When composer Jeff Beal (House of Cards, Carnivale, Pollock) originally found the diary of his great grandmother Della, he and his wife Joan were bowled over by the story it told: a first-hand account of a woman who was widowed and raising six kids on a farm in the early 1900's. Something about the matter of fact way she wrote of what seemed like incredible suffering and the efficiency of her words stood out to Jeff and Joan. They thought they should do something with it musically. But they were busy raising kids and the diary was placed back in its box. Twenty years later, Jeff was commissioned to write a piece and remembered the diary. This is the story of how a young widow's life story came to be sung by a Grammy-winning soprano over 100 years later.
Welcome to Tiny Histories, the podcast that tells the big stories behind the small things. I'm your host Dacia Clay. On the show, you're going to hear true stories told by the people that they happen to. Each story revolves around a person, place or thing. Think of them kind of like historical markers in that person's life. By the way, Tiny Histories is a big endeavor run by a small crew. You can find ways to support the show and you can find out how to share your own Tiny History at tinyhistoriespodcast.com. Remember to subscribe to, rate, and review the show wherever you listen. The story you're about to hear from composer Jeff Beal is kind of a story within a story within a story.Jeff Beal:
It's a story of a young woman told from her perspective, who raised six kids on a farm in Idaho at the turn of the 20th century. Despite having been widowed--she was alone. It's also the story of how her great grandson and his wife found her diary 100 years later, and were incredibly moved by her plight. But it's also the story of how that great grandson happens to be a famous composer. He scored House of Cards, Monk, Carnivale, the movie Pollock, and how he, his wife, and a team of musicians, including a Grammy winning soprano, brought this woman's story to life. And I really dig this story because it reminds me so much of the stories about my great grandma. I have heard so much about her, she's kind of turned into a heroine to me. She raised eight kids alone during the Depression in the middle of nowhere, Texas, in a tiny house with no running water. Or maybe it was electricity--I can never remember that part. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that there are loads of similar stories of tenacious women, mama bears raising kids against enormous odds. But in this case, which is kind of unusual, we get to hear that story in her words. Here we go. This story involves some sheets of paper that fell out of a box in California about 30 years ago, or 25 years ago, we were getting ready to move. And you know, you have you have these boxes of memorabilia where you...sort of something that you never want to throw away, but they tend to get full. And in the process of packing, we were sort of, you know, looking through all these things, and they were jogging different memories. And out of this box, pop some pages that my mother had sent me. And I don't think I don't remember reading it before we sort of took them out. But they turned out to be some memoir pages of my great grandmother, Della. And I kind of knew the outlines of her story from my grandfather's point of view. But I'd never heard of it from Della's point of view. And my wife Joan, who was with me the time, she started reading these pages, and she just was struck with how Della told her story. And she said, "Wow, this could be an opera or something." And, and the story I knew from my grandfather's side, the oral history was that he and his brothers and sisters lost their father at a very young age, on a farm out in rural Idaho. So I knew the story of a young boy growing up without a father having to help out on the farm and all that sort of, what that journey would be like for a kid. But in reading the way Della, as the mother and wife of Franklin talked about this journey, it was really remarkable and special and very personal. So we sort of put them back in the box and forgot about them like you often do. You know, our son was probably a young teenager at the time and we were in the middle of life and I was busy writing other music. And about 10 years later, after we'd first seen these pages, I got a commission from an orchestra and wonderful conductor Leonard slacken St. Louis Symphony, wrote a piece to sort of commemorate his 50 years with the orchestra and I had thought of a singer I wanted to write for Hila Plitmann, who's an amazing American classical soprano. And I was searching for a text for Hila. And I was thinking about a contemporary woman, somebody like maybe Malala, or somebody from contemporary time who had a really interesting story. And Joan and I were out for a walk one day and it just popped in my mind, I said, "Hey, Joan, what about those pages that we we never did anything with? From my great grandmother." So luckily, we found them. We took them out. And we started to read through them and they were really, really wonderful. She spoken a very plain but a very beautiful voice and she talked about growing up in Indiana as a young girl. She talked about getting married and moving to