It was 1939, I was five years old, attending the Phoebe Hearst Free Kindergarten, in Lead, South Dakota. I remember the teacher telling us to sing a song to the class, each in turn. For some reason I remember the inside of that large room where we were sitting in a circle on the floor. I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I have that event secure in my memory.

My classmates sang children’s songs like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and other such ditties. My repertoire was different, even unique. My mother was a barroom piano player. She said she played ragtime but that was above her pay grade. She played drive piano style, by ear, in every bar, club and rowdy country dance hall in the Black Hills and seemed to know every song ever written. If someone requested a song and she played it, they gave her a dollar. If she couldn’t play it, she gave them the dollar, and she gave away very few dollars.

She practiced playing every day, and I knew most of the damn songs myself. So when it came my turn to sing, I had three songs in mind. “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “When They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree”, and “The Irish Washwoman.” I chose “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”

Ragtime Cowboy Joe

Ragtime Cowboy Joe

I know the lyrics the way I sang them, and they’re damn close to correct. Here are the words as I knew them at five years old and remember them now. I sang them loud and rowdy in my mother’s robust style, and with broad gestures.

Ragtime cowboy, Ragtime cowboy, Ragtime cowboy Joe.
He always sings as he swings into the saddle,
on a horse, pretty good horse, a syncopated gaiter,
and there is nothing sweeter than the roar of his repeater.

How they run when they hear that fella’s gun
because the western folks all know,
he’s a rootin’ tootin’ sonofagun
from Arizona,
Ragtime Cowboy,
talk about your cowboy,
Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

I didn’t hesitate a moment but went right into “When They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree.”

The Old Pine Tree

The Old Pine Tree

They cut down the old pine tree
and hauled it away to the mill,
to build a coffin of pine
for that sweet heart of mine,
when they cut down the old pine tree.

But she’s not alone in her grave at night,
for that’s where my heart will always be.
Though we drifted apart
’til they cut down my heart,
when they cut down the old pine tree.

I was going into The Irish Washwoman, but the teacher stopped me. That was a good idea because I only knew mother’s bawdy version. She sent a note home saying that children should not be singing those types of songs in kindergarten or anywhere else.

Do you ever have a tune in your head that just won’t go away? I have a dozen or more from those times that I can’t get rid of. My mother brainwashed me by endlessly playing them on that old, upright, Gulbransen piano. Here’s an image and a song for you:

P. D. Hogan's Saddle

P. D. Hogan’s Saddle

Thanks for visiting me…


P.S. Last week, this interview appeared on the NC Arboretum blog: Meet the Colorman. My exhibition will be up until September 18th, so if you haven’t seen it yet be sure to get there soon; it has been selling well.

14 thoughts on “Kindergarten

  1. leo, your are amazing, a very talented, special person. enjoyed your blog and hope to see you and your exhibit. many thanks, jo swift

  2. Jump in yer saddle ‘n git on down ‘ere!

    Glad you’re enjoying my wandering memories.

  3. Much more interesting tunes than “Mary had a Little Lamb”!
    My mother used to sing me “Jeepers, Creepers,” and “Mares Eat Oats.” We always had music playing, though maybe not quite as colorful as your mom’s repertoire. :-)

  4. Leo, I love this story! I read it to my wife and we both had a good laugh.

    I also love The Old Pine Tree piece pictured above. That is one of my favorites – if not THE favorite – of your works I’ve seen…

    Thank you for this post!


  5. This was really fun to read! (read it to my guys sitting at a pool at the beach) :) thanks for the laugh!

  6. I like the new direction you’ve taken with your art, but please don’t sing to me.
    Really some damn good work, ol’ buddy.

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