Taking you back to Sunshine Sue

Published 9:42 am Wednesday, November 9, 2011

by James D. ‘Archie’ Howell

Our household is excited. There’s talk about music and singers. Our relationship with music is usually something associated with church, or children’s songs repeated for the thousandth time to pass away hours on the farm. Or from our single radio located in my parents’ bedroom. Something is in the wind.

It’s a weekday night, but we’re dressed in our Sunday best, in the truck, headed for town. We park someplace and walk to the high school front door. Inside are a ticket seller and some posters for Sunshine Sue and the

Valley Gang along with other guest appearances. Sunshine Sue had a Saturday night radio show from Richmond, “The Old Dominion Barn Dance.” Wow.

We make our way into the auditorium and find seats somewhere in the center section.

Curtains are pulled across the stage, but they leave a small slit of vision to the beyond at the very bottom where they do not quite reach the floor. In the beyond are bright lights and movement, and the occasional musical sound from a phantom instrument.

Feet can be seen, but not identified. A ripple in the curtain follows an invisible person’s walk from one side of the stage to the other.

Our place in the audience allows us the full impact of the show goer’s experience. People shuffle for seats. Some rise in their seats to allow others to pass.

Laughter rides the top of crowd noise; the atmosphere is light and lively. The windows have been cranked open a little for ventilation. We are waiting to be entertained. It’s my first real live music show performance

It’s getting dark in the auditorium; someone, somewhere is turning out the lights, and the audience is growing quieter. I’m all anticipation and ears.

The unmistakable sound of an accordion peals out from the opening curtain, followed by notes from many instruments I’ve never heard. There are some guitars, a tall string bass, a violin player and some other musicians playing instruments that I didn’t know.

It all sounds wild, upbeat and harmonious, although I do not yet know what that means. The crowd applauds and yells like a greeting to visiting royalty. It’s all glowing and wonderful to me.

Sunshine Sue starts a show full of old folk songs and new tunes:

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…”

“Oh where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, Oh where have you been, charming Billy…”

The show moves smoothly. Sunshine Sue introduces the band: “Crazy” Joe Maphis and his wife, Rose Lee. Another group is called the North Carolina Tobacco Tags. Her husband, John “Sugarfoot” Workman, plays a guitar. She seems real proud to introduce a family — Mother Maybelle Carter and her daughters, Helen, Anita, and June. There’s some comedy during the show. Somebody dressed up in funny clothes and hats.

During intermission, the lights come on and some people go up and down the aisles selling small music books, with Sunshine Sue’s picture on the front, and autographed pictures and other things.

The audience has a chance to move around and find a restroom, and go outside to smoke. People mingle with other people that they know. After awhile, folks wander back to their seats and the lights go out for the second half.

Sunshine Sue opens the curtains again with her accordion playing and more songs:

“I was born in Renfro Valley, but I drifted far away…”

“I’ll give to you some paper and pins, and that’s the way our love begins…

A banjo player called Grandpa Jones played some familiar songs also

“Here Rattler, here, here, here Rattler here,

Call ol’ Rattler from the barn….”

It was really something. The audience laughed and clapped, and laughed and clapped some more until the final curtain closed.

We made it back to our truck and rode the short trip home filled with sights and sounds we’ve never before seen or heard.

My travels have included music shows large and small, in many places and languages. I approach each with no expectations and am always thrilled.

None are more memorable than a high school auditorium with crank open windows and an accordion playing, flashily dressed, lady with an entourage of to-be legends. At stage productions, I still look at the bottom of the curtain to see what’s back there.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High school. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.