Uncle Leroy Was a Country Singer

Leroy Lane in the center, standing, holding packages.

Uncle Leroy died in January 1972. I was 4 years old, and would not turn 5 till November that year.

That surprised me when I looked up his obituary. I have always remembered him so clearly, I forgot just how young I was. He was tall with narrow shoulders and he walked with the kind of hybrid cane and crutch that has handles and elbow braces. That’s him standing in the center of the photo above, which was published in the Nashville Banner in 1957.

Uncle Leroy had a form of muscular dystrophy or he wouldn’t be in the photo, which was made at the Brentwood Country Club, some kind of Christmas charity event for MD adults and kids.

Leroy Lane kept going for as long as he could. He had four kids like his younger sister, my mom. Like my mom, he had those kids with a strongly-built, temperamental redhead for a spouse, his wife Lois. As a result of that coincidence, his kids looked more like my siblings than cousins.

I remember I loved Uncle Leroy because he and my mom were a lot alike. A unique combination of sly wit and kindness. I was still more toddler than pre-K age but I was often compared to him. It was partly us all just looking like Lanes — any photo of my maternal grandfather reveals I inherited his facial bone structure, as did mom and Uncle Leroy.

The funny thing is, Leroy and I really had a lot in common. Far more than I knew at the time. Like music. Listen to the video below.

That’s Uncle Leroy singing in his big, plain voice. If you go listen to any number of lesser-known country singers from that time — the record was pressed in 1968 — well, well, well, well-well-well, he was just about as good as any of them.

Especially considering he had a disease that affected his upper body musculature and lung capacity.

I don’t know if taking a keen interest in my family’s stories long after many firsthand sources have “gone home to Jesus” (good old Southern Protestant phrase for being dead) is a byproduct of my own aging or what. I mean, I’m sure it is to some degree, but I wouldn’t have some of these clear memories had I not always had some interest in family.

Because all families are full of stories that could inform you about yourself and your own choices.

It doesn’t help that I’ve finally read Tolstoy, who was masterful at writing about the real inner lives of people tied together by blood and marriage, and my wife and I are also into genealogy, though she is by far the expert on that subject. If anyone thinks I’m a gifted researcher, they just haven’t met her yet.

For years I felt my interest in my own family stories was self-centered, or solipsistic. And perhaps it is. I knew for a fact, too, that it was at odds with the way I relate to my family. I’m the only one who ever moved over 1,000 miles away to live, thoroughly establishing myself in another part of the country. I’m certainly the only one who has done the kinds of jobs I’ve had, especially writing and editing. I’m from a long line of men who worked with their hands, dropping out of school in 8th grade, 11th grade, getting whatever higher education they needed from the military or on the job.

Majoring in voice and focusing on classical music, I did for a time feel sheepish about my white trash background. But with age, I’ve turned around and in a way, it has become a source of pride.

I’ve also thought about how my family was full of talkers and storytellers. I inherited that impulse and channeled it into writing. No matter how loquacious I might seem, I’m outwardly kind of quiet compared to people like my late paternal grandmother, late sister, or my dad.

So, with Leroy above and with the preceding post, which was the first installment in what will be a longer (somewhat fictionalized) story about Dad’s maternal relatives, I’ve begun to tell family stories. I am, in part, doing it for myself. I’m doing it to answer questions I have been asking in some form since I could speak. Also, because the story I began in the preceding post is so in line with how I launched my writing career — with true crime — I’m trying to trace patterns through generations to try and understand how they produced me, and what in me is an echo of those people and the lives they led.

Like Uncle Leroy, a good man with ambitions who overcame some mighty challenges for as long as he could.

Sometimes, you can still find 45s of Leroy’s songs on eBay. So it cheers me up when I think about them and know he left a little legacy.

I might even sing a duet with him one day, if I can ever figure out the software.

 

Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

I’m sorry…

… my head is such an eerie place. It’s always been that way. Much of the spookiness is linked to summer. Summer is a haunted time, and always will be. Something about the leisure. The space, the hours you have to do nothing. To talk to others or remain in silence.

I run a weird Twitter account with friends, @manual_txt. Of late, I’ve begun composing odd bits of music and making sound collages for it. They are always strange, and they are incredibly fun to make. Here are two.

They are both purposefully understated and impressionistic. The latter is called “Ted’s Trance” because the quote sampled for use in the piece was from an interview with serial killer Ted Bundy, a particularly haunting and unsettling quote given the speaker and what he was talking about.

I feel like these particular pieces are leading me toward something creatively, but not 100% sure what that is yet. Whatever it is, it will be multimedia and hopefully just as spooky as can be.

Paris, 1914: a solstice gathering

The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion - Wikipedia, public domain image
The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion – Wikipedia, public domain image

At midnight on June 22, 1914, an august party of dignitaries gathered atop the Eiffel Tower to, according to the following day’s New York Times, “salute sunrise on the occasion of the Summer solstice.”

