A song can change everything. At a crucial point in childhood, an Oklahoma pastor and his wife introduced my brother and me to new thinking about what was and wasn’t a sin, and the lesson came with a Broadway soundtrack.
Sayre was a convenient stop on Route 66 between our revivals in Amarillo and Oklahoma City. When we were there we didn’t stay in a motor court, the way we usually did. There was plenty of room for all of us in the Franks’ farmhouse just outside of town.
It was a big old house, once filled with their kids, now all grown and gone. Nothing inside was new, but it was spotless and every possible surface was covered with handmade doilies, starched and ironed. A lace runner decorated the top of the old upright piano in the front room. There was often a vase of flowers up there too. A house like that which once sheltered a large family needs a big dining table and they had one covered in embroidered tablecloths, so many different tablecloths you could change them every day if you wanted. After supper, Sister Franks let me decide which cloth to put on for tomorrow.
I memorized everything; comfortable upholstered furniture, lace curtains at the windows, soft faded rugs on the floor, family photographs everywhere, fragrance of cookies just baked and a hint of dinner to come from the kitchen. It may have been much like other homes up and down the roads leading into that small town, but it was unique to Leslie Ray and me, a revelation to young travelers on The Glory Road.
I was 8 and had been singing with our family since my debut on the radio at age 3. Leslie was 10 and about ready to refuse to sing anymore. He moped at every stop in every town until someone handed him a fishing pole and pointed him toward a creek or a lake or a stream. Anyplace would do so long as he could be up and gone at sunrise.
When Daddy was a pastor and we lived in a parsonage, Mother’s sheet music was stacked on top of the piano. Every knock at the door required hiding the music, the songs Daddy considered worldly. He didn’t want church people to hear Mother playing and singing that kind of music because he said all talent must be devoted to Jesus. At the Franks’ home the sheet music was right up there on the music rack where everyone could see it.
Sister Franks was a wispy little thing. Her worn piano bench easily held one older church lady and a skinny gospel gypsy. We two sat there for hours. She seemed to own all the sheet music to every popular song. She nodded when it was time for me to turn the page for her.
“Nita Faye, are you learning to read music?”
“No ma’m. Not yet. But Daddy does and Mother does some and Leslie Ray’s taking piano.”
“Well I think it’s just wonderful, you and your parents singing together the way you do.”
“Daddy says if he had any kids who couldn’t sing, he’d have to send them back.”
She laughed and laughed. I was thrilled she enjoyed my joke. My only joke. Well, Daddy’s joke really, and always well received by church people.
She played while we talked. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” I hadn’t heard it before. She explained it was based on music by Chopin. I hadn’t heard that name before either. Then she changed the mood and the style and the tempo and asked,
“Do you know this one?”
“I heard it on the radio.”
It’s “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” It’s from a Broadway show called “Oklahoma.”
“You and Brother Franks go to the show? Picture shows are a sin.”
“Broadway’s not a picture show. It’s a place in New York City where people put on plays and sing and dance.”
“Dancing’s a sin.”
“Not that kind of dancing. They don’t hold onto each other. They just dance around on the stage is all. I’ll tell you what. If they ever make this into a picture show, I’ll be sneaking in to see it, even if I have to drive into Oklahoma City. Do you want to learn the words?”
She hummed a pitch note, plinked it on the keyboard, indicated the words on the sheet music for me, then started off.
“Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry.”
We sang together,
“When I take you out in the surrey,
When I take you out in the surrey
With the fringe on top!”
Mother called from the back of the house somewhere. Sister Franks said,
“Run see what your Mama wants. When you come back, we’ll go into Elk City. You can help me pick out curtains at Penney’s. Maybe we’ll get us a grilled cheese and a Coke at Woolworth’s.
I was reluctant to leave until she promised,
“And then I’ll teach you the words to the rest of the music from the show.”
That visit to Sayre, Oklahoma was a first glimpse for Leslie and me into the daily lives of other preachers in the same sect, and with it the realization that people in the same church were allowed to believe in different ways.
The house became a snow globe memory I traveled with for years. Out on the gospel trail, I could shake it just a little and see the chairs with doilies on the arms and Sister Franks’ purple irises in a vase on the coffee table. Shake it again and hear the music from Oklahoma.