My first conversation with Carol Hall was not about the music. Not about the shows she had written or whether it was easier to write songs for Big Bird or the Floozies from the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It was about our children.
Many years ago I was accepted into a program at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, CT. I was far away from home and knew no one. My first night there I went to the small barn like building that was a classroom during the day and a gathering place in the evenings. My introvert self decided to take a tiny table in the corner so that I could observe without being noticed. Within minutes of sitting down Carol pulled up a chair at my table and was soon joined by Sally Mayes and Julie Wilson. I don’t know why they chose that spot, and I can’t recall who started the conversation, or what sparked it, but soon we were talking about our children and sharing the stories that mothers do when they gather. I didn’t know it then, but these women had just become a permanent part of my life. They became my teachers, my mentors, my friends and my exemplars.
Two of them, Carol and Julie, have left us. Julie a few years ago and Carol only a few months ago. One day I will write about Julie, but today I want to write about Miss Carol.
I will always be just slightly in awe of Miss Carol. She was unfailingly polite, but did not suffer fools, whip smart and funny. She told wonderful stories. I have vivid memories of her recounting the journey of her Dachshund Jake’s trip from the Dachshund rescue society to his new home in New York City. Complete with references to the French Connection and a secret underground Dachshund railroad.
But I think maybe it was her voice that I loved the most. It was like molasses - dark and deep and ever so slow. I’d pick up the phone to hear her say, “It’s Carol” every syllable elongated and deliberate with just a tiny touch of Texas around the edges. When Carol spoke you always had the feeling she weighed her words with great care.
Words were important to her. Which you would know if you ever saw her take a singer to task over changing the tiniest word in a song. She labored to get her lyrics just right, and even the change of a “the” to an “a” or an “and” to a “but” could dramatically alter a song’s intent. She was a fierce warrior on behalf of writers everywhere.
She was an example to me of so many things- Grace under pressure. She did not love performing, in fact, she was often terrified before going on, but she went on stage and did it every time with her signature wit and charm. It surprised me to learn she’d gone on as Doatsy Mae in the original production of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. But it shouldn’t have. It takes guts to put your vulnerable self in front of an audience and Miss Carol had guts. She showed me you could speak your mind, hold your ground and still have good manners. Carol had beautiful manners. Most importantly, she understood the power of the words Thank You. On my desk is a red lacquer pen from Tiffany, and in my closet a blue lace jacket from Anthropology. Both were gifts from her that came with lovely notes of gratitude for some small thing I had done. I will keep them forever.
She wrote a song called Tattooed Boy in Memphis which I think is my favorite of all her songs. The chorus says -
The truth is that we never really know the ways we reach each other
Though we think we see it there’s a world we never find.
The truth is that we never can be sure of how we teach each other
Life is full of changes
And the touch of passing strangers
And it’s all just like a ribbon we unwind .
I doubt that Carol ever knew the ways she influenced me. I was lucky to know her, and learn from her. I will miss that slow syrupy voice telling me a story about taking her son to see the original production of “Sweeney Todd” or gently yet firmly explaining to a singer why they mustn’t change a word in a composer’s song. But I have her words and her music and for that I am profoundly grateful.