Idaho. But it's really when she gets to this home that they were with their young children, that the writing and the story really took on this, this really beautiful poetic sense. So with John's help, we crafted some of these vignettes from Della's life into a libretto for what became a song cycle which we premiered with the St. Louis Symphony and, and I guess it was 2019. One of the things I loved about her way of talking was she had this sort of matter of fact, way of talking about her life, it wasn't like she never saw her as a victim. In fact, one of the things that struck me immediately about her life was the way in which life was not simple for a lot of people back then 100--this is over 100 years ago. And she described the home they lived in, in Idaho with their five children as a paper lined shack. And I just thought that was such an interesting phrase. And I named the piece "The Paper Lined Shack," and she talks about living there in the winter, in this home with the kids and how the snow would stick to their bed covers at night and they would be freezing in the morning. And [musical interlude] that was really amazing. At the time I wrote it. I didn't know that there was any sort of images of this. But after I wrote the piece, my second cousin actually found another really amazing object of family history, which is there's a photo of this house with a young girl sitting in front of it's probably my was my aunt Rosella who was the firstborn girl. And it really is, it looks like it's out of a Ken Burns, you know, Dust Bowl documentary or something, you know. In the sort of central movement when she speaks about losing her husband, she talks about her garden. And and I love it because for an agrarian sort of life, the land and watching things grow around you became it becomes sort of metaphors, and they become touchstones. And the fourth movement starts with, these are all Della's words, "Papa," that was her husband, "...made a large bed, cabbage, tomato, sweet potatoes, we had a strawberry patch, and it was beginning to have a fruit few ripe berries. We had plans for a fruitful summer. I was in the garden cutting rhubarb, a messenger boy brought me a telegram bearing the sad news of my mother's death. It was my very first sorrow. And I felt I must go to be with my father to be with my brothers, I was making plans to go, my dear husband became ill. And on the sixth of June, he too slipped away from me." And then she writes, "The sun was shining. As I looked out, the sweet peas he planted for me were blooming, the garden looked the same, but everything had changed." I mean, it's just it takes my breath away, even reading it now just the way that she was able to frame this memory. And she wrote this at the end of her life. So this is a in a way these, these lines are about the way they're about memory and about the way she was able to sort of encapsulate her feelings of a life changing event are just so beautiful. And then she continues, "No words can express how lost and helpless I felt. But life had to go on for you children. And soon I was aware that I was pregnant, and we now have six children to love and care for life had to go on." You know, it really became the mother's story. What do you do in life when when the tough stuff happens when the tragedy strikes? How do you respond to it? What is your...what is your way of looking at the universe? And how do you sort of form a form a narrative. And for della, I love the fact that her narrative became all about her children, and her motherhood became her mission. Of course, I know from the end story of this at all six, all six of those children's helped with the farm and they were all raised, all went to college. And of course, one of those became my grandfather, Harold. In the writing of this very personal song, it was it's been very fun to have them performed and we project the text and people can sort of experience the story. And I guess the one of the interesting things about this piece for me it's been in the way in which something really personal is connects with me seems to have a very universal quality, too it connects with people, and they hear themselves they see themselves in these stories. I love the fact that she documented I would imagine, like a lot of families that might have been her children and asked her to leave something behind to tell these stories. I'm guessing that that was one of the reasons I would assume from the children she raised and what they became, there was a very literate, educated experience she had. You know, it's funny because I know from my mother and her grandmother, I see in that generation they had a bigger tradition of the written word they would send letters to each other long distance. I know even my mother who grew up in Idaho, almost every week would send a letter home to her mom in Idaho this is well into the age of, you know, at least telephones certainly not the internet. But I think there was a way in which the written word at that point seemed a little more important to people in terms of the way that she documented. It's really beautiful when you see it. I mean, it's obviously hand typed down on these five or six pages. I also wonder I love the way in which memory works and the things that she chose to