Thank goodness for teachers like Mr. Forman. My grade-school music teacher was nerdy and boney and tireless in his love for and encouragement of music. He mimeographed the lyrics of songs and once a week from 4th to 6th grade, we went to his classroom and sang while he played electric piano.*
I have no recollection of how we sounded. Not all of us were invited to join the school chorus. But I can still sing every word of Elton John's "Rocket Man, John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High," "Shenandoah," John Prine's "Paradise," and more.
These are tunes that pop up on the internal jukebox and startle me in their clarity.
*He also played in a jazz band on the weekends, but I only learned that later.
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Sidebar Tangent: John Prine wrote "Paradise" for his dad in 1971 about coal-mining in his Kentucky hometown. The chorus goes something like "Oh Daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County/Down the Green River, where Paradise lay./Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking/Mr. Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."
My binge was marked by long stints in front of the trusty laptop punctuated by exclamations of, "Huh. Well of course it's his great-uncle Gorton," and "What were the chances that these two families would intermarry this many times? Jeesh. Guess they swiped right on KINder. Nyuk nyuk nyuk."
So here's a brief, obvious overview: when looking up into the family tree, everyone gets four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 g-g-grands, 32 g-g-g-grands and on and on.
Family multiplication happens pretty quickly: about 100 years gets you sixteen great-great-grandparents. Sixteen family branches. Sixteen.
If you are lucky, there might be a photo of yourself in diapers perched on one of those great-great-pappy's grumpy lap.
But in a hurry, these many forebears become mysterious strangers. Even with a storytelling family, diarists, and hoarders of ephemera, finding out about these people can prove fiendishly difficult.
The time flashes past. Nobody asks enough questions. And a flood or a fire or a hungry mouse can wipe out the paper records of a whole county.
Franklin County held quite a number of likely Richard Wheelers who might be my great-great-grandfather, but he's been a sticky wicket.
In that steep corner of the world, Wheelers bifurcated like tadpoles in a pond. And they each named their kids after the same uncles and dads: William, Richard, John, James.
Which is why I was idly staring at the 1880 US Census entry for a Wheeler family. In 1880, our Richard had been dead already for seven years, leaving the kids and wife to work the farm. This nearby family farm was headed up by John Franklin Wheeler, a possible brother to my Richard, with kids named Mary E., Catherin C., Richard W., Masurah, Martha, and Lu Ellar.
Lu Ellar, really? It's an all-to-easy assumption to think that hill folks are all Clampetts –– clichéd stewed squirrel and moonshine.
As I pondered names and names, my internal jukebox piped up with “Shenandoah.”
It’s a magnificent song, really, a sea-shanty with long sonorous notes that are fun to splash out on. It's about the exploration of the States when the "west" was the Missouri River.
I'll spare you my rendition, but Harry Belafont's version is pretty good.
If Lu Ellar can be Sue Ellen, what about Massurah? Massurah, Missourah...Missouri.
Missouri? Click-click-click and it turns out that Massurah was the delightfully easier-to-track Missouri Caroline Wheeler. Her grandfather was my great-great-great grandfather. I don’t yet know why she was given this unusual name, but I do have a better handle on Richard, son of Mary Freeman and William Wheeler.