Arthur Tracy – the Street Singer

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As the Christmas season draws to a close let’s think about good presents.  Those who follow this blog regularly will know that I currently have my 91 year old bed-ridden mother living with me.  She’s not been up to actively engaging in the Christmas process, it’s been a bit of a worry for her, and the dilemma was to know what was an appropriate Yuletide gift for her.

There was a nightdress, there was a cuddly toy (as advised by various dementia charities), there was a Selection Box, but the present that went down best was Arthur Tracey booming through the room, singing Marta.

Arthur Tracy (1899-1997) was a name that was mentioned regularly in our house in the Fifties, along with Eileen Fowler and the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, and the Girls Life Brigade (GLB).  Yes, we knew of Henry Hall and Nosmo King but it was Arthur Tracey who always brought a smile of memory to mum’s face.  If the song Marta ever came on the wireless she would say each line before he sang it, so that my sister and I could sing along with him, ‘rambling rose of the wild wood.’

So on Christmas Day, as the first notes unfolded from the iPod, a sweet smile of contentment came over mum’s face and she mouthed the words as Arthur Tracy sang them.  When it was over she sighed with pleasure and said, ‘Yes, I walked all the way from Leytonstone to the Stratford Empire to queue for an hour so that I could get a front row seat to see him.’  That would have been about 1937.

Empire Theatre, Stratford Broadway

I never really followed Arthur Tracy’s career, he’d made a few films in the 30s, and after that lived quietly in the States and out of show business.  I didn’t know he had made a sort of come-back after the film Pennies from Heaven (1981) was released (his recording of the song was used in the film), so I was quite thrilled to see him appear in the 1988, greatly underestimated movie Crossing Delancey directed by Joan Miklin Silver.  It’s a small part – Pickle Stand Customer #1, but the pickle stand is very important to the film.  It’s a lovely story and for a long time it’s not been available on DVD – I had to make do with my fading, fragile video.  But writing this piece, I just checked and the DVD is now available.  Win for my mum, win for me!

Chairman of the Board

The Showmen were a New Orleans group formed in 1961 with General Norman Johnson as lead singer.  Their best known track is It Will Stand, which was released in 1961, and re-released in 1964.   In 1968General Johnson left the band to become the lead singer of Chairmen of the Board.

So two good musical things have happened this week.  First of all Bill Greensmith from St Louis sent me a 45 of It Will Stand.  I love it.

And then on 1 January 2015 Bill was on his local radio station Radio KDHX on the Blursday programme, playing some of his favourite tracks, a lot of piano.  I didn’t know about Albert Ammons – a great piano player.  I once knew someone who had a dream that one day he would be pushed onto a stage with an enormous guitar and with his back to the audience he would start to play like Elmore James.  My own personal reverie revolves around waking up one morning, strolling over to the piano (which in my case I have not got) and turning out some wild boogie woogie rhythms.   Just like Albert Ammons.  Listen to his tunes and the other musical gems here – but hurry, you only have a few more days to catch the show.

Ban the Bomb

As soon as we were 12, mum said, we could go on the Aldermaston march.  We couldn’t go when we were younger because she didn’t want people thinking we’d been indoctrinated.  We wore the badge with pride.  We wanted to ban the H-bomb and get rid of Polaris. 

We scarcely ever thought about what happened to my mum in the air-raid in 1940.  It was just part of our family story, not extraordinary, not frightening, nor even, particularly, sad.  It just happened.

The brothers were all away in the war, Jack, Sid, Don and Alec.  Mum was 16, she with all her sisters and their mum and dad went to their Auntie Eva’s in Woodford one night for a bath.  They had to go, because Leytonstone, where they lived, had been bombed and the water mains had been damaged so there was no running water, but Woodford was quiet and they could go there for a wash.  And their mum didn’t like the bombs, didn’t like haring down to the Anderson shelter in the garden, or the tube station.  Aunt Eva said, nothing happens in Woodford.

That night the girls had their baths, all using the same water which got cold and grey and milky with soap and dirt, then their mum, and lastly their dad.  Then they prepared for bed.  Everyone slept downstairs during the Blitz, even in Woodford, just in case.  My grandfather got the settee in the scullery.  All the others were in the living room.  My mum wouldn’t sleep on the mattresses with the rest of them, they said she tossed and turned too much.  My grandmother said mum could sleep on the settee with her, but mum said, no, she wanted the armchairs.  Mum got the two armchairs and my grandmother and my Aunt Honor took the settee.  They all settled down, the others complaining that the floor was hard and how come my mum had got  the chairs, my grandmother switched off the light and they all fell asleep. 

At about two in the morning the bomb dropped. Just one in Woodford.  Nobody knew why, they didn’t know if it was a young bored bomber, who’d missed his proper target but didn’t want to miss out on the fun, or if it was an airman anxious to be home, thinking about his own family, thinking it would do less harm here than in the centre, or did the pilot simply see the nearby railway line and think any target was better than none?  It was a direct hit.  The house fell down on top of them all. 

They had to be dug out.  The ARP people had been told that there were only two occupants, the old lady and her daughter, but they just kept coming, my Auntie Vera, Auntie Rita, Auntie Sheila, Auntie Iris, Auntie Beryl, my mum, all dazed, confused but unharmed – and then the bodies.  Aunt Eva had been killed, my Aunt Honor, my mum’s oldest sister, and their dad. Then they brought out my grandmother, eased her gently from the settee.  She was alive and there was scarcely a mark on her, but she died the next day.

They were all split up, the sisters, Rita and Sheila went to Kent where Alec was stationed, Vera and mum went to Enfield, Beryl went to relatives, and Auntie Iris moved to Chelmsford, but she argued with her flatmate and got lonely so Vera and my mum moved down to be with her.  Then the girls in Kent didn’t want to be left out so they came up to Chelmsford too.  One day Vera went to see Beryl and brought her back. 

When my Uncle Don came home to Leytonstone from the war he didn’t know where they were.  The house was still standing but no-one was home.  Eventually he took the journey to Chelmsford too.

Read more in A Sense of Occasion – the Chelmsford Stories On sale NOW!