John and Alton become best friends in elementary school, their mutual attraction prompted by both being new in town. John’s father, with the ink barely dry on his law degree, hangs his shingle on the second floor of the Alexander City Bank. Alton’s father has just relocated his one-chair barber shop from Camp Hill to Alexander City. Despite the stark differences in their backgrounds, the contrasting yet complementary personalities of the two boys are obvious and their friendship continues to strengthen and grow deeper. Cut from different bolts of cloth, one from fine wool suiting, the other from a common osnaburg that’s stacked beside it, the more outgoing John becomes a class leader, while the shy Alton chooses to blend in with the bead-board walls of their eight-room schoolhouse.
The first week of the 1933-34 school year their eighth-grade teacher makes an announcement that turns Alton inside out: “During the year each pupil will take a turn giving the morning devotional.” As the days of September move too quickly, John’s turn comes before Alton’s. He confidently delivers a reading from the Bible, makes a brief comment and whispers to Alton as he takes a seat, “You see, nothing to it.” But Alton’s anxiety is not assuaged.
Alton’s day of dread has arrived. The school bell rings, students assemble in their desks—but Alton’s seat in the back of the room remains empty. Just as the tardy bell sounds, Alton slips quietly into the classroom, a guitar slung across his shoulder. A loud buzz punctuated by periodic giggles fills the room, until the teacher silences the sounds with a snap of her fingers and announces, “Alton has decided to sing a hymn as his devotional and you will give him and his message all due respect.” As his sweating fingers strum the opening chords, the harmony bolsters his courage, dissolves his tension, and steadies his shaky voice, “As I travel through this pilgrim land, there is a friend who walks with me. . .” The gospel hymn, “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” seems only too appropriate.
My Uncle Alton played guitar, bass and saxophone in my father’s “hillbilly” band throughout my childhood and entertained us kids with snappy little ditties until he answered Uncle Sam’s call to duty in WWII. However, this self-taught musician never mentioned those unique eighth-grade musical devotionals. In a recent conversation I had with 90-year-old Governor John Patterson, he firmly recalled my uncle’s friendship and music and he related the morning devotional incident with amazing clarity. Gov. Patterson also remembered how the two friends had to say goodbye shortly after eighth grade when John’s father, Albert Patterson, made the fateful decision to move his family to Phenix City and enter Alabama’s political arena.
The official 2011 state theme for Alabama is The Year of Music. The thread that binds together much of this state’s cultural history is its music and stories, like those told by John Patterson, some of which enriched my own personal history with stories of my musically talented, late Uncle Alton Whetstone.