The tightly wound hotel clerk purses her lips and shakes her head. I feel sweat trickle down my back. “I’m sorry,” she says, “like I said, you can’t check into your room without the cardholder.” I sigh, and shift my huge backpack higher on my hips. My sister booked the room, and she won’t arrive for another hour or two to check in.
After a full day of sightseeing under the weight of a cumbersome backpack, I finally surrendered to the New Orleans heat. I sought air-conditioned shelter inside La Quinta, the hotel my sister and I had booked for the weekend. I had anticipated napping on crisp white hotel sheets, with air conditioning blowing around my head like snow. Now it looks like a slightly sticky, lobby siesta will have to suffice.
I open my mouth to try and persuade the clerk when I hear the soft sound of an ukulele coming from the lobby. “Thanks anyway,” I say and head towards the music. My current job is refurbishing and selling ukuleles in Hawaii, where the little stringed instruments are as abundant as mangos. Hearing one in the deep south of Louisiana catches me off guard—I must investigate.
I round the corner and face the music: two old men laugh and revel in the old-time song one of them is plunking out. The man holding a vintage Martin ukulele wears a plaid collared shirt and baseball cap. He leans over his little instrument as if waiting for the punch line of a familiar joke. His companion watches and runs his hand over his baldhead, laughter and admiration filling the crinkles around his eyes.
I feel my anxiety slinking away in the presence of that familiar sound—so soft and optimistic. The old man playing the ukulele notices me trying to dance underneath my ridiculous backpack. “Come on ova’ and sing with us!” he says. His southern accent drips like honey on a warm biscuit. His companion makes room for me on the couch. “What should we play, give us a song!” the man with the uke asks me.
“Oh man, umm…” Suddenly coy, I rack my brains for a song suited for this spontaneous jam.
“Do you know “The Tennessee Waltz?” I ask. Without answering, he starts plunking the tune out on his ukulele. “I was dancin’, with my darlin, to the Tennessee Waltz.” The words sound round and warm nestled inside his thick accent; I feel like I’m hearing the song for the first time. I realize I don’t really know all the words, so at first I simply hum along. “I lost my little darlin’ the night they were playin’,” I join in, singing a soft harmony. The old men are surprised to finally hear my voice and we all finish with exuberance, “that beautiful Tennessee Waltz!”
“That was good…that sounded really good,” the man next to me says. “I’m Paul,” he says, “and this is ma olda’ brother Edwin McCravy.” He gestures to the man with the ukulele as if introducing the main act. I notice the family name on Edwin’s baseball cap. “We’re visitin’ from Columbia, South Carolina!” Paul says.
“I’m Tarah! Nice to meet you guys!” I say, eager to learn more about these charismatic brothers. I ask to look at his Martin ukulele, it looks old and in very good shape. “I fix ukuleles in Hawaii with my boyfriend,” I say as I scan the dark mahogany back for any significant scratches.
“Edwin here has tuned pianos for most of his life!” Paul says, as Edwin strums softly, nodding and looking out past the sliding hotel doors through his wire frame glasses. “He plays just about anything. 76 years old, and gigs three times a week.” Paul says, showing off his older brother.
For the next half an hour I sit and absorb these two and their stories, woven with bursts of songs and facts about old time musicians like Snuffy Jenkins and his three-finger pickin’ style, and Bobby Vintin backing up The Platters. They inform me of the correct way to pronounce banjo, “it’s banjer where we come from,” Edwin says with pride. I watch these two old brothers laughing and strumming, and looking past me in time; wistful for lazy dragonflies and evening porch jams where the fireflies light up the distant fields and mountains. I feel nostalgic for my hometown in Virginia and the many summer evenings spent chatting with crickets and tree frogs.
“Music has always been a part of our lives,” Edwin says. “My father played the musical saw better than any one around. We even had a little barbershop quartet in our family, just for fun” Paul says and they launch into a snippet of “Aura Lee,” the song that Elvis adapted to create “love me tender.” They stumble over some of the parts, but hearing them sing together squeezes my heart a little.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘you’re gonna go crazy playing that guitar’” Edwin says, laughing. “My piano teacher told me ‘don’t ever play by ear!’ but that’s how I learned. This one time I showed up to my recital and played my whole piece in a minor key. Woo!” he laughs, “she was not happy about that.” I imagine little Edwin in that church, hair combed to one side, bending the rules like all the greats who came before him.
They go on to talk about music in their extended family. Most of the names go over my head, but I can tell they are incredibly proud of their family fame. There was Frank and James McCravy, their first cousins once removed, who recorded a lot of records in the late twenties singing mountain gospel songs with sweet sibling harmonies. Then their sister Margaret McCravy, who sang with Benny Goodman and married Harry Simeone, who recorded the most popular version of “Little Drummer Boy.” I write it all down and promise the boys I will go educate myself.
At some point, two middle-aged women stop by and drop off some beers for the men. They are the brothers’ daughters. “Can we drink in the lobby?” Paul asks. No one quite knows the answer. “It’s New Orleans!” Edwin says, as he pops the top to his liter of Guinness.
The afternoon sun shoots sideways through the lobby windows, casting a golden glow on the old brothers as they sip their beer and joke. At some point Edwin’s Guinness overflows on the lobby floor, and we all sink a little deeper into the couches, letting laziness mingle with our senses.
“Do you have a band back home?” I ask, hoping to look them up online. “Yup. I play bass and piano in the Dance-Timers. We play mostly shag music,” Edwin says. I suppress a laugh, wondering if they know the British meaning of the word. I ask what shag music is, and Paul pipes up to answer. “The Carolina Shag! It’s the state dance of South Carolina! Everybody knows it!” He attempts to explain the steps to me. It sounds like swing dancing, which I am pretty good at. He scoffs and insists that it is very different, and much more sophisticated.
Finally, he gets up, ready to get in the spotlight, and demands a good shag tune from his brother. He offers me his hand and we claim the lobby as our dance floor. I bumble through some triple steps and rock steps until I think I’ve got it and we bop around the hotel lobby. He leads me with confidence and agility, and I compliment him on his skill. He sends me off into a twirl saying, “Thank you, my wife and I shag at least twice a week!”
“Good for you, Paul.” I say and curtsy as Edwin finishes the song with a flourish and a hearty laugh. I sit down with my new friends, and silently appreciate our shared music, hanging suspended in the air like the dust in the fading afternoon light.