Karen T’s piece at Readerville reminded me of the treasure trove I discovered years ago in a similar situation. Back in the ’70’s, we had just purchased a fine old Victorian style three-story house in the then still-to-be-gentrified neighborhood of Boston’s Jamaica Plain. Dirt floor cellar, two floors, and a livable (with-work) attic. Detached two-car garage (with small shed/workshop). Side yard with a huge and constantly leaf dropping Gingko. This was before I’d ever heard of biloba. Before Sam Adams moved in. Before ‘water cafe’s’. Before JP Licks. Before most of the bars and pubs gave way to organic restaurants. A great mix then of townies, young working class couples, and Latino restaurants. But who’s kidding who? I was just the early wave of gentrification.
The woman who was living in the large house was the last of her immediate family and needed a smaller, more manageable space. We even bought most of her furniture. She certainly couldn’t use it and it already “fit”: The large, leaved mahogany claw foot dining room table (and chairs), the matching glass-front china cabinet. What we didn’t discover until weeks later was the bonus in the attic.
In what served as a closet (but was really a crawl space) in the attic, we found the makings of a vaudeville act – or acts. As best we could reconstruct, it seems the family were musicians who put on shows (probably church functions), played various instruments, scored, arranged and possibly even wrote some of the own material. Parts of costumes (judges robes, some impressive Bogie style hats, straw boaters), wigs, fake moustaches, pancake make-up – real professional stuff. Most of what you’d need to put on an impromptu performance. And there was evidence that they did just that: hand bills, fliers, rolls and rolls of tickets.
But the real find were the boxes and boxes full of sheet music. And it ran the gamut: Religious song books, hand noted music staffs which contained their own arrangements for the popular songs of the day. And tons of great old sheet music from the 30’s to the 50’s, some in better shape than others. The cover art on much of it easily matches in illustration value (allowing for changes in time and taste) much of the hallowed album art of the sixties.
One of my favorites was this lyric-less copy of “The Teddy-Bears Picnic”. Up until that time, I’d always thought of it as a Dave Van Ronk song, not knowing its long history: written in 1907 by one John W. Bratton, popular as a ‘two-step’ standard in the forties (“You must get a copy to be in style”). The teddies on the cover are both cute and scary. The woods, if looked at carefully, are properly forbidding. I like the woods. I’ve done my share of camping in years gone by (real non-hookup tent camping), yet I’ve always lived by Dave’s words – I think of them as Dave’s words, even though he didn’t write ’em:
If you go down to the woods today
You’re in for a big surprise
But attics too are scary in a similar way (and I’ve never camped in one). And yes, they can hold the same surprises, huh?