My musical ghosts

History and Commentary from a Prairie Perspective

William Wardill

I have a picture in my mind of the Eatonia Band helping to celebrate the opening of a new school during the time of great expectations that followed the ending of the Second World War. I think that only I and one other are the last survivors of that band. I know that 15 of the bandsmen are no longer living and two are gone beyond my knowing. One man in my mind picture is Earl Ewing. He is playing a clarinet, but the instrument he was born to play was the piano. He left his birthplace to join the entourage of the Australian-born illusionist Reveen, whose performances were restricted to Eastern Canada. Earl stayed with Reveen until he retired. I know that he died in Eastern Canada at some time before 2014. Another man who played a clarinet at the school that day recorded samples of Earl’s artistry.

Walter Assmus, master of the clarinet and five-string banjo, bought a record cutting machine when the recording industry was changing from shellac to vinyl blanks. His entire collection was purchased at an estate sale by a man who turned it over to me to copy to compact discs.

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The first use of Walter’s machine was in March of 1952 at an all-night amateur show in the Eatonia Theatre put on by the Association of Commercial Travelers. The record was made by mating a single microphone and a telephone receiver. The quality was so poor that only someone who had actually been seated in the theatre could identify the content of the recording. My attempt to produce a playable CD was unsuccessful.

What I was able to salvage from the old records was an illustration of increasing skill in the use of multiple microphones and their placement. Walter never had a recording studio, but he became adept at improvising. The natural acoustics of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church helped him to produce an impressive recording of the choir’s Easter oratorio. There has been a falling away from Christian worship. I will never again hear such a choir in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, nor in any other small town church.

Walter was able to achieve an almost recording studio quality in an a capella record of two young girls singing April Showers and My Happiness. Earl Ewing and his piano was in all the other records I was able to salvage. In every one the setting seems to be a house party.

In one recording session that Earl directed, the instrumentalists are Walter on the five-string banjo and a very competent clarinet player who I could not recognize. They played Melancholy Baby, Has Anybody Seen My Gal, Indian Love Call, Red Wing, Twelfth Street Rag, Teddy Bears’ Picnic, An Irishman’s Shanty, The Campbells are Coming and Good Night Sweetheart.

One man who was always welcome in the musical circle was Clarence May. He was a handsome bachelor who drove a red Mustang and was known to be able to mimic Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. I think he was present at the party where Earl Ewing put a pick-up orchestra through a rigorous training session which resulted in excellent recordings of Who’s Sorry Now, Ain’t Misbehaving and Georgia On My Mind.   

Earl Ewing was again on piano when Clarence May’s rich voice was recorded for the last time. He sang I’m in the Mood for Love. Walter was an agent for a petroleum company and Clarence was his customer. On an appointed day, at an appointed time, Walter delivered fuel oil to the May farm. He found Clarence lying beside the storage tanks, dead of a heart attack. I made good CD of his last song. I am grateful for that.

I have written about my musical ghosts, about people and music I knew when my world was young and full of promise. Sometimes my ghosts make music in my dreams. Sometimes when I awake, my pillow is damp with tears.

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