Part I Finding Jennie Pearl
I live next door to a legend. That may seem to be an overstatement, but it’s true. There once was a young girl named Jennie Pearl who, when she was the tender age of fourteen or fifteen back in the late sixties, developed a love of music and playing piano and guitar. This sweet innocent child became friends with a few people of like minds and together they created the Peoria Folk Anthology Group.
This story all came about by accident, which is the usual way great stories start. One day our electricity was out and I went next door to the Hayes residence to ask if their electricity was out as well wondering if was a neighborhood problem or a personal house problem. Jennie answered the door and in the background I could hear the sounds of a man singing loudly. It wasn’t the greatest of voices, but a pleasant one and I smiled hearing this candid neighbor moment. I asked about the electricity to which Jennie replied yes, theirs was out as well and then turned to leave but pivoted to tell Jennie, “I sing a lot myself and if you and your hubby would like to do Karaoke sometime, just let me know.” Jennie’s face took a sudden strange turn. In fact, enough to set me on the path home quickly. It wasn’t a smile, or frown, it was just like she had escaped to another place. Frankly, I worried that perhaps I had offended her with my offer of cheap entertainment.
I really didn’t know Jennie and Alan very well. They’d moved into the home next to ours the previous year, and we would smile and wave to each other with occasional comments about the neighborhood deer and raccoons that run rampant in our yards. I’d wanted to strike up a friendship with her. Jennie always reminds me a bit of Lee Remick, yes the actress from Hitchcock thrillers and movies of the sixties and seventies. Except Jennie seemed more fragile, prettier, and a lot more shy than a Lee Remick.
Fast forward approximately two weeks. In this two weeks, however, I had thought many times about the strange look on Jennie’s face and had worried many times throughout those days about having offended her. I was in the throws of yet another Midwest Garage Sale and working in the garage quite a bit. On one of these days, Jennie’s husband Alan came home and I happened to see him pull in and waved hello. On my driveway was a cloth covered guitar case, an extra one I’d owned and had decided to part with. Alan came across and headed directly towards it. “Are you selling a guitar?” he asked in a very excited voice. I explained that no it was only the case and then the story of Jennie began. “I’m looking for a guitar for Jennie. I just found out she used to play guitar. In fact, Jennie is well known, and neither of us knew anything about it.” Well, this of course, piqued my interest immediately for two reasons. I had played guitar for a LONG time and the fact there was another musician on my street thrilled my soul! “In fact,” he continued, “one of Jennie’s songs is on a CD. We just found out about it. She’s even getting royalty checks for it. Guess people have been trying to find her. Some guy from the New York Times called her while she was at work and scared her to death. Have ya got a minute? Let me run home, I put together something for her that I want to show you.”
Alan’s eye were afire with excitement and pride as he strode quickly across my yard over through his garage and into the sweet little brick home he and Jennie have made. I was left standing helplessly in a bit of shock on my driveway, not knowing if I should go inside, or wait where I stood. I decided to wait where I stood and it was a good thing because Alan emerged quickly with a huge framed object about three feet long in his hand.
“When we got the first letter from the guy from the “Times” I decided to look Jennie’s name up online and I found several people had done reviews on her song.”
He had handed me the large frame and I looked in disbelief at the letterhead from the New York Times reporter’s letter which said things like, “We’ve been looking for you everywhere. You have a large following of fans. Wonderful to have spoken to you.” And, there were a couple of other pieces of paper which were actually the downloaded comments that Alan had printed off. Here’s an excerpt from one:
Salon.com – March 14th 2006
Numero Group’s latest, “Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon,” compiles one track each from 14 of the probably thousands of obscure she-folkies who sprouted up in the early ’70s, trailing in the wake of the grand pooh-bah of she-folkies herself, Joni Mitchell. If it seems odd to bother compiling the work of transparently derivative artists, it’s worth considering that if a scholar were to sift through the compositions of the legions of stylistically similar but patently inferior composers who labored under the shadow of, say, Mozart, he or she would certainly turn up a large number of gems — for even middling artists often have one concentrated burst of inspiration in them, the products of which would be lost forever in a sea of mediocrity were it not for intrepid curators like the Numero Group, who have rescued some pretty astonishing specimens and presented them on this wonderful release. My favorite is the haunting, heartbroken “Maybe in Another Year,” which has a piano introduction that sounds like the work of a child trying to copy Mitchell’s flowing piano style — which, indeed, it is, this being one of two songs ever recorded by 15-year-old Jennie Pearl.
I know there was more, but I honestly couldn’t grasp it all. I’d love to see it again to really look at what he had shown me.
I’ve sung and played guitar since I was sixteen years old. My life revolved around communities about 60 miles west of Peoria in my younger years and then encompassed the Peoria area during the 80’s, 90’s and even now. I explained this to Alan and told him how much I’d love to just get together with Jennie and talk about her experiences and share a bit of music. Then Alan handed me a CD.
“This is the CD I told you about. It’s called “Ladies From The Canyon.””
I took it from his shaking hands. He was shaking with excitement and the elation he was feeling from sharing this amazing story about his wife. “I didn’t even know she could sing, or play guitar!” he said as I walked over to a boom box I had in my garage. “I found out by accident. We went to a wedding of one of her relatives and they asked Jennie to sing. I was sitting on the ground level and Jennie was in the balcony. And then she started singing and I was in shock. I didn’t know she could sing so well.” Obviously the shaking was contagious. I gingerly took the disc from the CD case and put it on the player. Alan was talking, something about the track numbers. I was in Euphoria. It was as if I had held the Holy Grail myself as I pushed play. And then this lovely piano began to play and a voice as innocent and gentle as I have ever heard came wafting through my speakers. I was immediately hypnotized and in awe. The melody was haunting, and the sound of a very young girl, who must have been very wise beyond her years poured out her soul in the simplest terms, but one that clutched my heart with it’s power.
I know I must have been standing there with my mouth open as I listened in awe. And even when it ended I didn’t know what to say. Truly there were no words to express what I’d heard. I handed the CD back to Alan and we shared a brief “Yeah I know” moment before he turned with the three foot frame and the CD and began to leave. “You know, I really want her to start singing again. She needs to do it for herself. I don’t know why she stopped.” I told him I would try to get into a conversation with her at the earliest convenience and see how she felt about it. Alan nodded and returned home while I stood standing in my driveway, totally spent. I remember the feeling of floating. Like I’d been witness to something absolutely ethereal and even Holy! But this was only the beginning of my journey into learning about my neighbor, the lovely, the haunting and haunted Jennie Pearl. TO BE CONTINUED!