• Broadkill Review

"Kum Ba Yah"


By Peter Barlow


The place wasn’t much to look at. Short with white siding stuck on with all the care of an angry eight-year-old, it was clearly a double-wide set straight on the ground despite all best efforts to make it look like something better than what it was. The yard around it was well kept, the lawn freshly cut, flowers blooming in their beds. Maybe getting the place fixed up was out of budget, but then living on Amelia Island wasn’t cheap. Nowhere in coastal Florida was.

The golf cart I was riding in came to a stop at the foot of the walk to the front door. “Okay,” the driver said in a voice slow enough to convey all the apathy it needed to. “This is the one.”

“She in there?” I said.

“Man, she a hundred. She don’t go nowhere ‘cept to the store and I’s the one has to take her. Even the doctor come to her, she so old.”

I stepped out of the cart. “Thanks. I can walk back up to the front of the park. You don’t have to wait on me.”

The cart putted off in the direction we’d come from. The walk to the front door only showed off more disrepair. Paint that looked possibly fresh from the streets became more chipped and fraying with each step. The screen door was some 1x2’s nailed together with wire mesh stapled to the front. Trying not to break it, I knocked on the frame of the screen.

“Hello?” I said it as loud as I could to try and get through the door. “Grandma Wilson?”

As I stood there and waited for an answer I turned and looked at some of the other trailers nearby. All of them showed the same signs of minor disrepair, of tenants who seemed to have just given up and decided that the exterior meant only so much or couldn’t afford to do more with what little they had. I expected to see one or two sets of eyes looking out at me, but if any were they were being discreet about it.

I let a full sixty seconds pass before knocking again. “Grandma Wilson? You in there?” All I got back was the sound of the wind chimes on the porch across the street. I opened the screen door as gingerly as I could—it weighed less than most newspapers—and pounded on the inside door. On the third knock, the hinges separated from the door frame and the door fell inward, landing on the floor with a large thump. The first thing I noticed was the smell, like spoiled fruit multiplied by a factor of several dozen. I took a couple of steps back and sucked in as much fresh air as I could. Say what you will about these mobile homes, but they can keep the inside in and the outside out. I didn’t even need to go inside to know what the source of the smell was. She was a hundred, after all. After wondering how long it had been since anyone checked on her, I called for help.

By the time the police turned up, the stench started to fade a little. I leaned against a speed limit sign and waited for the cop to come take my statement. First he went inside the house wearing a surgical mask as if that would keep the smell out, and came out again gagging and fanning himself. Built like a linebacker though he was, he was as susceptible to the smell of death as anyone else. He had a brief word with the EMTs before finally coming in my direction. He looked paler than before he went inside the trailer, but his eyes told me that he was thinking hard about what to ask, harder than he should have had to. I got the impression that anything bigger than a parking ticket would be too difficult for him. “You’re the guy that found her?” he said.

I nodded.

“D’you see anything suspicious?”

The EMTs said that Grandma Wilson had been dead a while, a week maybe, maybe longer. I assumed that was part of the conversation between them and the cop; if it was, he’d forgotten it already or he was trying to be clever. “No,” I said.

“D’you know her?”

I shrugged. “Not really. She’s my grandmother, my father’s mother, but I fell out of touch with that side of the family when I was a kid.”

The pause before he spoke lasted a dozen seconds. “Uh-huh. And why’s that?”

It took willpower to not give a reply that involved an insult to his parentage. Going through my father’s issues about his inability to keep his pants on with anyone but my mother wasn’t happening anyway, at least not without my attorney present. “Isn’t this the part where you ask me for my statement?” I said, trying to point the conversation back in the right direction.

“Oh. Yeah.” Three seconds separated each word. “Got a clipboard for you.”

“You’re not holding a clipboard.”

He chewed the inside of his cheek and stared at me.

“That’ll be fine, Billy,” came a voice from behind me. “Go and make sure they get her loaded, okay?”

Billy nodded three or four times as if pondering each letter of the command separately, and then turned and went back to the ambulance. After watching him go for a second, I turned around to find another uniformed officer wearing cop shades. On him they looked excessively large.

“Officer Hegstrom,” the man said. “You’ll have to forgive Billy. Procedures may not be his thing but he comes in handy every weekend when we have bar fights to break up.”

I nodded. That explanation at least made sense.

“There’s a clipboard for you back in the squad car. Later for that. Give me the Reader’s Digest version of what’s got you in front of Mrs. Wilson’s house.”

