August 24, 2004

Okay, a story...

I bet none of you knew that there's a "Convicted Felon National Anthem" did you? Well there is, and here's how I found out.

Probably 15 years ago, when I was young and single and care-free and pretty much stupid for not realizing just how good I had it and blowing my paychecks like a 19 yr old sailor on liberty in Bankok, I used to run with two women who were just a bit older than I. Jane and Barb were their names.

They were a blast to run with, both married with cool husbands (Jane's was so cool he even took me to an adult bookstore one time when I was in a "serious relationship" and needed an, er, accessory), and we were pretty much inseparable. We even called ourselves "Run PMS", a play on the name of the old school rap trio.

One Christmas, Jane invited Barb and I to her mom's Christmas Party. "Oh, we'll have fun. Some of her clients will be there, and some of the people from the courts and it will be fun." So we agreed, and on the night of the party Barb and I drove over to Jane's and went from there to the party.

Let me give you a little background on Jane. Jane had been a bailbondsman at one point in her varied and adventurous life. When she was writing bonds (and skip tracing), it was at her mother's office, Turner Bonding, across from the City County Building in downtown Indianapolis. Norma Turner had been writing bonds for years, and had built up a very large and loyal clientel. Her clients loved her, and she enjoyed her clients. She took a personal interest in them, and they made sure they were there when they were supposed to be because Norma expected nothing less.

So Jane and Barb and I pulled up at Norma's house, parked the Oldsmobile, and walked in.

Oh, my. The house was full of men. Men in jeans of various stages of disrepair and decay. Men in flannel shirts of every plaid imaginable. Men with mullets, crew-cuts or shaved heads. Men with facial hair configurations I had never before witnessed and some I had never even imagined. Men with far fewer than the normal requisite of teeth. Thin men and burly men. Men with sad eyes and men with anger smouldering behind their cloudy eyes. And in the midst of all of these men was tiny little Norma, middle-aged and highly inebrieated, hostess of her big Christmas party for her clientel.

As we took off our coats and settled in, a guitar was produced and one of the many men began to play. The whole assembly fell quiet as he played the introduction and lifted his voice with the first words of the Convicted Felon National Anthem:

Let the midnight special...

One by one, the other men joined in.

Shine its light on me...

Slowly, almost reverently they all began to sing.

Let the midnight special Shine its ever-loving light on me.

They sang every verse and knew every harmony. These men sang this song with the deep abiding emotion of a shared allegiance, shared experience, and the knowledge that through this they had each other.

Old Norma stood and swayed to the music, and it was hard not to join in on the harmonies. But somehow I felt I had not "earned" the right to give my voice over to their song, their anthem, their lifeline. Good voices and bad blended interestingly and no one was chided or called out for a mistaken lyric or off-key harmony.

And when the song was done, when the guy with the guitar took his last chord, the room held silent for a minute, I can only imagine in remembrance of something or someone lost forever. Then like a lightswitch was flipped the smiles and rowdy laughter and clinking of bottles recommenced and the party was back on as though it never had been interupted by that brief interlude.

After a few moments, Norma realized I was there and hollared out, "Lila! Hey, y'all, look! Lila's here. She'll sing. She'll sing us a Christmas Song."

I looked at Jane, who for some reason was giggling into her hand and wouldn't look back at me, and I knew what she had done.

I tried to beg off. I claimed I hadn't had enough to drink, whereby half a dozen of these guys offered me everything from longnecks to mason jars. "No, no, just point me to the fridge, I brought a few beers. Just let me get one in me."

Norma's clients were nothing if they weren't gentlemen, at least that night. So cussing and fuming I went into the kitchen and put down one longneck and opened another before heading out into the dining room.

"Shut-up. Shut-up. Shut-up. Lila's gonna sing! She's gonna sing." I looked at Norma and wondered what on earth was going on. She had never heard me sing. I could only imagine what that brat Jane had told her mom while she was in her compromised condition.

So I stood over by the table, and looked out in to that sea of unkempt, previously incarcerated, possibly still wanted men, and tried to figure out what song. I decided on one that I knew forwards and backwards and could "show off" with just a little bit. It's one of those songs you just can't sing in a casual voice. You have to "tone it up."

Oh, Holy night, the stars are brightly shining,

All the faces were now fixed on me. Eyes started to glass up and shine with tears, and some of them started making that choking sound a man makes when he doesn't want to let anyone know he's getting emotional.

I kept on singing, through the verses and the refrains, until I got to that one final refrain, the big finish...

Oh night divine Oh night, oh night divine.

There was so much bawling and crying and men pinching the tears from the corner of their eyes... The toughest ones let it out, and the big quiet ones turned into the corners so no one could see. Even old Norma was sobbing and crying "That's just beyooootiful! Just beyooootiful!"

Jane and Barb, of course had slipped into the kitchen and were he-hawing at the reaction it had on one of the men, Eddie Humphreys.

Eddie Humphreys was probably the skinniest, scrawniest, long-haired little con there. I doubt he weighed 130 pounds if you soaked him down with a hose and made him carry a sack of potatoes. And Eddie seemed to have a religious experience hearing that song.

Eddie followed me around that house for the rest of the time we were there. "Gee, Ma'am. You have such a purdy voice." Over and over. It was like he had never heard "the fat lady sing" before. Every time I turned around, there was Eddy again, singing my praises. Anyone stepped in my way, he cleared my path. Look like my beer was getting empty? He was there with another. I have no idea who's stash he was taking from, but I certainly did drink a variety that night.

I did have to draw the line at the bathroom door, though. I really believe he would have followed me in there if I had let him. Probably would have stood in the tub, "Ma'am, you sure do sing purdy. How come you ain't singing on records? Cause you sure do have a purdy voice."

The only time he ever left my side was to rejoin the rest of the men in re-singing "Midnight Special" whenever one of them got the urge to sing it again. And it never varied. It was always sung with the same reverence as it had been the first time we heard them singing it. Oh, and Norma grabbed my arm and made me sing "Oh Holy Night" at least twice more before we were able to find our coats and extricate ourselves from the party.

Barb and Jane never did let me live down my "fan club" for as long as we ran together. And I never forgot the night I heard the "Convicted Felon National Anthem" at Norma's Christmas party. All in all, it was a good time. Some of those guys ended up being pretty good guys caught in crappy circumstances.

What Acidman said about the law of the hills? Well, if some of these fellows had been back home in those hills instead of in Indianapolis, they'd have never had to learn that song in some confined concrete room with bars on the windows and bars on the doors. They'd have been just good ol' boys like everyone else.

Posted by Mamamontezz at August 24, 2004 08:15 PM

Any time you can choke up a room filled with ex-cons, and walk out as a musical icon, that's the night you can truly say you sang an all-star set. Even if it *was* only one (and appropriate) song.

Posted by: weaselteeth at August 25, 2004 04:37 AM

Great post Mama. As usual it is cool to look into your unique and varied life.

SlagleRock Out!

Posted by: SlagleRock at August 26, 2004 11:51 AM

Hey Mamma,
Over the years I have played for all types ,including cons,bikers,bankers and Lawyers ,and you never know where you will find an ally because of music.
It is a universal language which can move folks to great emotion and strong friendship.
No matter what there cicumstanse or station.
Music is my drug of choice along with crown royal lol.

Cool Post ciao from sunny Tampa Bay

Posted by: LC NeilV at August 26, 2004 12:35 PM
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