Category Archives: Biography

The Life of Anna Mary Robertson

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Books Bygone: The life of Anna Mary Robertson Moses
Marica Bernstein

“I, Anna Mary Robertson, was born back in the green meadows and wild woods, on a farm in Washington, Co. in the year of 1860… . Here I spent the first ten years of my life with Mother, Father, Sisters and Brothers, those were my happy days, free from care and worry… . 1870, now came the hard years… where twelve years of age I left home to earn my own living as then was called a hired girl.”

There is a quote I’ve always liked in a little old book about books: “There are three services which books may render in the home: they may be ornaments, tools, or friends.” Here at Books Bygone I’ve introduced several of my friends, many of which are also handy tools. Today I’d like to introduce to you a beautiful ornament, one that often sits open on the coffee table, waiting to be leisurely perused. The book is Grandma Moses, and it presents not only Anna Mary Robertson’s remarkable life story, but also an enormous number of her paintings. (Wikipaintings.org has some Grandma Moses paintings. When you have a minute, take a look.)

Until I found this old book, I’d forgotten all about Grandma Moses, the American folk artist who took up painting when she was in her 70s. What a remarkable woman! The quote above is from her autobiographical sketch written in 1945. She tells the story of keeping house for a family and of “being very proud in those days, could get up such fine dinner.” And “when the minister came and I could bring out the fine linen and china tea set, and the heavy silver, them with hot biscuits homemade butter and honey, with home cured dryed beef, I was proud.” Her career as a hired girl ended in 1887 when she married Thomas Solomon Moses. For several years they lived in “that beautiful Shenandoah valley” where she left “five little graves.” In 1905 she, Thomas and their five children moved to New York State, bought a farm, and “went into the dairy business selling milk, and doing general farm work. … Here Jan. 15, 1927, my husband died, my youngest son and wife taking over the farm, leaving me unoccupied, I had to do something so took up painting pictures.”

The subject of most Grandma Moses paintings is life on the farm. “Wash Day,” “The Spring in Evening,” “The Thunderstorm,” “The Meeting House,” and “A Quilting Bee” are a few of her 1100-plus works. “Rainbow,” painted in 1961 at age 101, was her last. It is a farm scene—men are working, animals and carts are near the barn. A large tree is in the foreground and a church tucked into the hills in the background. Behind the tree and over the church is a pale rainbow that she had intended to make bolder but never did. An art critic wrote after her passing, “The pale rainbow … will never be strengthened now. … No matter. It will remain a strong enough span for those looking at it—or indeed, any of her pictures—to be able to reach her simple, peaceful, idyllic nineteenth-century world from their own frantic world of today.” President Kennedy mourned her by saying, “The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.” Another tribute said, “We cannot think of the life, now concluded, of Anna Mary Robertson Moses without cheerfulness.” Simple. Fresh. Cheerful. All of the makings of a treasured ornament!

Grandma Moses. Otto Kallir. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. 1973. Available at Maben, Starkville, and Winona Public Libraries, and MSU Mitchell Memorial Library. Also available at online booksellers.

Originally published February 6, 2014 in the Webster Progress Times.

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Filed under American History, Biography, Farm Work

“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…”

Books Bygone: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas…”
Marica Bernstein

As far as I’m concerned, white Christmases can stay in Vermont but I want you to have that tune in your head as I tell the story of little Israel Baline and the man he became. Israel was born in Temun, Russia in 1888. His family was Jewish and lived in “perpetual terror” of the anti-Semitic Cossacks “who would swoop down on the town without warning to create havoc, devastation and death.” When little Israel was but four years old, he and his seven older siblings and their parents hid under blankets in the woods to escape a Cossack raid. Shortly thereafter his parents made the decision to leave Russia and come to America.

Israel was eight when his father died and he began to sell newspapers on the streets of New York to help with the family finances. He was a normal kid with one special interest, “an inheritance from his father: singing.” Rather than chanting religious tracts though, Israel enjoyed singing the “sentimental ballads” of the 1890’s. At age 14 he quit school and ran away from home. He made do by singing in the streets and saloons for change. He had a daily income of about 50 cents. At 18 he got a permanent job at a popular cafe as a singing waiter, parody songwriter, and janitor– for which he was paid one dollar per day. His first original song was published a year later and earned a royalty of thirty-seven cents. Four years later, in 1911 at the age of 23, Israel—who by now had changed his name— had his first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”

Israel’s story—and there’s more of it to tell!—is from Great Men of American Popular Song (1972). This book is a tool, a reference book of biographies and works of over 30 composers and lyricists. A passing familiarity with its material gives one a decided advantage in trivia games. But it’s much more than that. The “biographies were used as a framework in which to portray the evolution and growth of the American popular songs” as “products and voices of their times.” Hence, the revised edition includes the voices of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in their times.

Even if one isn’t knowledgeable about music—I couldn’t tell a syncopation from a sycophant— this is the sort of book that I love to sit down and wander through. No matter the topic—music, art, literature, sports— in such books the stroll down memory lane reminds me that history is about more than when-where-what. History is about people. I am not an expert, but I think this is especially true of American history. After all, where but in America could little Israel Baline have become Irving Berlin, the man who “touched so many bases in the song and entertainment business” and made such a fortune?

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