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Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015

J. Hurley Kaylor's inspired years

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Not long ago, making room for new accessions in the Bushwhacker Museum's crowded, rather chaotic. archival and library space, this writer unearthed a thick sheaf of manuscript, reminiscent of a papyrus roll right out of the Great Library of Alexandria.

The old accession record, rolled up with the rest, identified the discovery, or rediscovery: "Sheet music manuscripts," it called it, "of J. Hurley Kaylor." They'd reached the Museum (i.e. the old jail), it went on to reveal, via then curator James H. Gulliford, on October 19, 1977. The donor was Kenneth Flaten, Milo, a sometime State Hospital employee, who shared with old Hurley the vocation (among others) of piano tuner, plus presumably the love of music in general. Whether Kenny had gotten the papers straight from Hurley himself or from his estate at its dispersal, at his 1970 death (aged 101), or sometime thereafter, remains an open question.

Gulliford's accession record specified only three of the fourteen items that met the eye when the bundle was unrolled. One was Kaylor's familiar "Weltmer March," the other two the work of strange hands. Or strange pens or pencils; for these were "manuscripts" indeed (meaning "handwritings"), not printed sheet music. The only printing on the bY2 x 131/2 inch sheets are groups of green lines, the scaffolding for the composer to build his musical edifice on. Such a line layout is called a "staff," we're told, and the blank forms themselves by extension generically sometimes called "staff." Suchlikes are still being printed and sold.

For the most part the bundle seemed to be "copy" for early-published Kaylor sheet music. Instructions to the printer clutter the margins: "Title page all green." "Green large block letters." "Put copyright in Roman numerals." Hurley's Roman-numeral copyrights seem to begin with MDCCCXCVI (1896) and range past MDCDI (1901)

Yet the manuscripts aren't all Kaylor work. Nor do all his, present here, lyrics and all, appear among the fourteen lyric-less inclusions in his well-known "Musical Folio," published only in 1946 (though one writer dates it to 1937).

Many have chronicled J. Hurley Kaylor's long life in full detail: Betty Sterett, Lucille Bussinger, Richard Carpenter (just this year). Even Ken Postlethwaite had a go, anonymously inditing, in his inimitable style, more of an elegy than an editorial or obituary. Einstein, Beethoven, Ruskin, Schweitzer-who but "K.E.P." could have crammed so many exalted parallels into a terse editorial adieu to a deceased smalltown centenarian?

Rather than yet another life story, this effort will limit itself to that seemingly overlooked ingle facet of Hurley's years, his composing heyday, on which the Museum rediscovery shed such tantalizing light. While Hurley's musical interest lasted till the very end, his "inspiration," as with more famous prodigies, came and went early on, like a shooting star. ("Memory Waltz," the "Musical Folio's" first offering, bears the note: "My first composition, age six"!) And the manuscript sheaf seems to ask as many questions as it answers.

"I quit farming in '95," Hurley once noted (meaning 1895, of course; or MDCCCXCV!), the prelude to a life story that went on through Nevada's first Ford dealership, its longest-lasting music store, faithful church and club service, to an air trip to Japan at age 99.

My own one experience of Hurley was a cemetery meeting, on that ever-tragic occasion of a parent outliving a child, over the raw grave of his only son. But Hurley was as clement and cheery as the autumn morning itself, radiating as ever that seemingly-extinct, mysterious Roman virtue, gravitas, that once graced all the older generation.

Hurley surprised and disappointed some by actually opposing the aborning Bushwhacker Museum, an example of a not-uncommon phenomenon accounted for by historian Lewis Atherton: "Ideals of progress held that everything old was inferior. The pioneers themselves haä disdained the past. Why, then, should a new generation, swollen with conceit over its advanced civilization, do more than humor the elderly?" Hurley had lived through much of that dizzying "advance." Even at 101, he wasn't about to be "humored."

It was decades after the composing, and the first, sheet-music advent, of most of Kaylor's works that-the bestselling, yellow-bound "Musical Folio" saw daylight in April, 1946.

Almost every inclusion came with its own story, and no updating effort was made. The "Weltmer March" echoed, though Prof. S. A. Weltmer himself was long-silent (reportedly he'd snapped up 2,000 copies of the sheet-music!) Eponymous "Lake Park" had long borne another name; not so the "Lake Park Schottische." (That dance form, being simply the German for "Scottish," gave poor Burley and others endless spelling troubles.) A Hot Springs visit, plus a mystery dedicatee, suggestive of a romance, Miss Stella Ellis, had inspired "The Vapor City Two-Step." And for "The Kaylor grothers' Schottische," Hurley's nine siblings logically did the trick.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is the story of Blind Boone, well-known colored pianist performing at the Nevada Christian Church. Part of his program was to invite anyone to come forward and play any piece, after which Boone would repeat it, note for note. Egged on by friends, Kaylor went up, played a waltz he'd just composed, and that not another soul had yet heard, and waited for Boone to confess himself stumped. "But much to the composer's surprise, the artist played clearly and with great depth of feeling the song he had just heard.

"From that moment the piece was known as 'The Blind Boone Waltz.'" Among lingering mysteries in the manuscript sheaf are the non-Kaylor works. Who is Keil Volmer Barnekov, who, dedicates his "Moore's Opera House Schottische" to "Miss Glessner Moore, dau. of Col. H. C. Moore, prop. of Moore's Opera House, Nevada, Mo.," and who titled his "valse poetique" in both English ("On Missouri's Beautiful Plains") and German ("Am die SchönenPlanen des Missouri"), managing small errors in both languages.

And what about Nellie E. High, whose "Monte Carlo Mazurka for Mandolin and Guitar" was "Published by J. Hurley Kaylor, Nevada, Mo."? The sheet-music calls her "Composer of the famous hits, 'Marimbo Bells,' 'Living Picture Gavotte,' and 'Sweet Lotus March." The homefolks, it seems, haven't only lately neglected but long underestimated their premier "Music Man," as they knew him in his lifetime.

When some of Hurley's music was heard anew, for likely the first time in decades, in the first of Marsha Martin's "Meet Me in Missouri" summer musical shows, some local ears were surprised as well as pleased. J. Burley Kaylor was no bumpkin tunesmith, to be politely suffered through. Though his only training seemingly was his father's tutelage, his music was, and is, both professional and pleasant to listen to.

The Internet, no less, enshrines him among the immortals of ragrtime.