speak about obviously this episode but there's also a wonderful way in which is even as simple as life was that objects took on a great meaning for her. One of the early movements is about her bicycle that her father bought for her and she was basically the only daughter in a family of seven boys and her, and she talks about playing in the farm and riding in the wagon behind some goats and all these type of things but then she says at the end of the first movement, "My father's bought me a girl's bicycle, a Crawford, that cost $85. I was proud of it and rode it many miles. I was just a carefree girl." [Musical interlude.] I love the mistake she made. Obviously, she called she said it was cost $85. And there's no way in the turn of the century that a bicycle probably cost that much. But whatever she attached to that memory in terms of a dollar value is to her it was obviously priceless, was a big deal that her father bought her this this item and it gave her a sense of freedom and agency and, and ability to kind of move around and the next movement. There's another wonderful description of an object. It's called, "The Red Chair." And she writes, "My father known to you as Gross Daddy, he had a small red chair he was saving for his first granddaughter Rosella won the red chair, Rosella was the prize, as there were no girls among the grandchildren. We were very proud of her Rosella and Glen." And I just love the fact that the birth of the first granddaughter was such a magical occurrence. And this red chair of a special red chair had been saved. And she, she remembers that remembers that object. And obviously, the fact that her father saved that and gave that to her first granddaughter, you know, the way we pass on sometimes objects. But those objects themselves have a family history or a story or, ultimately an emotion, emotional content to them, that we attach to them. The musical part of me is very fascinated by musical DNA, too. You know, my other grandmother was quite musical and gave me my first two Miles Davis records came from another grandmother. Della was my great grandmother. So I obviously didn't know her very well, you know, I was a young boy. And I saw her sitting in the chair in a corner of a room with a big smile on her face. But of course, she was a mystery to me, I don't really know who she was. You know, there's a real strong sort of work ethic or determination in my family that I that I know, I got from my parents, and I know, I saw it in my grandfather. There's also something in her attitude, which inspired me, because I try to remember that and try to model that, which is this sort of lightness, in terms of dealing with the ups and downs of life. There's almost a sense of humor she has about it, you know, when she talks about this hard stuff, even before, obviously, the losing her husband was a tragedy, and she describes it such but even the hard stuff. I mean, you know, life was not simple back then. Their first house was a paper lined shack. She literally says they sat on apple boxes, where their furniture...just the idea of, of simplicity, poverty, not really being something that you obsessed over as a tragedy. It's just something that that's just the way it is and you and in a way, you almost celebrate the fact that you lived through that. It's almost a mark of pride. And I love that. You know, another really fascinating thing about the process of creating this for me was that I wrote it just before COVID. So a lot of my point of view during the writing of it was like, "Wow, life was really...we have it so easy!" is kind of what I kept on thinking, you know. Because really, if you live in the modern world, at a certain income level, life is relatively painless. You know, like you're, you're sort of insulated technology and modern medical science and the conveniences. You know, most people in the West, myself included, there's not a lot of overt hardships. So the fact that soon after writing and premiering this piece, we all live through this global event, full of loss and ache and luckily for me, not any personal tragedy, but I certainly felt the weight, as we all did, of the pandemic and the intensity of that was something that we obviously had not experienced and Della's words resonated on easily in a much more visceral way for me after that. I feel this way with every piece I write, especially if it's for live performance. There's the process when you're creating it. That's basically very internal and you're in the room, you're alone. But then something strange happens when you actually start to hear it perform, and you give it to performers. And this piece was very much that type of an experience. In the writing of it, that one of the most Many thanks to Jeff Beal for telling this story. If you want difficult things about it was to sort of musically tell the story, but not to embellish, over embellish it. Because the beauty of Della's voice is its simplicity. I often say that one of my goals in music is to be simple, but not simple minded. And that was sort of what I was trying for with this piece, to really bring out that beautiful humble, there's a humility in her inner voice that I wanted to honor. But also, you know, that doesn't mean she was an uncomplicated person. I mean, the