Saturday, June 17, 2017

Singleton ponders what became of the mysterious, banjo-playing 'Mr. Sid'

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “When Mr. Sid played his banjo, all listened” was originally published in the June 14, 1990 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

During my early childhood years, I had the opportunity to come in contact with many interesting people. Perhaps this was due to our country beginning to come out of the Depression or that many changes in our history were taking place about this time.

Many people, of both races, came and went in search of a place to settle down, or to put down roots. Some stayed around; others came by for a time and then moved on to distant horizons. There were those who came looking for work; there were those who came our way looking for a meal or a dry place to stay for the night.

As I have stated many times, we lived on a farm; we always had plenty to eat because we raised almost all the food that we ate. Everyone passing through either knew, or was told by someone, that our house was a good place to stop by around meal time. My darling mother never could say no. There was always food for the wayfarer at our kitchen door.

Many of these people would pass by our house several times during a period of three or four years. We would look forward to their visits, and they were greeted on a first-name basis. Many was the time when one or two were housed in a special place in the barn for the night, or maybe several nights. These wanderers would always earn their keep by helping with the chores or doing work in the fields for their room and board.

As a small boy, I spent many hours during the quiet, late hours of the evening listening to the travelers’ tall tales of their experiences as they moved from one place to another, moving ever onward, searching for something; no one was really ever sure.

As I would sit and listen to the stories about the faraway places and wonder about these strange events, sleep was slow in coming. Then the firm hand of my mother pointed the way to my bed for a night of dreams of a thousand places and happenings too wonderful to imagine for a small boy who lay wide-eyed under the security of the heavy bed covers.

In time for supper

Mr. Sid was a very tall, elderly dark-skinned man. I can see him now, coming up the lane that led to the house. He always would arrive just in time for the evening meal and would stay a couple or three days in the barn. As he approached the house, he would take from a sack he always carried over his shoulder a worn, much-used banjo. As he made his way up the lane, he would begin to pick a tune on the old banjo and sing in a loud deep voice to let everyone know that Mr. Sid had arrived.

My mother would hurry from the kitchen and stand on the front porch with her hands in her apron pockets as Mr. Sid made his way into the yard. Mr. Sid would remove his hat and bow to my mother with the grace of a count in some faraway king’s court. By this time, everyone around had made it to the front yard and received a greeting from Mr. Sid. He knew everyone by name, and Mr. Sid never forgot a name.

Then it was time for my greeting from Mr. Sid. He would always pick me up, and when he would put me down, he would feel in the pockets of his wrinkled trousers for my present. He always had a present for me. Sometimes it was only a small marble, or perhaps an old worn-out pocket knife that he had picked up in his travels, but always there was something for me. Regardless how small or trivial, I accepted it as if it was the greatest gift that I could have received. And this pleased the old man greatly.

After several tunes on the old banjo, Mr. Sid would go to the well for a drink of fresh water and to wash his face and hands. A towel was there, hanging on one of the posts that supported the small roof over the well. After drinking several dippers of the cool, fresh water, Mr. Sid would smack his lips and then hang the gourd dipper back on the nail near where the towel hung.

Tales of travels

I could hardly wait for my father and brothers to return from the fields. My father and Mr. Sid would face each other, and then each would bow to each other once more in a most formal manner. When the greetings were over, my father and Mr. Sid would sit under a large sweetgum tree and talk about events that Mr. Sid had witnessed on the road during his travels, since his last visit.

Mr. Sid had a special place in the kitchen where he always ate. He shared all the food that was on the table for the family. Most of the time he was honored by my presence at each meal; eating with Mr. Sid was considered to be a great honor. I alone was allowed this privilege.

After the supper dishes were put away came the time for entertainment. Mr. Sid would take out his worn banjo and tune it for a few minutes, getting it ready for the great banjo picking that would go on for the next two or three hours. Each new song that he played was always narrated before he started playing; he always told when and where he came to know the lyrics. This was always as important as the playing itself. Mr. Sid was an outstanding banjo player, many times over the years I thought of what he could have accomplished had he been given the opportunity.

After two or three days, the morning came for Mr. Sid to say goodbye. He would never tell anyone but my father which was he was going. For one reason or another, my father agreed that he would never tell which way Mr. Sid was heading. When asked, he would always say that he would let Mr. Sid spill the news. And we knew that when Mr. Sid returned, he would tell everything.

Upon leaving, he would always bow to my mother and thank her for the good food and hospitality. He would call everyone by name and tell them he would return. Next to last he would promise me a present when he came our way again. Then the bowing and handshaking between Mr. Sid and my father would take place. The old banjo was swung over his shoulder inside the worn and ragged sack that he carried it in. He would then turn quickly and walk swiftly down the lane, never looking back. Within minutes, Mr. Sid was gone from sight.

No one ever really knew for sure what became of Mr. Sid. He never returned. According to my father, he had no family to stay with; he had no home to go to. Rumor has it that Mr. Sid was found dead under a bridge where he had stopped to rest, somewhere in the state of Mississippi.

But wherever he is – somewhere beyond the sunset – this grand old man is tuning his old banjo and getting ready to entertain, even if it is for the good Lord himself.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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