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Music

In Re: Pansy Smith and Violet Jones – by Neil Gaiman

I’m talking to Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland beside the campfire, which takes the edge off the chill night air, maybe too much so, as I wind up edging forward to get warm, edging backward to cool off again while the fire lights their faces from below, like flickering witch-women in orange and yellow.

Now and again an autumn leaf spins crazily down from the oak trees above us, into the firelight and out again, and Emma and Lorraine talk, and argue, and discuss, and interrupt, and talk once more.

A guitar case is open on the ground beside them, an open folder inside it (resting on Emma’s other guitar, the fibreglass one that she can play in the rain), which contains several photographs, a video, some cassettes, and sheaves of dog-eared photocopies.

Emma has the photographs now, shuffles through them in the firelight, hands one to me, says, “Look. See? That’s her. That’s Violet.”

I stare at the image. The flames dance and make the grey people move and flicker. “The tall one in the front?”

“No, behind her. In the corner. She’s looking away from us. See?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, that’s Violet. I’m almost sure that’s Violet. And if it is, it’s the earliest photograph of her we have.”

Where did you find the photograph?”

She doesn’t answer. Lorraine hands me a photograph of a small peasant cottage, one glassless window staring out at us blindly, a low door, a teetering chimney.

“Let me guess. The house where Pansy was born?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. But it was probably one like this. Somewhere down near Bantry Bay it was. Her father played the fiddle too, we think. Look.”

She pulls something else from the folder in the guitar case. A playbill advertising a concert in Schull, County Cork, another in Ballydehob and a third in Skibbereen. Old printing, yellowed paper. She stabs with a finger. “There. See? And there.”

Whistling Gimpy Smith, the Fiddling Wonder. It was printed insect-small near the bottom of the playbill, even under the dog act and the man who could croak like a raven. “Was he her father, then?”

Lorraine shrugs. “Who knows? But the towns are local, and the name’s the same.”

“So you think she came from Schull?”

“Skull,” says Emma. “It’s pronounced Skull.” She reaches into the guitar case. “Here. Take a look at these.”

These are old ten-inch records, in ripped brown-paper sleeves. I think vinyl, then realise these were pressed long, long before vinyl. “78s?”

Emma nods. I read the titles out loud.“Let’s Sin on the Porch and Canoodle, Bertie, Floppy With the Mopsy On Top, I’ll be Your Borzoi Baby f you Tell Me How to Woof Woof Woof, I Never Said I’d Be Your Hotsy-Totsy Girl.”

“Stop laughing.” Emma takes the records away from me, points with one long finger to a name, written with nib pen in faded brown ink on the brown-paper record sleeve. “See?”

The last name is undoubtedly Jones. The first name is harder to make out. It might conceivably be Violet, I suppose. It might as conceivably be William, or Urquhart, or Noel.

Emma leans close, so she’s staring straight at me, eye to eye. “She left home. She was little more than a child when she left home. She was forced to leave home. She was singing songs like these, in public, with a guitar. Her parents thought…” She trails off, stares in the fire. “Can you imagine what it was like for her, a sixteen year old girl, making her way across America alone?”

The wind comes up, rustling the papers, freezing us, pushing the fire up into a blaze. I edge back into the darkness and the cold.

“How did she get to Europe, then?”

“Stowed away. On the Brummagen Maid, New York into Liverpool.”

“You know this for sure?”

She’s quieter now. “I don’t know anything for sure.”

Lorraine picks up her fiddle, plays something that sounds like a funeral jig.

“So what’s that?”

Lorraine shakes her head, continues to play. Emma says, “Something of Pansy’s, we think. It’s from a BBC Archives tape. That was when it was still the British Broadcasting Company, before it was the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was taped at a tea dance in Sloane Square.”

“So they got together, when?”

Emma gain. “On the Orient Express, we think. They were busking.”

Lorraine puts down the violin, shakes her head. “I think it was in Berlin, in a nightclub.”

Will Shetterly, who has come over to the fire with an armful of logs, says, “There’s a school of thought that claims they never met at all. That it was another couple of women entirely, with the same names. Like who wrote Shakespeare, that stuff.” He puts the logs on the fire and walks away, stopping just before he leaves the circle of light, where he turns, and stands, and stares at me.

