Doniphan in the 1930s was the Nashville of White County, Arkansas, its music capital. It was a tiny lumber company town, and its residents were its family.
A nine-mile railroad bore its name, the DK&S, which looped and connected Doniphan, Kensett and Searcy. If you lived at Kensett or West Point or Judsonia, Doniphan was where you went in the summer after church. Doniphan Pond, later upgraded to Lake, was a recreational center, featuring swimming and diving from a tower near the center of the body of water. Soft drinks and candy bars were available.
The Doniphan kids went to school at my hometown of Kensett and practically everyone that I knew had some musical talent - the guitar, the harmonica, the jug and the spoons. And Doniphan boasted the county celebrity, harmonica artist Lonnie Glosson.
Lonnie Glosson was afflicted, or blessed, with wanderlust. It took him to big cities and bright lights, but Doniphan was always home base. In his youth, he lived for times at other towns, Judsonia and Kensett, Searcy, even once outside White County, at Newport in Independence County, but Lonnie belonged to Doniphan.
Lonnie Glosson picked 200 pounds of cotton a day, and was rewarded by his mother with a 25-cent harmonica. He was to play that instrument for radio stations in exotic places, like St. Louis and Chicago, even in Hollywood, where he was a friend of Gene Autry, the guitar-playing, singing champion of Western justice on the silver screen. He made a name for himself as a composer of hit songs (a total of 38), including the all-time favorite, “Why Don't You Haul Off and Love Me.”
Back in Doniphan, it was a singular honor when Lonnie dedicated a radio song to friends and relatives. His brother, Buck, a darkly handsome musician, played with Lonnie and received his share of adulation.
Lonnie's life and times are chronicled by Marcella Pry, who met Lonnie in Doniphan when she was 3 and he was about 12 or 13. Her excellent article appears in White County Heritage, the annual publication of White County Historical Society edited by Eddie Best, a retired advertising executive and newspaper man who now lives in Searcy.
She writes of Lonnie's trials, his battle with poverty, his riding the blinds (a spot behind the train's coal car) where he constantly had to use his country guile to evade the bulls, his playing for food, the courage and audacity that landed him performing jobs. Lonnie conquered severe hardship, surrendering only to his rambling ways.
Lonnie's harmonica was a living thing. It told stories of his career, emulating the sounds of his life, the sounds of freight trains and Model-T Fords. It talked, and Lonnie was known as The Talking Harmonica Man. Marcella Pry writes:
“He could make the harmonica say, “I want my Mama,' 'I want a drink of water' and even say a little prayer.”
Every two years, residents and past residents of Kensett hold a reunion. The 92-year-old Lonnie Glosson sits in a motorized wheelchair in the back of the school cafeteria, plays and sings and visits with friends old and new. His voice is strong, the talent endures, and so does his unconquerable spirit. He overcame the hard times of his challenging era.
He has a few regrets, he told Marcella Pry, in summing up his life:
“I was born poor - as poor as anyone can be. I am still poor, or I would be except for my family. Neither will I forget the many friends I have made along the way.
“You can see why they called me a first-class rounder. I never could stay in one place very long. I was a rambling wreck - just a man that didn't fit in. I rambled my whole life through. Always tired of the things that were, I wanted the strange and the new. Each fresh move was a fresh mistake. I forgot until my youth had fled and the prime of my life had passed that it's the steady and quiet ones that win in this life's long race.”
Lonnie's philosophy is a little off the tracks. Most of us steady and quiet ones envy you more than you think possible. You are finishing near the front in this life's long race.
It may be the steady and quiet ones who finish last.
Lonnie Glosson died of congestive heart failure at his Searcy home March 2, 2001. The 2001 edition of White County Heritage containing his remarkable life story is free to members of the White County Historical Society. Memberships may be obtained for $12 yearly by writing WCHS, P.O. Box 537, Searcy, AR 72145. Bob Douglas is a member of the White County Historical Society. He is the former managing editor of the Arkansas Gazette and retired chairman of the Walter J. Lemke Department of Journalism at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Write him at: firstname.lastname@example.org