“Her attorney.” The fill-in was quick and simple: I’d gotten a phone call saying she was near the end of her days, and as her last living relative she wanted to pass something down to me despite not having met in thirty-plus years. My parents divorced when I was a kid, and the few times my father brought me back we didn’t say much to each other. She only spoke an offshoot of Creole called Gullah; I had never learned it. My father drank himself to death when I was in high school, and after that I fell out of touch. There didn’t seem to be much point in keeping contact, not when we didn’t speak the same language.

Hegstrom scratched at his cheek and looked at the house again. “Knew she had kids. Never did hear what happened to them. You have any idea what it is you’re supposed to get?” I pulled out my camera phone and flipped through the pictures on it until I found the one I was after, and turned it over to Hegstrom. “What is it I’m looking at here?”

“A wax cylinder recording. Precursor to vinyl.”

He nodded, but the look on his face told me he didn’t really understand. “Family heirloom?”

“You could say that.”

“Important?”

“Apparently.”

Hegstrom looked around at the group of people that were still there. Most of them were engaged in conversation. “Any idea where she kept it?” He must have seen my face because he went right on talking. “Course not. Y’ain’t seen her in years and you didn’t even get in the house. Okay.” He looked at the people again. “Well, something special like that, I’d sure hate for it to be tied up in probate. What say you just wander into the house while they’re all distracted and have a look? Everyone should be out by now, so won’t be anyone to ask questions.”

I looked at the people myself. “If somebody catches me?”

“Then I gotta arrest you for trespassing. Don’t let nobody see you, and if you find it don’t let nobody see that either. It being important and all, I’d say start with her closets.” He shifted his weight and gave me his card. “Maybe later this afternoon you make it into the station, we get a proper statement from you. Ain’t nobody looking.” He walked away from me then and headed toward the EMTs that were still clustered around the ambulance.

I went back to the front door and, making sure no one was paying real attention, stepped between the police tapes and went inside. The wide-open door had helped the place air out and lose that dead corpse smell. Her living room was clean, nothing that looked like it didn’t belong. I headed toward the bedroom intending to search the closet, but I didn’t get that far. A box with a large bow on top was sitting on her vanity. Inside was the cylinder. I took the bow off, put it to one side, and headed back for the front door. No one saw me leave.

The walk up to my rental car at the front of the mobile home park was quiet. I felt a tad conspicuous carrying the box, but if anyone actually saw me they were inside their own units. I let the inside of my car air out before driving the three miles back to my hotel.

Once I’d gotten to my room, I examined the box. There wasn’t much to it, just a hinged top, a pair of cotton gloves and a little black notebook held to the lid by a strap, the wax cylinder in the base resting on some padding. I decided to leave the cylinder alone rather than tempt fate by pulling it out and possibly breaking it. Instead I pulled the black notebook from the strap, closed the lid, and flipped it against the table as I dialed the attorney on my cellphone. Now I had the thing, I needed to know what to do next. The attorney picked up on the second ring, we exchanged pleasantries, and I got to business. “There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is she’s dead.”

The attorney sighed. “I hadn’t heard from her since the day I contacted you two weeks ago. I figured something was up. What’s the good news?”

“I’ve got the cylinder.” I related the short version of how the trip to Grandma Wilson’s house had gone, leaving Billy out. “So I’m back in my room with a wax cylinder that I don’t know what to do with.”

“She was supposed to get you a little black notebook too.”

“Yup. Got that. It was in the lid of the box.”

“Great. In that, toward the front should be a phone number for a fella called Ben White. Your grandmother wants you to play that recording at her funeral. He knows what to do with the cylinder, how to get a copy of the recording, all of that.”

I sighed. “I have to plan a funeral too?”

“No, I just have to make a couple of calls. She had everything arranged ages ago. If I can swing it, it’ll be day after tomorrow. I hope you can stay in town that long. Call the White fella. She said he’s important, he’ll know what to do.”

We hung up on each other and I opened the little black notebook. The first two pages were taken by what looked like just a random jumble of letters; they might have been words, but in what language I didn’t know. The page after that had the name written in very untidy handwriting and a phone number with a 202 area code. I took a moment and looked that up—Washington, D.C. My curiosity was piqued.

I didn’t expect this: “Hello, you’ve reached the offices of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Para Español, oprima ocho. If you know your party’s extension, you may dial it at any time. Otherwise, please remain on the line for the operator.” Some music started playing then. I stared at the box, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. I thought I was just collecting a cylinder from a deceased grandparent. I was so wrapped up in dreams of intrigue that I nearly missed the receptionist getting on the line. “American Folklife Center. How may I direct your call?”

“Benjamin White, please.”

