In 2009, I went to Christmas at Pete and Toshi Seeger’s place in Beacon, New York. At one point, someone there came up to me and asked how I came to be at this intimate Christmas gathering. Toshi happened to be standing nearby and said, “Don’t you go asking questions like that. Annabel’s aunt was my best friend.” My aunt was the musician and musicologist Hally Wood. And, though she’d died in 1989, Toshi still remembered Hally as her best friend twenty years later.
In 2015, there was an exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York called “Folk City,” and in that exhibit there was a photo portrait of Hally taken by Dave Gahr wearing this sweater I’m wearing tonight, a sweater made by my mother.
Yesterday, on the phone with my 97-year-old father, I told him I would be talking about Hally tonight for 10 minutes. He asked how it was possible to talk about her for less than 2 hours.
Harriet Elizabeth Wood, Hally for short, was my mother’s older sister. Hally had a profound influence on me becoming the person I am. She taught me a lot. For instance, even if you didn’t have a second to dress properly for the occasion, say the arrival of a UPS driver or surprise guests for tea, you should always put a little color on your lips to appear civilized, even in pajamas. And she was a great one for pajamas, nightgowns and caftans. Her most frequent gifts to me, even at a young age, were very feminine, often racy, negligees. She wore fabulous clothes that she sewed herself from French designers’ patterns in lavish silks and diaphanous chiffons or Indian cotton prints with elephants or madras plaid or paisley of the kind we used to fin
d at Azuma. And she made her husband’s tailored shirts with hand-sewn buttonholes and precise cuffs, collars and pockets. She taught me early about life in the real world. She had lesbian friends, including the influential lawyer and activist Flo Kennedy, whom I got to know when I was young, and she herself was bisexual.
She and her sisters had been raised attending strict High Church Episcopalian girls’ schools where Latin was taught. She corrected my grammar when I spoke and corrected the grammar and use of italics and spelling in my letters during our many years of correspondence. We had twin IBM Executive typewriters where the capital M took 6 units of space and a comma took one and all the letters fell in between: the beginning of my education as a typesetter.
Hally was a musician all her life. Her father, Cyrus Boynton Wood, was a doctor and researcher in tropical diseases in the army. He taught his daughters piano, organ and guitar. The instrument he enjoyed most himself was the accordion. Hally majored in voice and musicology at the University of Texas.
In Austin she worked with John A. and his son Alan Lomax who were collecting music from people who lived in remote areas of Texas, the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia. Hally went out on field recording sessions learning songs that had been passed down through oral tradition and recorded them for the Library of Congress and the Lomax archive. And years later she transcribed music that they had collected as well. That archive—the Association for Cultural Equity—and its vast website include recordings of music and dance from all parts of the world.
My aunt Hally’s first marriage was to John Henry Faulk, a rights lawyer in Austin, Texas. They had a daughter: Cynthia Tannehill Faulk. When Hally came to New York in 1947, she lived with Toshi Seeger’s parents, the Ohta family, on MacDougal Street.
Some of the people she sang with in New York and whom I met were Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Jeanie Ritchie, Hazel Dickens, Lee Hays and Libba Cotton. Her principal instrument was her voice, however she was an excellent banjo player and played guitar and dulcimer as well. She researched and transcribed a couple of songbooks of the music of Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter), two books of Woody Guthrie’s songs, a book of music by Townes Van Zandt and she transcribed and was co-author of The New Lost City Ramblers songbook. She also collaborated with a professor from the University of California on a four-volume collection of the Child Ballads.
One of Hally’s solo albums was produced for Elektra Records by Jac Holzman. Another was recorded on Stinson Records in Texas. She was a member of The Skifflers who recorded on Columbia Records and appeared on The Today Show a couple of times. And she sang on an album called Songs for Political Action. She sang in many concerts in New York and in other cities, including a concert at Carnegie Hall where she appeared with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and others.
Many of these musicians, herself included, were accused of being communists by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by Senator Joe McCarthy and they were blacklisted. After that my aunt couldn’t get the kind of jobs she’d had to support herself before, such as singing advertising jingles for products like laundry detergent on the radio.
In New York, she married her second husband Lou Gordon, a labor organizer who had been a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.
Then in the late fifties, Hally married her third husband, Robert Clarence Stephenson, who was 30 years older than her and 60 years older than me. Everyone called him Sing. At first, they lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. They traveled to Paris and to Russia where they visited Yasnaya Polyana, the restored home of Lev Tolstoy. My uncle Sing read War and Peace every year in the original Russian. Hally brought me back from Paris a tiny, thimble-sized wooden box of Molinard concrete perfume that still smells intoxicating.
