mad in pursuit learning history: RADIO AMBITIONS
3.8.04 Progress Report
The more little questions I ask my mother, the more interesting details she provides. This is less "Kitty Curran's War" and more like "Kitty Curran Carries On" (Or "Kitty Curran, the First 50 Years").
"Kitty Curran" Transcript (revised 3.4.04)
By the time World War II rolls around, my grandmother Kitty Curran is no stranger to heartbreak. She’s seen it all.
Her mother Maggie dies when Kitty is only 12, in 1903. The demise of her six siblings is an incredible mirror of the times. Sister Nellie dies of a botched abortion in 1911. In 1919, it is Spanish influenza that kills sister Julie and brother Modie. Kitty’s motherless younger brothers Tommy and Joe become gangsters and meet their Maker during the gang wars of Prohibition. The remaining sister, Ethel, has epilepsy and is sent to grow up in the Missouri State Hospital.
But Kitty survives. She goes to work for Bell Telephone and, in 1912 she marries Tom Barrett. He is older, an entrepreneur, inventor of board games, and the owner of Barrett’s Market, located on the corner of Rowan and Ridge in north St. Louis. But in 1926, as luck would have it, he develops a bad gall bladder, goes to the hospital – and dies of infection.
Kitty has just given birth to her fourth child – Kathleen – my mother.
I’m giving you this litany of misery, not to impress you with my grandmother’s hard life, but to say how impressed I am that she carries on. Her father Moses Flanagan fell apart when his partner died. His kids drifted among relatives or were beaten by stepmothers. Kitty wasn’t about to let that happen to her children.
So Kitty takes charge. She raises her four kids in the apartment above Barrett’s Market and, Depression be damned, she makes the grocery business profitable. In 1936 she marries her handsome young store clerk Ewald Curran, who loves her till the day she dies.
But … I digress.
The basement below Barrett’s Market was sometimes a tavern, sometimes an after-hours joint, but always a party hall. There is a player piano and, just for fun, slot machines for pennies and nickels. While the Barretts all love to party, love to sing, it is my uncle Bob who has the musical gift. He can pick up a saxophone or sit down at the piano and play anything.
But World War II comes along and Bobby takes his talent with him into the Army, where he is stationed in California and plays in the band.
["Old Mill Stream" sung by Joe Foley and Ewald Curran, 2.12.44]
While he is gone Kitty brings home the most amazing machine – a tabletop phonograph with a microphone. Flip the right switches, turn the right knobs and you can watch it cut voices onto heavy shellac platters. The tape recorder of its day. Won’t this be a great surprise for her talented boy when he comes home?
["Same Old Shillelagh" sung by Kathleen Barrett, 10.29.43]
My mother, a teenager then, figures out how to make the newfangled machine work. And she’s the one who saves the two dozen 78s that capture the voices of her family and friends. They put on mock quiz shows. [Quiz show intro by Bill Barrett, no date] They get boisterous and silly. ["I'm Gonna Eat Worms" sung by Lester Hohmann, 2.12.44] And they sing all the old songs. ["Let Me Call You Sweetheart" sung by crowd, 10.28.44]
But there is no music to go with the singing voices. You see, Bobby, the musician in the family, the one Kitty bought the machine for, is dead.
["You Tell Me Your Dreams" by Joe Foley, 2.12.44]
It is April 30, 1942: Bob hears he’s going to be shipped to the Aleutians and gets a short furlough. He calls home, begs my grandmother to wire him money. The banks are closed. She borrows it from Mr. Catanzaro the produce man at the store. Bob gets his money, buys a United Airlines ticket. He is so visibly excited about going home that a soldier booked on an earlier plane trades tickets with him. That plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains.
Kitty suffers another heartbreak.
["Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)" sung by Kitty Curran, 2.4.43]
When his body is brought home and laid out in the front room of their apartment for the wake, a neighbor finds Kitty alone with him after everyone else has gone home. Kitty is singing “Danny Boy.”
["Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)" sung by Kitty Curran & friends, 2.12.44]
The point of this story is that, when darkness once again descends upon Kitty’s family, she sings. She sings.
It’s the Irish blues, I guess. Sing at the wake. Keep singing. Invite your friends over. Sing some more.
Throughout all those home recordings, you’ll find Kitty Curran singing “Danny Boy.” With no musical accompaniment, it always veers off key, but it never sounds sad. There is always a great cackle of laughter somewhere in the piece.
I knew that cackle. And I knew her to sing “Danny Boy” off key at the end of long parties. As kids we thought she was a funny old lady. I know now that her favorite song was forever connected with the death of her son. But, as I listen to those old recordings and hear that cackle of laughter, it always reminds me that, no matter what life hands them, great dames keep on singing.