“One minute for Dr. White.”

The music came back on then, and all I could think was: Doctor?

It wasn’t three seconds before a woman picked up. “Director’s Office.”

Director? I tried not to stammer or sound nervous. “Dr. Benjamin White, please.”

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Well, I guess I’m calling on behalf of Ernestine Wilson,” I said.

“One moment.” The music came back on. I was still a little shell-shocked. Doctor? Director? Who on Earth had I called, and what did this have to do with my grandmother? It was as that thought and all its myriad of answers went through my head when the next voice came on the phone.

“This is Ben White,” he said.

“Yes, I’m calling on behalf of Ernestine Wilson.”

“Ah, yes. Mrs. Wilson. How is she doing these days? Last time I talked with her—”

“She’s dead.”

There was a long silence from the other end of the line. “I’m sorry to hear that, Mr.—?”

“Wilson. Thomas Wilson. I’m her grandson.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Wilson. I take it you’re at least partially aware of the arrangement your grandmother made with us.”

“I’m not, actually. Her attorney only told me to call you about getting a recording of what’s on the wax cylinder.”

“Well, that’s part of it. In order to do that, the cylinder needs to come here to the Library.”

I rubbed my eyes. “I have no way of getting up to D.C. and back. Not in two days anyway. That’s when the funeral’s supposed to be.”

There was a slight pause. “Which hotel are you staying at?”

I told him and he said to sit tight and he’d get back to me within the hour. We hung up on each other, and I felt more confused than I had before I called. I stared at the box, willing it to give me some answers, but it just sat there like boxes will do.

About twenty minutes later someone knocked at my hotel room door. It was Officer Hegstrom. “Damnedest thing,” he said, passing me and entering the room before I could say anything. “I’m back at the station five minutes, used the can, got myself a cup of joe, and a call comes in from one of our Senators. Well, hell, what’d I do to earn that? I said to myself. Somebody in Amelia Island died this morning and she owned a very important piece of American history that needs to get to D.C. pronto. Okay, I says, so what? Turns out her grandson went by and got that thing this morning and he’s staying right here at this hotel.”

I stayed silent. It seemed the thing to do.

“So this Senator is sending a private jet here in about an hour to take the guy and that very important piece of American history up to Washington. In the meantime, I’m supposed to keep him company. Any idea who that might be?”

I stared at him for a second, then gestured at the television. “I was just watching a documentary.”

Hegstrom pointed at the box. “Just what is that a recording of?”

“I don’t rightly know.”

He sat down on the bed and looked back and forth between me and the box.

“You know, Amelia Island ain’t that big. It’s big enough we don’t all know each other, but it ain’t so big we don’t have a few local colorful characters everyone in town knows about. Your grandma was one of ‘em. She didn’t hardly get out no more, but back when she did she was something. She liked dressing in loud colors and outfits and such. I grew up here. I knew who she was. She never had nothin’ much. Moved into that trailer thirty years ago, not too long after you stopped turning up. That place was all she had. I reckon the most valuable thing she had outside of family is in that box there, if a Senator’s calling down after it.” He cleared his throat, and after a minute shook his head. “Anyway, they said to not check you out of the hotel. They said they’d call the hotel themselves, let ‘em know what’s going on. Your flight home has been re-booked too. The government knows everything.”

“I’m coming back tonight?”

“Don’t rightly know, but it’ll be late if you are.” He looked at his watch. “There’s a diner on the way out to the airfield does a pretty decent lunch if you’re interested. We can lock the box in my trunk.”

I thought about it for a minute then clicked off the television. “Beats waiting here.”

The diner was as good as advertised. The décor and menu were leftover from when Elvis was big the first time around. Hegstrom, now he’d said his piece, was silent except for a friendly exchange with the waitress that could only have happened if he was a belovèd regular. I didn’t have anything to start a conversation with, distracted as I was with musings about the cylinder. Grandma Wilson had put some effort into what she wanted to have happen with it, made contact with some people who would be interested in it themselves. Why she hadn’t followed through sooner was a question, but there was no answering it.

Hegstrom paid for the lunch on a city credit card. One silent ten-minute drive after that we were at the airfield. A Lear jet that looked only slightly bigger than a biplane was on the tarmac. I looked at the plane as Hegstrom handed me the box. I exhaled through pursed lips. “Well, sir.”

Hegstrom held up a hand. “Listen, people liked your grandma, even those of us couldn’t talk to her. People here don’t know you, though, don’t trust you. Whatever it is you gotta do at the funeral, show them you’re at least a little interested in where you came from. They might like you then, and it’d help them heal.”

