Fighting Off the Blues

As we all struggle to deal with issues of social distancing amid having to maintain lives and livelihoods, our household has been doing a lot of communicating by mail–electronic and paper. I was reminded of a historical San Diego County resident who inadvertently provided some advice on the value of “virtual” communication over a century ago..

Eliza Sikes, who lived in the farmhouse I wrote about in an April post, was writing a letter in October of 1881 to her friend Martha Oaks, who lived in northern California. Eliza had gone through a traumatic time. That April, she’d lost Zenas, her husband of 27 years. He’d died in surgery after being kicked in the leg by horse twice over the previous year. His recovery from the first kick had been difficult and the second kick caused a fatal infection.

Since that time Eliza had been dealing with the loss of her life partner while also trying to maintain the family farm with the help of her grown children.

The Sikes and the Oaks had mutual friends and family on farms at both ends of California and Eliza chatted about various acquaintances in her letter, also talking about the presence of game and the weather (“Geese are coming in a little, a good indication for rain.”). Just before closing her letter she wrote this:

“Rest assured your letters are always welcome, being very lonesome. Thought a chat with a friend even on paper might help drive the blues away.”

It was interesting to re-read those words in the context of our current situation. A chat with a distant friend or relative, even on paper or even electronically, can help. Our household can vouch for that.

I was also intrigued by her reference to “the blues.” I turned to an old hardback book I got at a used book sale decades ago, The Father of the Blues, by W.C. Handy. Handy was the composer of some of the first professionally published blues songs, including “Memphis Blues” and “Saint Louis Blues.” Those songs were originally published in 1912 and 1914, respectively, but in his book Handy traces the origins of the blues to folk music he heard growing up as the child of former slaves in Alabama. In his youth in the 1880s and 1890s, working as an itinerant musician, he wrote of the influence of the music he heard sung and played by farm field hands, railroad workers and others in rural and urban areas across the country.

Whether Eliza Sikes had heard such music or not, she understood the same feelings that Handy did when he wrote that “Suffering and hard luck were the midwives that birthed these songs. The blues were conceived in aching hearts.”

Sources for this post:

Section on the Sikes household from Sikes Adobe Farmhouse and Landscape Historic Structures Report, written by Stephen Van Wormer and Susan Walter, published in 2008.

Father of the Blues, by W.C. Handy, published in 1957.

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