Looking Back: Music in the Life of William Henry Waller, II

William Henry Waller, II, circa 1948.

William Henry Waller, II, circa 1948.

My maternal grandfather William Henry Waller (also known to us grandkids, variously, as “Unk,” “Hank,” or “Chief,” was born in 1909, in Angola, Indiana. He was the only son of three children and grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist family.

At some point after his graduation from college, he completely and utterly rejected the conservative ideology and religion of his youth. That probably happened during the Depression of the 1930s, when he had finished college and was navigating his way through young adulthood. Although I cannot, of course, be completely sure of this, I feel pretty confident that after college he likely never set foot in a church again and he hard harsh words for religion of any sort.

FDR was one of my grandfather's heroes, as he is to me.

FDR was one of my grandfather’s heroes, as he is to me.

Moreover, Unk evolved into a fierce critique of capitalism and corporate hegemony. He adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt and considered him a hero, although Unk’s family of origin apparently considered FDR the devil incarnate.

He never called himself a socialist, although he sounded an awful lot like one to me. Unk believed in the marketplace, he frequently reminded me, just thought it had to be tightly regulated, and he was knowledgeable and devastating in his critique of regressive tax policies.

After college, he studied neuroanatomy at Cornell University and then graduated from medical school at the University of Georgia. He eventually became a psychiatrist, which remained his profession until retirement.

My grandfather wasn’t an affectionate or demonstrative person. Most of the time, I found it difficult to talk to him at all, never mind share anything personal or to have discussions about music, poetry or other kinds of art. But I knew he loved me.

I’ve tried to learn what I can about the music he listened to or might have listened to. My own memories are limited: I remember he and my grandmother Irene Andrews Waller dancing every New Year’s to Guy Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne.” And he was fond of FDR’s now-classic campaign tune “Happy Days Are Here Again,” even forty or fifty years after FDR had been elected.

The great Irish tenor, John McCormack whose version of The Rose of Tralee is included below.

The great Irish tenor, John McCormack whose version of The Rose of Tralee is included below.

My mother has provided some additional clues: songs that she heard him singing in the shower, an incident when he went without my grandmother to hear Frankie Laine at a nightclub in Boston (which apparently caused some friction between them) and songs that he often requested that my mother or grandmother play on the piano after my mother’s voice practice sessions (usually involving classical music, ie Handel, Mozart, etc) were done.

Patching all that together, and learning what I could about which artists were recording what during the relevant time period, I’ve assembled this playlist!

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Looking Back: Music in the Life of William Henry Waller, II

  1. This series you are writing is amazing, Laura.

  2. Altina

    Really enjoyed listening to this playlist. I wish I knew more about the music of my father’s childhood. He took piano lessons from both his mother and stepmother but all he ever played for the family was “Flight of the bumblebee!”

    • Laura

      I listened to the Flight of the Bumblebee last night when you told me about it and it struck me as rather a complex and difficult piece of music to play. He must have had quite a lot of piano lessons at some point if he could pull that off.

  3. karen kuse

    Laura? I’m Karen Luse. You possibly never went back to Angola, but it was a childhood fixture for me because the Wallers and The Luses had three house that more or less backed onto each other with spectacular gardens binding them together. During my childhood the older generation was Olive,married to your great-grandfather Dr. William Waller and who was my grandfather’s sister. I assume you know your great-grandmother died in childbirth having your grandfather’s sister Marrianne. Your Gr. grandfather needed someone to care for the baby and so he married Olive. They were also related in some other way. Cousins? something of the sort. She was a pianist and gave private lessons. Perhaps a better description of Will and Olive might be Victorian. They were educated and came from an age that kept them locked into its social mores. They belonged to the Church of Christ which was pretty liberal.(Look up the Powers church in Angola.)Your grandfather’s generation, my father, your gr aunts Marrianne and Sue and Will all broke out into pretty/very liberal folks. The two girls both had kids who are available to you, I suspect, if you are interested. Actually found one of them today after years of no contact….. Because I’m looking for your Uncle…. i.e. your mother’s brother. I want to participate in the Nat Geo genome project and you get deeper info if you follow the male line. Your uncle is my best bet. Unless you have a brother who has there same line? Is there anyway I can contact him? I would pay for the kit which includes a cheek swab etc etc etc. There is a wealth of family history if you are interested. My dad did most of the work, and I have sent it on to the next generation-Andrew Miller. You can find your cousin-google Donald Senneville at Foothills Academy, (in AZ)
    All the best, I’m in NY where are you?Mass? Karen

    • Laura L. Wilson

      Wow, thanks for writing. (I’ll also send you an email). Actually, I have been to Angola on a handful of occasions. When I was a little girl appx 1963-66, my parents took my brother and I to the Angola cottage for summer vacation at least twice, maybe on some other times, too. Around 1968, my mom (then divorced) took us there in 1969 or so. I didn’t go back to Angola again until 1985, when my grandfather died. He had pre-arranged for his body to be shipped out there to be buried at the Angola cemetery, and my mom and I went out to make sure all went smoothly. Then my mom and I went there again in 2005 or so, after Aunt Marianne died. We had a sort of little family reunion, and stayed at a lodge on Lake James. We went over and took a look at the cottage, which had long since passed out of the family’s hands, and has been modernized dramatically. I knew about Olive and the story of how they met, I did not know they might have been related otherwise. I also knew she was a musician, and apparently she paid for my mom to attend college at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It’s really interesting what you say about the Church of Christ, because the story I have always heard is that they were fairly right wing fundamentalist, and that my grandfather rebelled against this when he went to college, and became a confirmed atheist. But perhaps it was all relative–perhaps even though they were liberal for religious folks, he experienced it as burdensome. That’s very interesting!

  4. karen kuse

    Yes send an email, I feel a little exposed here on your blog. So Donald Senneville, whom you may met when his Mother Marrianne died,will know a lot more about their various beliefs. i.e. Olive and Will. My father and your grandfather grew up together as boyhood chums and had an affection into adulthood. Yes the cottage on the lake, the Potowatami Inn. etc. Will and Olive had the most money. My grandfather, who was Olive’s brother was also a doctor. But so(cleaned up, I suspect) the story goes, he couldn’t stand the sight of blood so he quit as a doctor and became a farmer with a dairy. This was a great humiliation for my grandmother who was a Powers and expected to have the social standing Olive had. My dad put together a fairly extensive family history which Aunt Olive funded. When he ran across a drunkard in the family we all thought it was the greatest thing.,But Aunt Olive was very firm that this was not to be written, and as she was the person paying, that was that. There was also a child who was born ‘early’ and she doctored the dates in the family bible. They were all victorian and hidebound, no doubt, but locked into their values. Clearly Henry was alienated, but without the skills to detach, tolerate them with humor and perspective. Easy for us to say with our vantage point of the whole personal growth movement that didn’t hit until the sixties. Are you going to touch base with Donald? Also is your dad alive or do you have a brother?

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