Lily, Mr. Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career

“Nancy, I want to ask you something,” my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. “How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?” she continued. I didn’t know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn’t think I could look like that. I was only four years old. “You would wear a pretty gown,” Lily said, as if she were reading my mind,” and you would carry a bouquet of flowers.” I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK. 

I still remember that day and how confused I was by this very grown-up request, how I wanted to please Lily but didn’t really know what I was getting into. Most of my cousins were older than I was, and a few of them were already grown up. Lily was grown up, and she and her boyfriend, Charlie, were getting married in June, a few days before my fifth birthday. Charlie was different from the people in my family. He had lighter hair, blue eyes, and a mother from Cuttyhunk. Even though I was very young, I could tell that he and Lily were in love.

Later I learned more about the responsibilities of a flower girl. I learned I would have to walk into the church next to the ring bearer, who was a boy I didn’t know. I think he may have been related to Charlie, but his name kept changing. One day it was Norman, and the next day it was Ronald. I think Norman was the first choice, because he was my age and we would have looked cute walking down the aisle together. But, because Norman refused to be in the wedding party, his older brother, Ronald, agreed to perform the ring-carrying duties. (I may have gotten their names mixed up.) 

At the rehearsal I did almost everything right. The Communion part confused me, though. I was too young for Communion, but I didn’t know when to stay in the pew and when to follow the others.  The bridesmaid, whose name may have been Rita, came up with a solution; she would scratch my gown with her fingernail when it was time for Communion, and I would know to stay seated. “Like this,” she said, and she scratched my skirt. I noticed her red nail polish and hoped her long fingernail wouldn’t snag my gown. I loved my gown. It was yellow and, as Lily had promised, pretty.

One afternoon before all of this, before the rehearsal and before the wedding, my mother took me to see a movie called Song of the South. I don’t remember too much about the plot, only that it involved cartoon animals as well as real people. I caught on right away that of the three main cartoon characters one was dumb, one was smart, and one was smarter. In the cartoon segments, which were mostly scary, the bear and the fox (dumb and smart) were always doing terrible things to the rabbit (smarter). Unlike Norman and Ronald, the three characters all had the same first name, Brer. Because Brer Rabbit used his head and not his feet, he was able to escape from his enemies over and over again. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I liked the briar patch segment after my mother explained it to me. The part I liked best, though, was when Uncle Remus walked along singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while cartoon birds and bees and butterflies flew around him and landed on his shoulders. I especially liked Mister Bluebird. Although I had never seen a bluebird in person, I always had bluebirds on my birthday cakes along with pink roses. (My father worked for a bakery, so I always had bakery cakes with my name written on the white frosting. I don’t think I had ever seen a homemade cake.) Later my mother bought me a record with all the songs from the movie on it, and I learned the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by heart.

On the day of the wedding I walked down the aisle with Ronald-or-Norman, and maybe-Rita scratched my gown very gently, without doing any damage. After the ceremony we all went to a photographer’s studio and had lots of pictures taken. And then, because there was still time before the reception, we went to Buttonwood Park for more pictures. My mother had bought Kodacolor film specially for the occasion. She wanted to take outdoor photos in the gardens across the road from the pond. Lily, the maid-of-honor, and maybe-Rita walked along the garden paths in gowns as long and willowy as the columns in front of the savings bank. The men looked on as if they were expecting something to happen, but nothing happened except that my mother snapped some photos with her box camera. I remember that the flowers–I think they were hydrangeas–quietly nodded their heads when they saw us.

Many years later, when I read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I thought of those pictures, not the photographer’s formal wedding portraits but the Kodacolor photos that my mother had taken. Except for the blurry hydrangeas, everything was new and intensely still on that sunny June day under the “happy, happy boughs.” Between the wedding and the reception, all of that love was “still to be enjoy’d.” 

The reception was held in a rented hall. a large room with a stage at one end and folding chairs set up along the walls. Some of the women were arranging paper plates and napkins on the food table and setting out platters of chicken-salad sandwiches, bowls of chips, and bottles of soda. Although many of the guests hadn’t arrived yet, the band was playing, the singer was singing, and people were dancing. My mother wasn’t there. She had gone home to get a dress for me to change into; obviously she was also worried about the possibility that I might snag my gown or spill something on it. Left in the care of my aunts and cousins, who were still too excited to pay much attention to me, I joined a small group of children, including Norman-or-Ronald or possibly both of them, and, not knowing one another, we talked and played warily.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The music stopped and the band left the stage. The singer left, too. The set was over, and they were taking a break, but I didn’t know about sets and breaks. Naturally we children climbed onto the stage, and the boys began to examine the drums, and I’m not sure what the other girls examined because I was fascinated by the microphone. I had been watching the singer, the way she held it as if she loved it, and the way she swayed from side to side while she sang. I wanted to try, so I grabbed the microphone, which was way too tall for me, and I started to sing the only song I knew by heart, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I swayed from side to side, and I sang, but not too loud because for me it was a private pretend moment. The hall was suddenly very quiet. I was sure nobody could hear me because I wasn’t a real singer and the microphone was only something to hold on to. I sang all the verses, all both of them, and when I got to “Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!” I stopped singing. And then something surprising happened. Everyone in the hall–including my aunt Mamie, my cousin Lily, and maybe-Rita–started clapping. I should have been happy, I suppose, but I remember feeling that my privacy had been violated, although I wouldn’t have used those words. So that was what a microphone was for! I felt betrayed. 

My mother was surprised when she arrived a few minutes later and asked if she had missed anything. But I wasn’t about to perform an encore, and the musicians and the real singer were already reclaiming their space. That was the end of my singing career but not the end of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1948, and James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and spoke the voices of Brer Fox and, I think, one of the butterflies, won an Academy Honorary Award. Song of the Southwas a success at the box office, both at the time of its original release and when it was re-released in 1972. Since that time, though, the film has been widely criticized for its portrayal of African-American former slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and for that reason it has never been released on DVD in the United States. I’m sure the criticisms are valid, but at the age of four I was not ready for a realistic depiction of life in one of the ugliest periods of American history. On the other hand, if Keats was right when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Song of the South can be faulted for not being true and thus, despite the charm of the animated singing creatures, not being beautiful. I’ll go along with that. Everything was not satisfactual, not really. But when I think of Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and when I think of Mister Bluebird perched on his shoulder, it’s not truth or beauty that I’m seeing but a celebration of the human spirit. And to that I say “zip-a-dee-ay.”