Lorraine passes me some photocopies of old newspapers, lines of type highlighted in red. A review from the Preston Sentinel of a performance at the Alhambra Theatre in Preston, Lancashire— “Also on the bill were … two young Ladies”, another from The Daily Telegraph, reviewing a performance at the London Piccodrome “”Two ladies … were also … playing instruments and singing … competently …

“Pansy and Violet?”

Emma and Lorraine nod, together, like one person. Lorraine passes me a videotape from the guitar case. Handwritten on the side are two movies titles—Broadway Gold-Diggers of 1932 and She Done Him Bad.

I grin at this. “She Done Him Bad?”

Lorraine stares at me. “It was a very famous film in its day. MGM. It starred Myrna Carlton and Harold “Buster” Brake.”

“Who?”

She just stares at me. “Pansy and Violet sing a song in it. I think they’re meant to be hookers or flappers or something.”

“You can’t tell?”

“The picture’s a bit fuzzy. We taped it off the television one night. But it’s definitely them. They’re doing I Think It Must Be Something I Ate. You know.” She sings, “This is not my kind of June, even birds sing out of tune….”

“That’s one of their songs?”

“Definitely,” says Emma.

“Probably,” says Lorraine.

Will Shetterly, standing behind Emma, now, staring into the fire, catches my eye, shakes his head vigorously.

“So, do you have any, uh, tapes, or anything, of their performances?”

Emma: “Not as such. But you can reconstruct them.”

Lorraine: “We’re not the only fans of theirs. Not at all. They were going to be on This Is Your Life, in the fifties. They were going to reunite them after all this time.”

“Did they?”

Emma laughs, as if I had just asked a very stupid question. Lorraine tosses her head, covering her face with hair, and looks away.

“Lorraine? What’s wrong? Did I say something wrong?”

“Nothing,” she says. “Nothing’s wrong.”

“So, Pansy Smith and Violet Jones. When did you two get interested in them? In their music?”

“When I was a girl,” says Emma. “I had a great-aunt who thought she’d seen them perform in Martin’s Ferry, the year of the bad storms. She said you could never forget them. She said that they had something.”

Lorraine’s still looking away from me. She says, “All my life,” very quietly.

Emma stirs the contents of the guitar case with her hands, stirs the tapes and the papers and the video and the photographs.

I try again. “Isn’t there anything certain about them? Are they still alive? Are there any contemporary records? Anything you can show me? I mean, you can’t ask me to write an article about them for this album of yours and then give me, I don’t know, nothing…”

Will, standing behind them, is making zip-it movements with his hand across his mouth. I try to ignore him. “I mean, from what you’re both saying now, it sounds like you’ve devoted your lives to recreating the musical achievements of two women who might not even have existed.”

Emma prods the fire with a stick. She smiles, but it’s a pitying smile, as if I just don’t get it and probably never will. “I suppose when you put it that way it does sound a little odd,” she says, perhaps amused.

Lorraine has picked up her violin, and is cradling it, like a child. “Emma? Make him go away?” she mutters. “Make him go away.”

Will’s making wrap-it-up gestures. I shrug. I don’t care. I thought I was trying to do them a favour.

It’s getting really cold now. I stand up and begin to walk back in the house.

That’s when the music starts. I turn around: Emma and Lorraine are playing, in the firelight, something odd and funny and strange, and dancing as they play, round and round the flickering pile of burning wood.

Will is taking the papers, the photographs, even the old 78 records, from the guitar case and, one by one, he is dropping them into the fire.

Neil Gaiman
October, 1993

© 1993 Neil Gaiman


An Afterword

I watch her. I am the First. I was here long ago, as I am now. For tonight, I break my silence to tell you who SHE is.

SHE looked for Pansy and Violet, with the other, Emma, The Flash Girls. I cannot tell you what they found, in the end. And what happened, that is a tale for another time.

I can tell you of now. After the Flash Girls SHE formed a band called FolkUnderGround, a trio who put out two cd’s before becoming a duo, so called Paul and Lorraine. And in between SHE made an album called “Mirror Mirror” in a band called Lorraine a’ Malena. I can tell you  Paul and Lorraine might still be found playing in Minneapolis.

I can tell you SHE means to spend time this year recording the songs that don’t fit in anywhere else, and that SHE will post them here, for you to listen to.

I can tell you that you should listen to her.

If you would like to tell her a secret, tell her SHE should come home.

I am hungry. I will speak no more.

Freaky Venus Seaweed
February 2009

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