There are people who get hard or gruff as they get older, and there are others—a greater number, I think—who get more sentimental as the years go by. I don’t remember my grandmother being the sentimental type. If you recall that Mary-and-Martha thing from the New Testament, then she was a Martha type.
And yet, I know Grandma once had a sentimental side, because I have an old school composition book of hers, and it’s full of sad old songs. This isn’t what we call a ballad book, it’s not that complete. It’s just a group of songs brought home from school, I think. The saddest of them all is “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven.”
You can guess the story just from the title. A widower and his little girl are telling one another how much they miss dear momma, who has “gone to heaven.” The little girl therefore announces she is going to ring up heaven and get her mother on the telephone. There ensues the tear-jerking chorus:
“Hello Central, give me heaven
For my mamma’s there
You will find her with the angels
On the golden stair
She’ll be glad it’s me who’s talking
Call her won’t you dear
For I surely want to tell her
We’re so lonely here.”
Over at Central, of course, the operator takes pity on the little girl and tells her over the line, “Yes dear heart I’ll soon come home.”
I recognize the words of the song, but I always identified them with the Carter Family, pioneers of the country music recording industry. Sure enough, I find recordings of the Carters singing “Hello Central,” and it is attributed to A. P. Carter. That makes no sense, though, because my grandmother had to have penned these stanzas prior to 1905, long before the Carters were in the music business.
Researching further, I find that the popular version sung by the Carters (and by other country musicians, including Ferlin Husky, who I don’t think I’ve thought about in forty years) is a later adaptation of a song originally composed by a popular songwriter a generation earlier—by Byron G. Harlan in 1901. He published sheet music of it and also issued a wax-cylinder recording. Harlan’s greatest hit, for which he is most remembered, was “After the Ball.”
The old Harlan wax recording of “Hello Central” is almost painful to listen to, not because of the sentimentality of the song, but because the music is so bad. The vocalization is sorry, and the little wind orchestra accompanying the singer is overwrought. The later recordings by the Carter Family are much more pleasing, and they also smooth out the difficult intervals in the tune.
I have no evidence that any of my people had an Edison phonograph; perhaps they did, or perhaps Grandma got hold of the sheet music, but it is more likely she learned the song by ear from her teacher.
Lest you think Grandma was awash in sentimental tears, I’ll mention that the next song in her book is “Marching Through Georgia.”