were swiftly kicked out the door, no second chances.
Every man who appeared at her door was screened before they entered and before they left. She measured drunkenness, meanness and mental illness; apparently she could tell by the look in their eyes. She owned revolvers and shotguns and threatened a deserving man if he was unarmed. If he was carrying and robbed her, she waited until he was in his car, then shot up his car aiming to damage.
Her clients were millionaires, politicians, policemen, lawmakers, teachers from the university, students and countless husbands whose marriages Pauline is certain she saved. One of her clients was known as the Peeping Tom Judge who paid Pauline for wardrobe space. For two years one of the prostitutes agreed to let him spy on her while he sat folded up in the chifforobe. One night, in a moment of excitement, he almost fell out. Pauline was furious and revoked his privilege forever.
Pauline’s girls were given beautiful clothes, health checks once a week and allowed one week off a month as long as they didn’t flaunt or haunt the downtown area. They were housewives looking to earn enough to feed their children, students paying their way through college, women earning seed money to set up legitimate businesses, and beauties from all corners of the South. Her rules included no lesbians, because in her experience they were jealous and fought too much, and no falling in love with clients. She offered personal advice, foremost of which was to make as much money as quickly as possible, save it, and then get out of the business before it was too late, before they became too old and the job “damaged their souls”. She was a strong advocate for legalizing and regulating prostitution.
Pregnancies occurred no matter the diligence in preventing them. Pauline’s best and most trusted abortionist was a black woman who used a bit of proper medicine, but relied most heavily on the folk cures handed down to her from her ancestors who were slaves.
Pauline was perhaps the only madam of her era who was required to end a strike of prostitutes. She hired a new girl who was homely. This flat-chested woman braided her hair in long plaits, and did nothing to hide her freckles, relying instead on a clean, scrubbed look. She felt that to compete with Pauline’s beautiful and seductive women she had to maximize her Lolita image. Customers flocked to her and virtually ignored the others. The girls went on strike until Pauline fired the woman to keep the peace.
Pauline particularly enjoyed the wealthy and lusty oilmen who reserved the house for a couple of days when they were in town. They spent freely and enjoyed themselves, unlike the politicians of which she said ‘didn’t know how to have a good time’. She allowed a few customers to fulfil their desire to be whipped and closed the house to other clients during marathon nights of screaming. A well-known Kentucky horse trainer requested an evening of horseplay, tied to the bedposts. At his command, he was whipped into such a violent frenzy that he broke free. When he got out of hand Pauline ran in and smashed him over the head with a heavy water pitcher. She charged him a fortune.
The madam indulged her love of antiques and decorated with Tiffany lamps, chandeliers, Gallé cameo glass and heavy ornate furniture. Her most valuable piece was a cabinet made by two brothers in Ohio County, KY in the mid 1700’s. Her beautiful bedrooms were always freshly wallpapered, every room a different colour and each room was meticulously colour coordinated, including the sheets. She created lush lawns and gardens. In the 1970s her antiques were valued at $500,000.
So it was all good, dirty fun and games. No. Not quite. You can’t run a notorious house of prostitution in the town in which you were born without tears and suffering. Bowling Green was only about 20,000 people strong in the 1940s. Downtown was merely more than a pretty park square with a smattering of shops lining a few blocks. Any friendships from her childhood, marriage, or life as a young woman were over. Her sons were sent to their grandparents for extended stays and suffered ridicule and embarrassment. Pauline Tabor couldn’t walk down the street without people pointing, staring, hissing and being subjected to punishing remarks from the group she called the ”Holy Joes”.
Money helped. When the hypocrites came to her in secret and asked for cash handouts she never rebuked them. Her charity knew no colour boundaries. Black families were grateful for the food, clothing and toys she provided at Christmas. Her own family members were not shy of asking favours. “When I first when into the business I would meet some of my family on the street and they would duck into a door to keep from speaking to me. But when I started making a little money they would go out of their way to see how sweet they could say, ‘Hi Pauline’. That’s when I started ducking in doors.”
Pauline retired a wealthy woman in 1968. She bought a 148-acre farm and became one of the nation’s first organic farmers. She even married again for a short time and after his death said that her bookmaker husband was “marvellous” and spoiled her.
Law enforcement and Holy Joes had tried to run her out of business for ages, but it was urban renewal that tore down the red brick house. When Pauline found out that a few men were selling the bricks, her anger led her to action. “If a couple of shrewdies figure to make a killing on the bricks of my house, by God I’ll not be upstaged. I’ll tell stories that bricks can’t voice.”
She did just that in her book, PAULINE’S – MEMOIRS OF THE MADAM ON CLAY STREET. She never named names, but told the truth, sometimes brutally, in a jolly and entertaining voice. The book was published in 1971 in a regular hardback edition. Also published was a special numbered edition covered in red velvet and enhanced with a brass lock and key. Years later I found a dusty old copy of the velvet book and read it in one sitting, drop-jawed and blushing.
After the publication of her book, the producers of The Dick Cavett Show flew Pauline to New York for an appearance on his nation wide television show. The staff at the St. Regis said she wasn’t famous - she was infamous. The producers settled her now 240 pound frame in a rocking chair, which suggested to the audience that a sweet old grandmother was going to entertain them with a few homespun tales of the South. Imagine the crew's, guests' and television audience’s reactions when Pauline frankly and explicitly described her forty-year career as a madam.
If there was one thing my father taught me it was that it doesn’t matter how big your life has been, or how small, how celebrated, or quiet. It comes to this.