The memory of a song popular during the 1930’s still haunts me. “The Very Thought of You” was the theme of a well-known bandleader. It has since been revived and recorded by Natalie Cole and others.
From childhood, I’ve known the truth about the ballad’s origin. As a child, I loved the song; and now I honor the memory of its composer, Helen Darrow from Akron, Ohio, a plain, friendly woman with a large family. Everyone called her “Ma.”
I was ten when I met Ma Darrow. My cousin Donnie and I were friends with Ralphie, her youngest boy. The Darrows lived in a huge, ramshackle house built over their corner grocery store on the Akron-Canton Road in Ellet. (Today it’s called a suburb—then it was known as the “outskirts.”)
For many years, Darrow’s grocery and filling station had thrived. Being established shopkeepers, the Darrows were considered prosperous in our town. But during the lean 1930’s of the Great Depression, they, too, barely scraped by. All through her struggle with poverty, Helen Darrow watched her little song bring fortune and fame to a select few, yet she didn’t allow a bitter resentment to cloud her good nature.
Ma Darrow possessed a natural talent for music. When she played her battered, upright, we gathered around to sing the songs that kept hope going during those dark years. Songs like “Life is just a bowl of cherries, don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious…”
She also played and sang gospel hymns and Negro spirituals, along with many popular songs of the 1890’s, the golden age of Tin Pan Alley.
We’d gather around the piano to harmonize “Moonlight Bay” and “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie.” Hard times were forgotten as we sang “…The good things in life, to you are just loaned—so how can you lose what you’ve never owned?”
Ma Darrow raised her family and worked in the store, stocking shelves, serving customers, even pumping gas. Her broad, cheerful smile and the songs she “jest made up,” amazed us.
We kids flocked to the store’s penny-candy counter, where Ma handed out long ropes of red or black licorice sticks, Black Cow suckers and jawbreakers. Sometimes she’d be humming her latest little song. The real fun started when we hung around the piano as Ma enthusiastically banged out the music in her“barrel-house” style.
One day she told me she’d made up a romantic ballad suited to the style of a band-leader of that time. Carefully, in pencil, she transcribed the notes on a composition tablet she’d found at Woolworth’s Five-and-Ten. Then, she mailed the song and waited. Months passed, with no reply.
“Maybe it wasn’t as good as I thought,” she said. “I’m not a real composer, after all.”
But one Saturday night, she suddenly heard the radio blare out a familiar tune. It was her song! She could hardly believe it—same melody, same words. “The very thought of you—and I forget to do the little, ordinary things that everyone ought to do…”
Before long, the ballad had caught on. Then it became the orchestra’s theme-song. Time after time, Ma saw the bandleader’s picture in the newspaper ads. He wore a top hat and tuxedo as he stepped out of a shiny limousine.
Ma sighed. “I’m too poor to hire a lawyer. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
While we continued to struggle through the Depression, we watched Ma Darrow struggle to overcome her resentment. Finally, she announced, “Well, it don’t matter that much. God gave me the gift to share. It made me happy to write that song, so I jest pass it on.”
That song still haunts me. The words express so well the wondrous spirit of creativity exemplified by Helen Darrow: “I’m living in a kind of daydream; I’m happy as a king. And, foolish as it may seem, to me it’s everything!”
Sometimes I wonder when Truth will prevail. Perhaps one day, when all things secret are made known, Helen Darrow will be recognized. But I feel sure she’s already celebrated and honored right now, in Paradise.
From our archives 7/5/4
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