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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Lovin' Spoonful: A troubadour's journey leads her back home

Not long before I moved back to Natchez from Los Angeles, I kept hearing about this fellow, Jack Kelly. It seemed as though his name was on everybody’s lips, and I thought he must be quite popular.

So imagine my surprise when I was introduced to Jack—late fiftyish; five foot, one; a stylishly coiffed mass of red curls; and a set of green, Irish eyes that twinkled with intelligence and the kind of seasoned humor that hinted at a life filled with joy and pain and everything in between.

“How do you do?” she asked, smiling, her eyes searching mine for an honest answer.

Yes, you heard right. I’ve never met a boy named Sue but I’ve met a girl named Jack. We were waiting to hear a band play at The Corner in Natchez. I was married at the time, and my husband had been invited to play saxophone. The band started up and we listened and chatted awhile. I learned she was a Natchez native who had recently returned home after an extended absence—something I was longing to do, myself.

As we talked, a tune began playing and Jack hopped off her stool and ran over to the band, pulling on what looked like a medieval knight’s armor. Suddenly, she had a set of spoons and was scraping them across that “armor”—a kind of refashioned washboard, making the most incredible sounds. It was almost like a rapper spinning a vinyl, only earthier, more low-tech. The music took on a whole new dimension with Jack punctuating the beat the way drums and snares simply couldn’t. A smile spanned her face; her eyes invited you to dance.

“Wow,” I gushed. “I had no idea you could make that kind of sound with a washboard. You’re really good.”

“Thank you,” she replied.  Then she tilted her head, her eyes focused on some distant memory, and said, “Yes, I feel as though I finally have credibility as a musician in my own right.”

And I could tell from her reply that it had been a journey. I was right.

Music played a part in Jack’s life from the start, with jam sessions at home between her father, a saxophonist; his sisters, all pianists; and one of his brothers, also a saxophonist.

She was nine when she experienced her own musical epiphany. One night, her big sister, Jemmy Sue, who’d been assigned babysitting duties, dragged little Jackie along to a party in town. On an upstairs back-porch veranda, Mississippi Blues legend Papa George played the guitar and harmonica, and sang the Blues. A man pulled up a chair and put a washboard on his knee and started scratching it with a brush.

“And I saw my future,” she said.

She got her own washboard and experimented with different techniques—thimbles on her fingers, bottle caps, wire whisks. She finally settled on spoons.

After she’d finished school, life took Jack through nine states, three marriages and three careers, during which time music fell to the wayside.

In 1987, she moved to New England, where she earned a master’s degree in communications and became a writer for corporate public relations.

And then in 1987 while she was living in New England, music reentered her life.

“Every year they had the Great Connecticut Traditional Jazz Festival. I worked as a volunteer so I could hear the music.”

One night after several years as a volunteer, she finally mustered the courage to sit in on a jam session.

“I pulled out my little washboard and my heart was beating, like, 50,000 miles an hour. I got onstage and I was the only washboard. There was a piano player and a horn. Oh, my God…and it was Dixieland jazz. And I just played my little washboard like nobody was looking and the crowd roared. It was great!”

It was also in Connecticut where she saw her first frottoir —the washboard worn over the shoulders like an apron. Clifton Chenier, the king of Zydeco, had come to play with his Red Hot Louisiana Band. Chenier invented and designed the frottoir (Cajun for musical rub board). He drew a picture of it in the dirt and asked a metalworker if he could make one for him. According to the Smithsonian Institute, it is the only musical instrument ever invented in America.

“I knew I had to have one,” she said. “But nobody had ever heard of it.”

She finally found a welder in Louisiana to make one for her. That’s when she became a troubadour, sitting in with Reggae and other bands on the weekends. Sometimes they let her and sometimes not, but she wasn’t afraid of rejection.

“There’s nothing more joyful than when you jump up onstage and you’re playing, and you look around and the musicians are giving you a thumbs up. When you get endorsed by fellow musicians, you’ve made it.”

When she turned fifty, she took a rainbow buyout from her company, divorced, and decided to go see her parents in Mississippi. And she finally found home.

“I got here on a weekend, a Friday. I stopped in Washington [Mississippi, just north of Natchez] to get some gas, and I walked in to pay for it and somebody said, ‘You’re one of the Garraway girls.’  I’d been gone thirty years. It started happening everywhere I went. I knew I was home.

“I’ve lived all over the place. Nine states. DC, Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana…”  Her voice trails off.  “Everywhere I went I’d go on a trip and get back home and it never felt like, ‘Ahh.  I’m home now.’ Until I got back to Natchez.”

She hadn’t been home a full weekend when someone told her about the Under-the-Hill Saloon.

“When I left town, people didn’t go Under the Hill. The Blue Cat had been shut down. It was a no-no.”

It was a Sunday evening. Her face lights up at the memory.

“It was packed with old and young and rich and poor and black and white and gay and straight and foreigners and locals,” her voice rising in crescendo.  “And there was a Blues band playing!

“And I thought why did I stay away so long? I’d never gotten that anywhere. Not the Blues. Not that diverse crowd.

“And people were dancing where they were standing. Oh, God,” she said. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Through her sister, Jemmy Sue, she found a Reggae band in Baton Rouge—Henry Turner, Jr. He invited her to sit in. After Katrina, he called and asked if she’d join the band as a paid member.

“I’m now hugging sixty. So here I am. These young, black men with their dreadlocks, and this little white lady.”

A year after Katrina, they performed a showcase on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans during the Cutting Edge Music Trade Show. A scout from Jazz Fest was there, and four or five months later they were invited to play the 2007 New Orleans Jazz Festival.

She played at The House of Blues in New Orleans in the year 2000, when she snuck up onto the stage and started playing. The crowd went crazy. The band noticed it and turned around. When the song was over she ran off the stage, but the band came back and got her and brought her back out.

This year she played onstage at the Natchez Balloon Festival with Terence Simian & the Zydeco Experience, who won an Oscar for the music in Disney's animated film, The Princess and the Frog.

“I stood by his washboard player and we jammed together,” she recalls. “You know, washboards are kind of like the stepchildren of music. I think we’re coming into our own. But we take a lot of backtalk.”

I thought back to that first meeting when she talked about becoming a musician in her own right, and I began to understand what she meant.

“But it’s a down-home, informal thing,” she says, adding that she’s always wanted to form a jug band.

“It’s a fun thing. You can’t take it too seriously.”

She also has a clave, a cabasa, and a tambourine.

“I bring them and put them out so the audience will feel free to pick them up and join in.

“One of the most fun things is when I jump off the stage and little girls want to come up and play it. If only one kid could find more joy in their life, and saw it, you know, and said, ‘There’s something I can do,’ wouldn’t that be cool?

“And let’s don’t say that just because we’ve turned fifty, it doesn’t mean we can’t still be in a traveling band.”  She cackles, delighted.

“I’ve come full circle,” she says at last. “In March of 2007 I decided to quit drinking. It was the best decision of my life. In my first year of sobriety I played at the Jazz Festival and the Balloon Festival. It was a highlight of my life.

“I had a lot of failures in my life, in love. I didn’t get lucky in love. Now that I’m sober, I know I brought every damned bit of it on myself. But now I’m just happy to be home.”

Having found my anchor here, myself, I know just how she feels.  Joyful.

Story and 1 photo by Elodie Pritchartt © 2011