The Lear jet was slightly bigger than it looked from the outside but still not very big. I couldn’t stand upright, but what the interior lacked in height it more than made up for in comfort. The half dozen seats were all leather. Four of them faced sideways along the fuselage and were situated opposite a minibar. A flat screen television was mounted from the ceiling directly behind the pilot, who was fiddling with some dials. It reminded me of a very small limousine. The pilot told me to stow the box in the space beneath my seat and buckle in. Five minutes later we were in the air. Five minutes after that I was given permission to watch movies and raid the minibar.

Two hours, three cans of cola, and one spy movie later we were touching down at Andrews Field. The jet taxied over to one of the smaller hangars, and as I got out I noticed a car parked a hundred feet away. Standing next to it was a man my age in a suit, looking somewhat expectant. “Thomas Wilson?” he said as I approached him. “I’m Ben White, Director of the American Folklife Museum. Welcome to Washington. Please, take a seat and we’ll be off.”

Another man in a suit took the box from me and put it in the trunk as I slid into the back seat of the car. Dr. White took the seat next to me as the other man got behind the wheel.

“I feel very important,” I said, because I did. “Very secret agenty.”

Dr. White chuckled. “The lear jet you flew in on is informally known as Air Force Four. Whenever the Vice President’s wife has to leave town on her own, she flies in that. She’s in Atlanta this week at a conference. The Vice President and I went to college together. He went into law, I went into library sciences, but we ran with the same crowd the whole time and we’ve stayed in touch. I’m one of maybe a dozen people outside of his family that has his direct cell number. One phone call, and— well, here you are.”

“Wow.” I wondered what the recording was that merited flying me here in such an important aircraft.

Some of that must have been on my face. “You haven’t been told anything, have you? About what it is you’ve got.”

“I— no. That’s part of what I meant by feeling like a secret agent.”

Dr. White sighed and wrung his hands. “Some of this I hoped you’d heard already. I don’t know that I’m necessarily the right person to be telling you all this, but I don’t know that anyone else can.

“The American Folklife Museum was founded by a man named Robert Winslow Gordon. In 1926, he recorded a song of praise called ‘Come by Here’ on a wax cylinder. He spent parts of the next two years in and out of the South, making transcriptions and recordings of folk music whenever and wherever he could. He recorded three more songs called ‘Come by Here’ on wax cylinders during those years, but they weren’t all the same. One was about Daniel in the den of lions, a different song entirely. Another cylinder was broken before anyone could make a copy of it, so it’s gone to history.

“The third was recorded on a trip to Amelia Island. He decided to visit a church one Sunday, just to get his religion, and had no way of knowing before the service started that it would be conducted entirely in Gullah. He spoke it—all of the Directors of the Museum since him have spoken it at least a little, myself included—so that wasn’t that big of a deal. During the service, he heard a young girl sing the melody to ‘Come by Here’, but the words had been translated into Gullah. After the service, Gordon approached the girl and asked her to make a wax cylinder recording of the song and she agreed. Later that night, before he could leave Amelia Island, it was stolen and has been considered lost ever since. Then I got a call from your grandmother’s attorney, and it wasn’t so lost anymore.

“Your grandmother, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, was the girl Robert Winslow Gordon recorded all those years ago. The cylinder—” Dr. White gave the trunk of the car a glance “—if it’s authentic is the first known recording of the song ‘Kum Ba Yah’.”

I fell back into the seat, mouth wide open. “Holy cow.”

“Exactly. That’s a fairly significant piece of history in that box, American or otherwise. The first thing is we have to get it to play. The technology that was used to record wax cylinders is pretty much gone. We had a machine built, waiting for Mrs. Wilson to die or otherwise pass the cylinder on.” At that last sentence my face went flush. He suddenly seemed less like a librarian and more like a vulture. ”I don’t mean to offend, truly. She let us know what she wanted to have happen with it a couple of months ago. We’ve been building a wax cylinder player since then. Made a recorder to test it out with and it worked, so we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Five minutes later we stopped in front of a large white office building. “This is it,” Dr. White said, and opened his door. Half a beat later, the trunk thumped open.

I looked at the building. “This isn’t the Library of Congress,” I said.

“No. That is.” He pointed to a much larger building set back some from the street at the top of a long circular drive. “Half of the administrator offices are over here, though, including mine.”

I took the box from the trunk as Dr. White gave some instructions to the driver, who nodded and got back into the car. Inside the building was a hallway that looked like every other office building hallway I’d ever been in. We took an elevator up to the sixth floor, and he led me to a conference room where two men in lab coats were fiddling with a machine that looked like a gramophone horn stuck to a device that read the inner cardboard from a toilet roll.

