My own school closing down, I spent my last three years of high school in another coal camp a few miles up the creek.
I had many adventures there since I was still a virgin in 9th Grade and my home town, about a third its size, was WASP and Protestant, while my new school was very ethnic, with hard to pronounce names, Italian, German, Polish, Slovak. And about half were Catholics, which had the biggest church in town.
But I only want to tell here this very short story about Miss Doris Spassky, who was the school’s French teacher and also taught English literature. I took all five classes she taught, including French I and II. She only called me by my Christian name, Robert.
Miss Spassky was a beautiful woman, but not hot, if you know what I mean. I’d say she was in her late 30s, and was the sister of one of the mine bosses. A very good teacher, her manners were, well, not hip, in fact very naïve in the ways of the world, a quality I would come to admire in people as I grew older. The question often came up as to why she wasn’t married, being so pretty and all. The school superintendent’s son, Dub, who was the youngest member of our folk singing group, told us that she had planned to be a nun but couldn’t because she had to care for her ailing mother, and later, her brother, who also never married.
She was also famous for wearing high heels and skirts everywhere, in class, and even football and basketball games. Since I was on the golf team she once asked me to go a round with her on our nine hole course. The guys wanted to know if she wore high-heel spikes. I said no, but she did wear a long skirt on the course.
This story is about a parting gift when two of the four members of our singing group were graduating and would be splitting up after graduation. We had Danny, who was the lead tenor, the other senior, and who played no instrument. There was Dub, the superintendent’s son, a sophomore, Pinko, another sophomore, who played an outstanding guitar, and myself, the other senior, with a 5-string banjo or 4-string baritone uke, depending on the song.
Unless you’re over 70 you probably don’t recall a song from the late 50s entitled “The Three Bells”, sung by a guy named Jim Ed Brown and his sisters, Maxine and Bonnie. They called themselves The Browns.
And the song was about a fellow named Jimmy Brown. It was very simple and sweet, tracing the life of a good man named Jimmy from cradle to grave. The fact that it was a Number One hit in both C&W and the national Billboard 100 tells you a lot about what kind of country America was when I was 14. Listen to it here.
I know, kinda corny. But it was 1959, and it was #1 nationally on Billboard.
But this is not why I play it here.
For you see, Miss Spassky had a recording of an earlier version of this song, only in French, sung by the famous French songstress, Edith Piaf, who had died just a few months earlier, accompanies by a French troupe of a cappella singers named “Les Compagnon de Chanson”. I learned to love Piaf’s music later in college, but heard her the first time, singing this same song, “Les Trois Cloches” (The Three Bells) from a recording Miss Spassky played for our French II class on a record player. At the time we didn’t know that Miss Piaf had only recently passed away, but Miss Spassky was moved to tears when she played it for us so we knew it was special.
She was sharing a sadness with her class. How quaint these days.
It was a couple of months later that our folk group, as we talked about adding new tunes to our repertoire, were discussing the “Jimmy Brown Song”. It was more voice and less instrument. We found an old 45, played it, and even sang a verse or two before deciding it wasn’t for us. But Danny brought up Miss Trossky’s love of the French version, and offered the idea that maybe we could do an a cappella version for her as a parting graduation gift.
So we asked Dub to ask his dad, the school superintendent, to see if he could borrow her 45 record.
We kept it for about two weeks, to memorize the lines. Of course, we didn’t have a female voice, so Danny and Dub did the vocals, Dub singing Piaf’s part, while Pinko and I became the choir. I was that deep bass voice at the back.
About a week before graduation, each of wearing a dark suit, popped into Miss Trossky’s French class, and asked if we could say “Good-bye”. Since Pinko was carrying his guitar, and me my banjo, she just assumed we’d sing a spritely folk song. “How nice, boys. Please come in.”
Taking the stage next to the teacher’s desk, Miss Spassky sitting in the front row with the students, we sang this song, below, instead. And we were pretty good, if I may say so, a reasonable facsimile, all but the female voice of the Little Sparrow.
And our Little Sparrow, Miss Spassky cried.
And Danny and I said goodbye to a world where all the pieces fit.