Sisters in song: Music is siblings’ signature

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 8, 2010

Peggy Dudley was about 10 years old when she took a guitar off the wall at her grandparents’ home in Tennessee. She was standing on the bed, reaching for it, when her grandfather walked in and asked, “What you going to do with that? You think you can play it?”

Peggy replied that she didn’t know, so he told her, “Well, come on out on the porch. Let’s see what you can do.”

In the nearly 73 years since, a guitar has been her almost constant companion — there’s always one within reach.

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Her sister, Mary Harris, a year or two younger, also possesses musical talents and “was barely talking when I began singing with Peggy.” At their grandparents’ house down on Cane Creek in Edwin County, Tenn., when the men would come home from work in the evenings, uncles and aunts and neighbors gathered on the front porch. Grandpa Dudley would fix a gnat smoker, and then the music started.

Both sides of the family were musical. Peggy’s and Mary’s father played the fiddle and the guitar. Their mother played the piano, and everyone sang. When the Dudleys moved to Vicksburg in 1921, they raised a musical family — Peggy, Mary, Tom and Fred.

Peggy’s earliest memories, she said, are of music. None of the children had formal training and, as Peggy said, “We just picked it up.” When she was 4, she’d go to the neighbor’s house, climb onto the piano stool and pick out songs with one finger.

Peggy plays several instruments other than guitar, and Mary plays piano and accordion — or did until arthritis in her fingers made it too difficult. That hasn’t stopped her from singing, and though she doesn’t understand why, “I always sing harmony.”

They’re members of the Church of Christ, where the music is a cappella and harmony is emphasized. The music is an integral part of worship and has always been a strong influence on the family. Their Grandfather Downey in Tennessee taught singing lessons using the shaped note method, something Peggy’s mother taught her.

Mary and Peggy had some good training in high school at Jett, where their music teachers were Shelby Booth Martin and Opal Setaro. The Dudley girls formed half a quartet, the other two being Lena Greene and Mary Virginia Hazzlerigg, and they had a regularly scheduled program on radio station WQBC, which was located on the 11th floor of The Hotel Vicksburg. Listeners called in requests, a favorite being “Cool Water,” made famous by the Sons of the Pioneers, and one day when the girls musically pleaded for cool, clear water, a bellhop appeared with a tray and four glasses of ice water. They laugh about the time the announcer told his radio audience that, “Miss Opal Piano is at the Setaro,” and they recall the time something struck the boom microphone, which began swinging in a wide circle. They kept on singing, watching the mic, ducking just in time as it came in their direction. Mary remembers the time on stage at school when they sang a popular song, “Little Sir Echo.” In the four-part harmony, she was the echo. They were supposed to sing it through twice, or so she thought, and she was on stage alone singing the echo, “Hello,” and there was no reply. At least she didn’t forget her line, but for some time she was greeted with “Hello.”

Recalling those years at Jett, Shelby Martin told some of Peggy’s friends, “She’s got music in her bones. It’s just as natural as breathing.”

Peggy and Mary have no idea how many times they’ve performed or at how many weddings they’ve sung — yes, there are words to the wedding march — it can be done a cappella — or how many times they’ve sung at funerals. They were in their younger teens the first time they sang at a funeral. “It was for Grandma Hazzlerigg,” Mary said, “and it has never stopped.”

When Peggy graduated from high school, she went to work for Western Union, and, “No, I was not riding a bicycle.” She was in the office, but traveled a lot, training people in communications at a number of military bases. Later, she was assistant manager of the Jackson office and left there to go to work in Vicksburg for Magnolia Homes, retiring after about 20 years. She works when needed at the Battlefield Museum.

Mary also went to work when she graduated, but at the same time she met Robert “Son” Harris, “the most wonderful man in the whole wide world.” She first saw him at a ball game on Halls Ferry Road when the team from Jonestown played “the Poor House gang” from over on Porters Chapel. She had never seen anyone so light on his feet. He was an outstanding athlete, “and ran like a spotted-tail monkey.”

Mary asked Ree Steen who he was. Ree told her and then asked, “Why do you want to know?” Mary remained silent, so Ree repeated the question and heard this answer: “Well, I’m going to marry him.” Remembering that moment, Mary said, “I knew that, and I cannot tell you how. I had not even met him.” Soon, they began dating and, before long, Mary was right — she married him!

Mary worked for an insurance agency, then for attorneys Frank Everett and Jim Thames before going to work at the Vicksburg Hospital as an administrative secretary. She asked for a transfer, and Dean Andrews placed her in the insurance division where she remained until her retirement.

Music was always foremost with the Dudley girls, and for several years they were part of a group, The Magnolia Seven (or Eight, depending on how many showed up for a gig). All were members of the Church of Christ, and each was multi-talented, playing just about any instrument known in Old Time Music circles, and several had exceptional voices. They began performing after attending a hobo party at the Teen Center where “we had such a good time, we just kept doing it,” Mary said.

They won’t forget the time when they were entertaining at a Rolling Fork banquet. Reggie Crawford was singing, and several of the ladies were backing him up. Mary was leaning against one of the folding tables when it gave way. She slid down the wall on the floor, still holding the mic and singing “because the show must go on.” A man in the audience helped her up, but Reggie couldn’t resist a quip that “she has always wanted to sing so low.”

At another banquet, in Jackson, Mary might have thought she was getting even with him. She was in a buffet line at the salad bar, and she thought Reggie was on the other side with tongs reaching for a helping of lettuce. She simply took her tongs and took his lettuce. It happened again, and then the third time when she became more aggressive, taking a big whack at the tongs, is about the time she realized the man wasn’t Reggie or anyone she had ever seen before.

“He just looked at me,” she said, and she exclaimed, “My goodness, you’re not Reggie!” And he agreed — his name was Jessie.

Peggy’s and Mary’s tastes in music are not entirely the same. Mary likes the sentimental songs from World War II, Western swing, the big band sound, some blues and especially hymns. Peggy likes all kinds — almost — and said some would be surprised to know of her collection of opera and classical music. She can take “jazz just so far,” and can’t abide modern so-called country. She and Mary both go back to their roots — Old Time Music.

Can they imagine life without music?


“Life without music?” Mary asked. “It would have been dull, dull, dull. Some of the best times of our lives have been because of music.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.