A Tribute to My Musical Mother

{Welcome to this expanded post, “A Tribute to My Musical Mother.” I added the original version of this tribute to my blog in November 2015. The expanded version includes additional photographs and several musical selections performed by my mother, Jean Pelkey. Enjoy!  scp August 10, 2016}

Many of you enjoyed reading my tribute to my musical father, and several of you asked to read a tribute to my musical mother. So with notes from Mom, an extended conversation for some follow up questions, and a sprinkling of my own memories, here we go….

Among my earliest musical memories are impressions of standing with Mom in the Reformed Church in Syracuse, New York, during the singing of Sunday morning hymns. I can distinctly remember listening to her sing words that moved by too quickly for my early reading skills to decipher in time with the music. Yet I can also remember that as I stood beside her, I knew that one day, I would be able to read and sing along, too. Years later, when that had become a reality, I’d join Mom in reading the alto lines in the hymnal—before my voice changed. My wife (Heidi) teases me that I still extemporaneously harmonize tunes with alto lines (albeit in my baritone range).

FamilyPhoto

A family photo from ca. 1973. Left to right: Doris Foss (the author’s grandmother); Stan Pelkey (seated on Grandma Foss’s lap); Tana Pelkey (the author’s sister); Lyman Pelkey (the author’s father); Jean Pelkey (the author’s mother). Photo taken in the living room of my parents’ home, 116 Rugby Road, Syracuse, New York.  

It is fitting that hymns and hymn singing are central to my experience of my mother as a musician, because from the time Mom and her sisters could read, they, too, followed the words in the hymnbooks of their childhood Free Methodist Church. At that time, in the 1930s and 1940s, Free Methodist congregations often did not use musical instruments in worship. Mom notes that she and her sisters learned quickly to read music because of all the vocal music they sang at church.

My grandmother arranged for Mom to take piano lessons from Lovely McCleery, the wife of their pastor. Mrs. McCleery was a graduate of the music program at Houghton College, a small Wesleyan school in the southern tier of New York State. (My mother and a number of her uncles, cousins, and sisters attended Houghton College.) At the time of those piano lessons with Mrs. McCleery, however, Mom balked at scales and classical music! She just wanted to play church songs, and she always hoped that some day they would have an instrument in church. In the meantime, she occasionally got to play the organ at the local Baptist church, and Mom and her sisters would harmonize songs, which they’d sing without accompaniment. Sometimes they’d sing together at district-wide gatherings of the Free Methodist congregations.

Mom remembers singing Haydn’s chorus, “The Heavens are Telling,” while in high school, and that her choir also sang Messiah in a special concert in Buffalo. I’ve pressed Mom about her other musical experiences as a child because I have tried to understand what influenced her to develop her particular approach to playing hymns. You see, Mom’s style of hymn playing on the piano has probably been her greatest musical influence on my development as a musician. In her approach, I hear echoes of early gospel and old time music, and even elements of boogie-woogie. Her style has been a part of my soundscape since before I was born, and it is a sound I have tried to capture (for years) in my own improvisations and compositions. Mom remembers her family did listen to Christian gospel music on the radio during her childhood (I can see an image something like the Waltons gathered around the radio in their living room, with Grandma Walton preferring the hymns over the fiddle tunes!). I’d love to hear some of those old programs and to listen for tell-tale influences seeping from Thomas Dorsey, for example, into rural, white Protestant Christian hymn playing in the northeast in those years.

Jean Pelkey playing “There’s Within My Heart a Melody,” one of the hymn tunes I remember her playing the most when I was a child. Recorded in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, August 9, 2016. Please scroll to the end for an additional recording.

For a time in the early 1960s, before she moved to Syracuse and met Dad, Mom moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to work for the publishing house of the Church of the Nazarene. For a while, she was organist at St Paul’s Nazarene in Kansas City. Mom writes, “There was also a pianist and she covered for my mistakes, bless her heart! At that time I did take some lessons for the Hammond organ. I really don’t know how I paid for them, because my salary was very minimum as Assistant VBS Editor.” Mom also served two brief stints as a lay pastor, which led her to play the keyboard instrument available, serve as song leader, and preach a sermon. A few years later, after marrying Dad, my parents provided the music at Trinity United Methodist Church in Clay, New York, and they would play piano and organ together on hymns, something people really liked to hear. That was a very common approach to hymn accompaniment in the United Methodist Churches in Kentucky when Heidi and I first met. I’ve enjoyed those times—actually fewer than I would have expected—when she and I have been able to play hymns on the piano and organ together.

After he retired from teaching, Dad returned to seminary to pursue his M.Div. Mom took the reigns at Trinity to accompany the choir, and she says she became very “conscientious practicing the accompaniment…, and I really did improve at sight reading.” In the past few years, with eyesight weakening, she has discovered she can “play from memory after seeing the printed hymns and gospel songs for so many decades.”

MomAndDad.1

My parents celebrating their anniversary in August 2011. Both Jean and Lyman Pelkey have had a profound impact upon me as a musician, a parent, a teacher, and a person.

I’ve mentioned Mom’s singing and her piano playing. She has also always been a person who hums along with her daily tasks. I think that’s a habit I picked up from her. I hum a lot. I whistle a lot. I make up tunes to brighten my day.

Sometimes, Nate and Maddie tease me about that, or about the handful of recurring ditties I’ll whistle that they’ve come to expect to hear on a regular basis. They’ve heard those musical gestures so many times now, they can repeat them back to me. Yes, I know it’s quirky, but it’s all OK. No, it’s actually all very and most truly wonderful: music continues to bind parents and children among the Pelkeys.

I would not trade that musical bond for anything, not even when my kids—still—make up incredibly ridiculous dances to accompany some of my favorite piano pieces that I have obviously practiced too many times for too many years. The smiles we share and the laughter that rings through the house are the best music of all.

The world needs music… a lot more of it.

(Originally posted on November 17, 2015.)

StanPelkeywithJean@1979?

Jean Pelkey and Stan Pelkey, ca. 1979.

StanMom.August2016Jean Pelkey and Stan Pelkey. Photo taken by Madison Pelkey on August 9, 2016, in the living room of my mother’s apartment in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. 

 

 

Jean Pelkey playing the hymn tuns “He Touched Me” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” on August 9, 2016, in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. These renditions are part of a longer medley that my mother played recently for the service at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church. I am so pleased that she is still making music and putting a smile on my face and a tune in my heart. Thanks, Mom! I love you very, very much.   scp  August 10, 2016