Voices from the Grave: Mary Wheeler

Voices from the Grave: Mary Wheeler

April 1, 1892 – July 26, 1979

Old 9, 137, Oak Grove Cemetery


Music was born in me as surely as my eyes were blue. Right there in that house that overlooked the Ohio River here in Paducah, where I was born in 1892, I was expected to sing and play the piano as part of my training in the social graces. But, oh my, if training in music would not have been required, I would have still had to have it. It was more than mere social graces to me. It was breath. Without music, I would not have been able to speak. I would have been as ungiving and pointless as the Ohio River with no water.


Thankfully, my mother, a very fine musician herself, encouraged me to pursue a career in music. I was an extremely fortunate young woman. My father, Charles Wheeler, was a lawyer and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years, so I was exposed to many opportunities during our time in Washington, D.C. After graduating high school, I first studied voice in New York, then I moved to Chicago, where I sang in elegant cabarets and salons. But when World War I broke out, my singing career was put on hold for more important duties. I applied for overseas work with the Red Cross and was assigned to Hospital Hut Service.


I thought I was headed off for adventure, but I found instead a new vision of life, as did many during the war. Since the Hospital Hut Service provided entertainment for wounded soldiers, I traveled, first to London and later to the Province of Lorraine.


After the war, I studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where I earned a degree in voice and a graduate degree in musicology. During that time, I began teaching at a rural settlement school. While I was there I became very interested in collecting Kentucky’s traditional folk music. As you might imagine, I never dreamed when I was singing in those salons or traveling in war-torn Europe that ne day I’d be trekking up and down Troublesome Creek in eastern Kentucky on the back of a mule! Life has some strange twists and turns. That’s what makes it glorious.


Oh, how I loved the work I did in those hills of eastern Kentucky. I’d find these dear people in their remote cabins and carefully write down the words and music to their beautiful, straightforward songs. I had only my ear and memory to rely on. For an instrument, a local dulcimer maker fashioned me a fine dulcimer. It had three strings and twelve frets and I played it with a tiny stick and a piece of goose quill. I’d write down the songs and then play it back to the people or sing it back to them until I’d get it correct. The women rocked babies or spun thread and I listened to their ancient English, Scottish, and Kentucky ballads of love, jealousy, or violent murders.


I remember one woman – she was a tiny thing, “old as the hills,” she said, with coal hair streaked with ample white pulled back into a tight bun and teeth as black as bark. When I’d get a song right that she’d given me, she’d say, “That speaks so plain.”


Finally, when I was satisfied that I’d gathered as many as I could – from both eastern and western Kentucky – I published these treasures in a book entitled Kentucky Mountain Folk-Songs.


Later, I returned to western Kentucky, and turned my attention to collecting songs of the Ohio River packet boat era. As I mentioned, I was born in a house that overlooked the Ohio River. Well, I had grown up watching these boats roam up and down that lazy river and I had become fascinated by the music that was unique to people who worked on them. I began visiting the elderly men who had been steamboat hands in their younger days. Just as the women in the hills of eastern Kentucky, these men lit up in a special way when I asked them to share their music with me. Many of them were puzzled – why would a woman like me want to know their songs? – but most were glad to share once they were nudged along.


As they sang a snippet of whatever song they could remember, I could see them being transported away and out of themselves. Music has a way of doing that for us. It lifts us out of our days, our work, our problems. It gave generations of mountain women wings to soar above broken hearts and the right voice to express joy. That same avenue gave men loading freight onto packet boats the ability to express memories of cruises, sad love affairs, and heroes they’d encountered. Folk songs more nearly reveal the heart and soul of a people than does any other form of expression. What a tragedy to lose that!


Why, music survives us all and, I dare say it’s one of the greatest peacemakers of all, bringing us together and uniting our hearts on a level nothing else can. It crosses generational lines, racial boundaries, cultural barriers, gender gaps, and geographical chasms. Music is life. It’s breath. It’s the water that fills the river.



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