Under the autumn sky, around the lake another time I walk. Brisk air tossing my hair about, and I catch sight of them. Grey and grand, they are silent above me. Determined necks, strong wings in the bluster, they move onward. Moving together toward a destination – built in the bones. Just being geese, they pursue what has been etched into their beings, and they live.
For two weeks now, I’ve been working hard on “Green Dolphin Street”, “Take The A Train” and a couple other songs best sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Geese in the currents overhead, I think about her. Baby Ella born to a laundry girl and the shipyard boyfriend – the gene donor didn’t stay long. She said once in an interview “… I never met him.”. Moving from Newport News, Virginia to New York, Ella, her Momma and the current boyfriend settled in. Life seems to have gone well for the family; a sister born, attending both school and church.
Then things got hard. An auto accident took the life of Ella’s mother. Just after she died, her boyfriend treated Ella wrong. Ella was a young teen. Time passed. An auntie finally came for Ella, moved her in with her family, but it was too late, Ella’s life had already begun the backward slide. Failing grades, she skipped school and roamed about in the shadows of New York, dancing the streets of Harlem for a penny. Ella was caught for truancy and placed in a reform school. The reformatory was a horrible place. The girls there were beat by male guards. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she found a way to run. For some time she lived homeless on the streets of New York. No year is better for living on the streets than another, except maybe for the years during The Depression – when she was homeless. She survived somehow, did all kinds of odd jobs… slept wherever she could.
One night she decided to participate at an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. Ella loved to dance, but when she saw the Edwards Sisters dance their socks off just before she was to go on, she changed her mind and decided to sing. The crowd wasn’t pleased at the sight of her. She looked homeless and unkempt, because she was. But when she started to sing, the audience went silent. A well known drummer in the audience realized this girl had something, and whisk her away to talk to the powers that be. The answer was no. They wanted a man, not a woman. What they were really saying was that she looked like heck, and would not have her. Well she was given another chance, she cleaned up, sang, and the rest is history. Ella provided the world with music from age 17 to age 79. Sold 40 million albums and won 13 grammy awards.
Ella, a black homeless girl during the depression, on the streets of New York City, chewed up and spit out by life. Orphaned, molested, a school dropout, thrown in juvie, a runaway, homeless. When she was given a chance, it wasn’t for the amazing body beneath tattered misfit hand-me-down’s and dirt. Wasn’t discovered for a startlingly unusual voice, though lovely. Wasn’t chosen for her ability to charm musicians into choosing her. She was too plain, too shy, and socially awkward at times. Like the Geese that fly, no matter the weather, driven to be, she was herself – herself was just what the world needed.
Circumstances can’t remove a core blueprint. I wonder how she kept mind lies from stripping from us six decades of herself? What prevented her from believing lies in her head that whispered she’s a nobody, that she’s got no business singing for people at an amature hour. A brave moment. A strong moment. A moment of taking to the skies, doing what she was made for, just being. She let her unique internal grid be her true north.
At times, over the years, dark thoughts did tormented her. There were times she felt like nothing, wanting to hide because of her failed marriages, and her body size. A person who gives the best of themselves is not the person who has no dark thoughts. It’s is the person who doesn’t let the dark thoughts stop movement forward. She continued to put herself out there despite the struggles.
Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote just after Ella’s death “Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.” Some things have changed in our world since that day. Some things have stayed the same. There are still homeless overlooked, rarely given a chance to be. Children are still being orphaned, beat, molested. Some still treat others as beneath themselves. At the same time, society has attempted to make laws and movies and music, poems and books for teaching us to accept others different from ourselves. Ella didn’t set out to change the world. She set out to be, despite what she lacked. Every time a person does that, the world changes.
Ella, lately you come with me when I walk under autumn skies. I watch the Canadian Geese above me. Your songs, they soak into my bones. I think about the beauty of each human being.
… the baby born to a young mother and boyfriend
…the little one raised by a step-dad
… the child living in poverty
… the orphaned child
… the molested child
… the child running the streets
… the child harmed by the system
..each one with an internal grid
for giving this sorry world something wonderful
– built into the bones, just being.
And I think of Ella.