Everyone interested in country and western music has heard of Hank Snow. Everyone in Newfoundland — except perhaps the very young — has heard of Grace Sparkes.
And here are biographies of each. I’m Movin’ On” by Vernon Oikle (Nimbus, $19.95) recounts the remarkable life of Snow. Grace Sparkes: Blazing a Trail to Independence by Marie-Beth Wright (Flanker, $19.95) tells of a woman who lived to be 95 years old and played an important part in politics, journalism, education and such other pursuits as music, curling and church work.
Snow’s is a rages-to-riches story. Born into extreme poverty on Nova Scotia’s South Shore in 1914, both his parents were musical, and showed they loved him. This is important because after a while he and his sisters were put in foster care, each in a different household. He was beaten and forbidden to see his mother.
With no relatives to care for him, at the age of 12 he went to sea as a “flunky” or cabin-boy on a fishing schooner. During his years at sea, Jack, as he was called then — he’d been christened Clarence — managed to acquire a $5.95 guitar. He dreamed of a musical career. However, when he left the sea at the age of 16, he was “... homeless, penniless, unemployed and desperate; adrift on a sea of poverty and hopelessness ....” Therefore he took any job he could get from working in a livery stable to unloading coal and salt.
Then the wind changed. He went to Halifax, got a job on radio CHNS, wrote his first song — The Yodeling Cowboy — changed his name to Hank, and the rest is music history. This was in 1933. His career lasted 63 years.
Anyone can enjoy this biography. The author is an experienced writer, as well as conscientious. There are numerous photographs, a timeline, a recording history, a list of albums starting in 1950 and the titles of all Snow’s songs from that same year through 2011, 12 years after his death. There’s even a bibliography and a website.
Snow never forgot his native place or his old friends.
The life of Sparkes is equally fascinating, but so poorly written it’s difficult to make out what took place in it when.
This is mainly due to a lack of organization. Some of the information is recorded in two or more different places.
Sparkes herself does not quite come to believable life in the book’s pages; on one hand, she’s admired and loved by all; on the other she’s a mother who shows little love or respect for her only child and tries to dominate her life.
Still, there’s so much achievement in so many and various fields, that one wonders how she did it all, even in 95 years. Feminist readers will find her story of particular interest, as will single parents. Her husband “died suddenly in the midst of her first electoral campaign.” She carried on.
Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write her at her new address: 95 Orange St., Apt. 101, Saint John N.B., E2L 1M5, or call her at 506-693-5498.