emotional arcs of any lives are full of a lot of richness. That was that was a journey and figuring that out. Some of the language was quite poetic, like some of the lines that I read, but some of it was much less symmetrical. So there was definitely an architectural element to setting up some of the words which was... pushed me in certain ways, and that I love that I love setting text, because I've written quite a bit for chorus and singers. And I love the way that you know, there's always the question, "Do you write the lyrics of the music first?" In this case, obviously, I had the words. But often when I'm working with with, with a strong text, I almost feel like the music is somewhere buried there in the words, I just have to find it, I have to figure out what is the essence of those words, and how do they get set. But I'll never forget the first time I had Hila, come over and sing them through. And it was it was a powerful, emotional, very emotional day. She's got an amazing voice, I really wrote the songs for her instrument, which is incredible. But all the emotions that were in the piece, Hila took them to a whole nother level with what she did. And it's really been an honor to hear the songs, hear her do them. We just did them a couple times with a chamber group, and I heard her to sing them with large symphony orchestras. And she does everything from memory, which is amazing. She actually sort of creates the pieces, five songs, and she sings them from memory and moves around the stage. And she has a beautiful envelope, which she sort of uses us as an object and a prop of the telegram and these kinds of things. And I almost feel like her life is sort of brought to life through the performer. You know, it's hard to tell if this is exactly what, who she is. But her words in the story have become something become a living thing, not just a piece of history in a way because obviously, you honor you want to honor the memory and honor the words. But you also want this to be living now and feel like it resonates with the present day performer and ultimately the with the present day audience, that we can find ourselves... somehow find ourselves in the piece like this and find ourselves in these stories. You know, there's something very American about Della's story. It there's an immigrant story, you know, there's definitely a progression was a sort of westward movement from Indiana out to Idaho. When we premiered it in St. Louis and a lot of the people there had similar family stories and said, "Oh, yeah, I've got a story with my great grandfather"... or my this that you know, so I think this idea of sort of the pioneer spirit, and the hardship of settling a new land, being an immigrant. And also the idea that life, especially back then was a lot harder. Life expectancy was not what it was healthcare wasn't what it was. So life in general, childbirth was much more dangerous, all these things. I think that was a universal that everybody took away. For younger people it's funny, I just got a wonderful note from a young singer who's...she's thinking about becoming a mother. And she really connected to the piece on that level, because she realized, in seeing the words of a of a past woman, she realized the kind of journey emotional journey maybe that she's about to embark on. I guess I laugh inside a little bit when I think that Della, when she wrote these words, she never knew or thought they would be used for a libretto. I would like to think that she would be kind of tickled by it. Because I think there's something heroic about people who go through something very difficult, without ever expecting any sort of attention for that act. And this is very much one of these sort of selfless journeys of a life. And later after she lost her husband, she also took in boarders and did all sorts of things to send these kids to college. You know, there's a lot of sacrifice in that type of life. And so I liked the fact that she might be pleased by that. My second cousin Shareen, who's about my mother's age, a bit younger, was probably one of the closest of the grandchildren of Della, great grandchildren, because she was at the premiere and I felt a little bit connected to Della through her to hear more from Jeff, just like turn on Netflix, but also check out jeffbeal.com The music in this episode was from Jeff's new album "The Paper Lined Shack. Many thanks to Crossover Media--Amanda and Max!--for the music and for reaching out with this fantastic story. Check out some photos of the paper lined shack over at tinyhistoriespodcast.com.Dacia Clay:
Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Tiny Histories. We hope it got you thinking about your own stories. And if it did, we'd love to hear from you. Tell us your story at tinyhistoriespodcast.com And if you do, we might just hit you up to share your story on the podcast or in the Tiny Newsletter. You can find a link to the Tiny Newsletter, show notes and photos of our storytellers, ways to engage with us and ways to support the show at tinyhistoriespodcast.com. Tiny histories is written hosted and produced by me Dacia Clay our theme music is by the inimitable Nat Evans. To find out more about Nat go to natevansmusic.com. Tiny Histories is a production of Pillow Fort Studios.