I gave the box to one of the technicians, who looked inside and cooed admiringly. “It’s in excellent shape,” he said. “If it’s shrunk, it isn’t very much.” He put on a pair of surgical gloves and then reached in and lifted the cylinder out. It looked small and delicate, like a newborn. I found myself holding my breath, hoping that the technician didn’t damage it. The two technicians had it mounted on the machine a couple of minutes later. One of them clicked a mouse attached to a laptop and nodded. The other said, “Ready,” and lowered the stylus to the cylinder as slowly and gently as he could. From the massive cone on top came a lot of static for a few seconds and then a young girl’s voice. She sang a couple of quick scales as a warm-up, and then it came:

Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.

Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.

Kum ba yah, my Lord, kum ba yah.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

She repeated the verse again, and the rest of the cylinder after that was static. I recognized the voice; I hadn’t heard it in thirty-five years but it was definitely Grandma Wilson. A tear came to Dr. White’s eye, and several more than that came to mine. This song I’d known since I was born and that everybody knows one way or another started with my grandmother. A feeling of inadequacy came then, like anything I might ever do would never measure up to the magnitude of that. How was it even possible that no one in my family knew about this?

The technicians checked that the digital recording got made, copied it off onto a flash drive, and gave it to me. I thanked them and exchanged a few last pleasantries before heading back down to the limousine. Dr. White came as far as the curb. “I won’t be going back to Andrews with you,” he said. “I’ve got a few other things to take care of here before I leave for the night. I’ll say this, though. The few times I spoke with your grandmother, such as I could, it was plain that she loved life, loved singing, and didn’t really hate anybody. She was decent. Anymore that’s hard to find.”

The ride back to Andrews and the return flight to Amelia Island on Air Force Four were both uneventful. I spent most of it in quiet contemplation. Mostly I thought about what I’d lost. Grandma Wilson seemed to have been well thought of by everyone who knew her, and I wished I’d known her too. The desire to not see my father’s side of the family was as much driven by my father’s unreliability as it was my mother’s dislike of him after the divorce. Being young, I didn’t have much of a voice in the matter, and by the time I was old enough to know better, not being in touch was so ingrained that it was just part of the fabric. I regretted not reaching out after Dad died and I’d moved out of Mom’s house, and seen what relationship might still be possible.

It was well past dark by the time we touched down on Amelia Island. When the plane came to a stop in front of the hangar, a squad car waited. Officer Billy in civilian attire leaned against the hood. He looked me up and down as I approached him. “Hegstrom says to take you back to your hotel,” he said. His voice had all the warmth of freezer burn.

I nodded. Billy had me sit in back; Hegstrom had let me ride upfront. I felt like a criminal.

“Thing is,” he said after we’d been on the road a couple of minutes, “you ain’t from around here. We don’t know you.”

We made eye contact through the rearview mirror. As jetlagged as I felt, I didn’t have the energy to stop him.

“Everybody likes Mrs. Wilson. She always gives everyone a smile. The bad kids let her alone. They figure they’d get yelled at at home they try something with her. People like her, keep an eye out for her. Me too. Now she’s gone, I don’t know what this town’s gonna do. So when we someone as we don’t know coming around her place, we all watch that person real close.”

I nodded. “You don’t know me. I get it.”

“How long you stickin’ for?”

"Through the funeral. Day after tomorrow.”

Billy gave a noncommittal nod of his head. “She always said nice things to me.”

“You’re the third person I’ve heard say that.”

It wasn’t much longer before Billy had me back at my hotel. He let me out of the back seat, nodded at me (which I figured was as close to an understanding as we’d ever get) and drove off. Up in my room, I washed my face and turned on the television. Nothing interesting was on. The little black notebook was sitting on the bedside table. I opened it to the page of nonsense writing and stared at it for a moment. The more I looked at it, the more it seemed like a bunch of half-formed words. Curious, I looked up the first few online. My searches kept bringing me back to Psalm 23, but why she’d written that out I didn’t understand. A few minutes later, after copying the recording off to my phone for more convenient playback, I nodded off under the influence of jetlag.

— ◊ —

The next day was filled with attempt after attempt at trying to get what little I knew down into coherent words. At the diner next to the hotel (which wasn’t nearly as good as the one Hegstrom had taken me to the day before) I asked the waitress if she’d heard of Grandma Wilson. Of course she had. They’d only met a few times out and about in town but the waitress knew all of the stories about how nice she was. On those few occasions they’d exchanged