The gathering was not the first of its kind (it was the eleventh) and perhaps not of historical importance, but the famous names mentioned in the Times article imbued the account with a certain gravity.

A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)
A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)

The Times reported that attendees included astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion, who addressed the gathering. Also among the 200 or so in attendance were leading French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustave Eiffel himself, and American astronomer Percival Lowell.

The assemblage had a banquet, at some point Flammarion gave his speech and the Times reported everyone enjoyed “an ‘astronomical burlesque.'”

Then, at 3 a.m., American dancer Loïe Fuller took center stage and performed a “sunrise dance.”

Fuller, a true pioneer in dance, had left America many years before to find her fame in Europe. She became a star in Paris, and it remained her home till her death in 1928. She was a true innovator in style and lighting, famed for her “Serpentine Dance.”

Aside from newspaper accounts, there isn’t much of a record of Mme. Fuller’s appearance on the Tower that solstice, nor of how she choreographed her 1914 “sunrise” steps. This silent short from 1902 of her performing the “Serpentine” illustrates her style.

A sense of what those assembled atop the Eiffel Tower that night may have felt watching the performance can be gleaned from a  quote by her contemporary Arsène Alexandre, who described Fuller as a “marvelous dream-creature you see dancing madly in a vision swirling among her dappled veils which change ten thousand times a minute.”

As for the speaker, Camille Flammarion–he was a forerunner of the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, popularizing astronomy the best way he could at the time, through lectures as well as scientific and speculative writing. Some idea of Flammarion’s way with words can be found in the Augusta Rice Stetson translation of his novel Uranie. In Chapter 3, describing the protagonist’s fanciful flight across several other worlds, Flammarion portrayed a moment among human-like creatures with glowing eyes:

On another globe which we crossed during the night […] human eyes are so constructed as to be luminous, and shine as though some phosphorescent emanation radiated from their strange centres. A night meeting comprising a large number of these persons presents an extremely fantastic appearance, because the brilliancy, as well as the color, of the eyes changes with the different passions by which they are swayed.

Imagine that night, with a cool breeze up there above the hustle and clamor of Paris, that “marvelous dream-creature” turning wildly in her shimmering silks before the crowd. The lights of the city below like Flammarion’s fantastic night meeting of glowing eyes, watching the tower and the sky beyond. It was a moment, a pause.

June 28 was less than a week away.

[The New York Times, edition published 6/23/1914, via Newspapers.com]

Who Stole the Lipinski Stradivarius?

I frequently think I don’t want to write about crime anymore at all, then a story like this comes along. It taps into both my interest in unusual crime news and my background in music.

Frank Almond plays violin for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He plays the Lipinski Stradivarius, a historic and exceptionally valuable instrument. On Monday, January 27, Almond was leaving a performing venue at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee when he was tased and the violin stolen by two guys in a minivan.

Frank Almond’s 2012 Kickstarter page for a project named “A Violin’s Life: The ‘Lipinski’ Stradivarius” tells more about the instrument (as does the video from that page, which you can watch above):

The violin is named for the Polish virtuoso Karol Lipinski, who played on this instrument from approximately 1818 until his death in 1861. Lipinski was given the violin by a student of the legendary Giuseppe Tartini, the instrument’s first known owner. Known in his lifetime as a violinist, composer, concertmaster, and pedagogue, Lipinski associated with some of the most famous cultural figures of the time, including Franz Liszt, Nicolò Paganini (with whom he had a certain “rivalry”), and Robert Schumann, who so admired Lipinski that he dedicated his famous piano work “Carnaval” to him.

After Lipinski’s death the instrument eventually came into the Röentgen family, which included several violinists and the celebrated composer Julius Röntgen In the 20th century the violin changed hands several times, in 1962 arriving in the possession of the Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, who passed away in 1996.

Almond goes on to write that he had been playing the Lipinski since 2008. The Kickstarter was for a recording project (if you’ve watched the video above, it explains this) consisting of music that played a role in “the extraordinary history of this violin and its associations.” The project was successfully funded by July, 2012, and was featured on Kickstarter’s blog noting projects in the news.

Almond has kept the names of the violin’s owners anonymous. In this April, 2013 interview regarding the release of “A Violin’s Life,” Almond said the owners had “strong ties to Milwaukee.”

It’s hard to not wonder who the hell might steal a Stradivarius. What happened to Almond doesn’t sound like simple street robbery, either, though details are admittedly sparse. My immediate guess is the thieves knew exactly what they were after.

But as David Krajicek wrote in a 2004 New York Daily News article about another stolen–but later recovered–Stradivarius, the instrument’s unique properties along with its relative rarity (there are perhaps 500+ true Stradivariuses still in existence) make them “fetish theft objects, like the stolen Rembrandt painting that can never be openly sold.”

If someone were dumb enough to try and sell the Lipinski, how much could they get? Some sources say as little as a $1.5 million, as much as $3 million dollars.

Chances are the robbers who attacked Frank Almond haven’t put the Lipinski on Craigslist, then.

[WISN]