Yesterday's Magazette

7 – The Singing Kid

The Singing Kid

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By Madonna Dries Christensen


My oldest brother, Joe, got his first guitar as a teenager, during the Depression. I don’t know how and where he obtained it; he was a struggling farmer’s son. Maybe someone gave him the instrument; maybe he earned the money working as a farmhand. I don’t know, either, why he developed an interest in music. We had four cousins who traveled the country with The Texas Rangerettes, a popular all-girl band. Perhaps they inspired him. At any rate, the boy taught himself to play guitar and in pictures from that era his pride is obvious. A few years later, photos show a different model guitar; this one bore his signature painted in fancy script on the body, and near the neck, Joe––The Singing Kid. Looking recently at his signature on an old letter, the J reminds me of a guitar, the top part of the letter small and the bottom rounded. It looks specially designed to fit his interest.

In other photographs, my little brother holds the instrument like a bass fiddle, and my teenaged sister pretends to be strumming. It seems as if everybody wanted to get into the act. My three sisters often harmonized when Joe played, most likely imagining the trio auditioning for Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour.

During World War II, aboard ship during a typhoon, Joe lost The Singing Kid. When he returned to Iowa, he purchased another guitar and had one or more the rest of his life, eventually going acoustical. He played with small groups in and around the county, making a few bucks, or nothing at all. His wife, Iris, often accompanied him to dances and sometimes sang with the band. This music was called “old-time,” and I, a hip teen, thought it was corny. That included anything to do with The Grand Ole Opry. Some years later, “old time music” became fully accepted and popular as “country,” leaving me to realize that my brother was country, when country wasn’t cool.

One time, a local teenager who hankered to be Gene Autry on the guitar, sought out Joe for lessons. The first session became the last when the student started telling the teacher how to play. When Joe retold the story it came with a laugh and an unspoken but clear message, “The nerve of that kid.”

In 1953, to his wife’s dismay, Joe splurged on a new guitar. The receipt, bearing his signature and the instrument’s serial number, is from the Williams Piano Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He purchased a 1952 Fender Telecaster for $189.50, and an amplifier for $109.50. With his trade-in guitar bringing $50.00, his bill came to $249.00.

That was a lot of money. The receipt shows he made no down payment, and charged it, unusual for that era.

Joe moved his family to Illinois and then Wisconsin, where he continued playing with groups at local functions. Generally modest and shy, he blossomed with a guitar on his lap and provided entertainment at family reunions. Sometimes brother-in-law, Cy, sat down to the piano and the two jammed for their captive audience. Before long my two older sisters might sidle up to the mike and, as they had in the 1940s, sing Sioux City Sioux and Don’t Fence Me In.

Joe and the Fender his daughters dubbed Ol’ Joe were silenced in November of 1995. After Joe’s death, his guitar became treasured by his wife and four remaining daughters, not for its vintage market value, but because of what it had meant to Joe. He knew it had become valuable, but he wouldn’t have parted with it for any price. The Fender Telecaster guitar is one of the most popular solid body electric guitars ever made, and is the solid body guitar that started it all. The Fender Company, on its Web site, says, “One of the longest-running production models in Fender’s history, the Telecaster guitar has been modified only slightly in its more than 50 legendary years, with its great strength inherent in its classic simplicity.”

After Iris died, the daughters faced a decision––keep the instrument for its sentimental value, or sell it? The vote was three to one to sell. After researching prices, and the best way to handle the sale, Ol’ Joe left home. Before taking the guitar to the music center that would find a buyer, each daughter placed a note about their dad and their memories of his music inside the case. The youngest daughter, Theresa, wrote this poem:

A Man and his Guitar

His treasure was purchased, before I was born.

His instrument had strings; no it wasn’t a horn.

When he held his Fender, he felt like a king;

It was his crown; his Hope Diamond ring.

He played it for years, not reading a note;

He played country classics, and some stuff he wrote.

It was brought to gatherings of family and friends;

He played what he loved, never following trends.

So, when we hear that music, no matter where we are,

We always feel the love, for that man and his guitar.

When he was called to Heaven, to meet his wondrous master,

I’m sure he’d have flown higher, if he’d had his Telecaster.

In Loving Memory of Joe Dries 6/3/22––11/2/95

The daughters didn’t expect to hear another word about the beloved instrument. It was gone. But, because of the notes they’d left, the new owner’s daughter, Elizabeth, contacted them by e-mail. She said, “The words y’all wrote about your father mean a lot to me because I feel the same way about my dad and his guitars.”

Marcia, the hold-out on selling, responded, “Thanks for contacting me. I was hoping the guitar went to someone who looks at it as a treasure and not just an investment. I would love to stay in contact with you.”

Her sister, Theresa, wrote, “We hoped Dad’s guitar would land in the hands of someone who would appreciate it as much as we loved hearing Dad play it.”

Elizabeth responded, “My dad does invest in guitars, but he sees each one as a treasure and doesn’t plan to sell them. He’d like to open a Fender Museum, and tell each guitar’s story the best we can. I love the way Ol’ Joe is worn––it seems to have a good history. We will love and treasure this beautiful guitar. It means more now that we know it was cherished by your father. We have already had plenty of careful fun with Ol’ Joe.”

Marcia said later, “There will always be a sad spot in my heart to have to sell it, but maybe someday I’ll get to see it again and hear it played.”

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