During my teen-aged years they moved to Puerto Rico where Sing was offered a position in the English department at the university in Rio Piedras. She bought a London taxi, the old kind very low to the ground with the enormous back seat and doors that opened very wide so Sing, who was very tall and had a wooden leg, could get in and out easily. It was a trip sitting on the wrong side in the driver’s seat driving that thing on the roads in Puerto Rico. Sing didn’t spend much time on the campus, he spent most of his time at home in bed, reading and translating and telling stories, with the German shepherd beside him and his wooden leg leaning against the side of the bed.
In 1960 Alan Lomax went down to Puerto Rico and recorded Hally singing 29 of the songs she had collected and those are part of the Association for Cultural Equity archive online. I lived on a 30-foot wooden sailboat with no engine as her neighbor, anchored out in Fajardo and other harbors for about a year. One experience we had during that year was when a very large ship, maybe 80 feet long, came into the harbor in San Juan and stayed a while. The ship was a tall brigantine called Tangaroa. It had sailed from Europe and required a crew to hoist the square sails. One of the crew members was a young man who’d grown up on a farm in England. He had learned to sail on a river. I brought him to Hally’s house on the “Finca,” the faculty housing for the university. We ate a marvelous meal she and I cooked together and then sat outside on the patio playing music. Soon we discovered that he knew variations of songs that we were singing. He’d grown up in a very isolated region that had an oral tradition for music. He was singing versions of Child Ballads, the same Elizabethan songs that had ended up in Appalachia. He was as amazed as we were. We sang songs for hours: “What about this? Does this sound familiar? That reminds me of this other one,” and on and on like that. That night was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.
In the mid-seventies, Sing moved back to Austin to live out his last years with his first wife. Hally moved up to Lakewood, Colorado to live with her college sweetheart Nell. Nell had a veterinary hospital and I stayed with them a couple of summers, worked for Nell, they loaned me a little red Toyota pickup and I attended Naropa in nearby Boulder.
When Hally left Nell she moved to Houston where she lived with her mother Irene until her mother died at 98 in 1981. We visited back and forth quite a few times during those years until she died in July of 1989.
My own musical training began when my parents sent me to piano lessons when I was five years old. Those lessons in theory and practice continued through my teenaged years. I took up guitar and played clarinet and bass clarinet in the school band, and for a brief time I studied and played a drum kit as well. Later I played with various other musicians, however I’ll have to tell you about that another time since time is short here.
This guitar I play is an Epiphone. You’ll notice it has a particularly slender neck, suitable for the size of my left hand. It was chosen for me by my aunt Hally and my bluegrass guitar teacher in the late sixties: Roger Sprung. To this day, when I look at my hands, I see Hally’s hands. And my feet too, especially when I’ve got my Indian toe sandals on. When I was first born, my father looked at my hands and said, “Those are Hally’s hands.” We’ve got some resemblances that are a lot more than skin deep though too.
Out of the legacy of many songs I learned from Hally, there are a couple of musicians I particularly love. My aunt learned their songs directly from these people. One is Cousin Emmy, from Viper, Kentucky. Let me give you a little taste of her tune Single Girl.
When I was single
Marrying was my crave
Now I am married
I’m troubled to my grave
Oooooooooo I wish I was a single girl again.
When I was single
Ate biscuits and pie
Now I am married
It’s eat cornbread or die
Ooooooooo I wish I was a single girl again.
Another is Vera Hall, from Paynesville, Alabama. Here’s a bit of a work song from her. [Boll Weevil]
Hey hey boll weevil
Where is your nated home
Way down in the bottom
Among the cotton and corn.
Well the farmer asked the merchant
For some meat and meal
Ain’t nothing doing old man
Boll weevil’s in your field
Boll weevil’s in your field
Ain’t nothing doing old man
Boll weevil’s in your field.
And seeing as how Miss Ellie over there and I are going to be singing a little Double Yews for you [Double Yews named thus because my birthday is the same as William Carlos Williams and Hank Williams], it wouldn’t be right if I left out Ken Kesey, whose birthday is the same as mine, and his great novel of the Stamper clan: Sometimes a Great Notion. This is one of Lead Belly’s songs.
Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I get a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
[Sing that verse of Good Night Irene then ask the audience to sing along for the chorus.]
Good night Irene
Good night Irene,
Good night Irene, good night Irene,
I’ll kiss you in my dreams