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Kitty Keeps On Singing

Listen [Final revision 4.10.04]

I always knew that my grandmother suffered many early losses in her life and that she lost her son in World War II. Lots of sadness. But I only knew her as a great entertainer, a great gatherer of friends and family, always ready for a party. When I started listening to my mother's collection of home-recorded 78s, the contrast seemed even more startling to me. My uncle had died in 1942, devastating the family who worshipped this talented boy. And yet those recordings, made mostly in 1943 and 1944, are filled with silliness and boisterous off-key singing. Not a hint of melancholy. I became preoccupied with figuring out how to tell her story. How did my grandmother -- how does anyone -- rise above loss and declare victory over sorrow? The best clue I got was from her singing "Danny Boy" and the story behind that song. My conclusion: Kitty was a great dame. Great dames figure out how to use song, laughter, and conviviality to carry on, no matter what life hands them.

Transcript (revised 3.30.04)


By the time World War II rolls around, my grandmother Kitty Curran is no stranger to heartbreak. She’s seen it all.

Her mother Maggie dies when Kitty is only 12, in 1903. The demise of her six siblings is an incredible mirror of the times. Sister Nellie dies of a botched abortion in 1911. In 1919, it is Spanish influenza that kills sister Julie* and brother Modie.* Kitty’s motherless younger brothers Tommy* and Joe* become gangsters and meet their Maker during the gang wars of Prohibition. The remaining sister, Ethel, has epilepsy and is sent to grow up in the Missouri State Hospital.

But Kitty survives. She goes to work for Bell Telephone and, in 1912 she marries Tom Barrett. He is older, an  entrepreneur, inventor of board games, and the owner of Barrett’s Market, located on the corner of Rowan and Ridge in north St. Louis. But in 1926, as luck would have it, he develops a bad gall bladder, goes to the hospital – and dies of infection.

Kitty has just given birth to her fourth child – Kathleen – my mother.


I’m giving you this litany of misery, not to impress you with my grandmother’s hard life, but to say how impressed I am that she carries on. Her father Moses Flanagan fell apart when his partner died. His kids drifted among relatives or were beaten by stepmothers. Kitty wasn’t about to let that happen to her children.

So Kitty takes charge. She raises her four kids in the apartment above Barrett’s Market and, Depression be damned, she makes the grocery business profitable. In 1936 she marries her handsome young store clerk Ewald Curran, who loves her till the day she dies.


But … I digress.

The basement below Barrett’s Market was sometimes a tavern, sometimes an after-hours joint, but always a party hall. There is a player piano and, just for fun, slot machines for pennies and nickels. While the Barretts all love to party, love to sing, it is my uncle Bob who has the musical gift. He can pick up a saxophone or sit down at the piano and play anything.

But World War II comes along and Bob takes his talent with him into the Army, where he is stationed in California and plays in the band.

While he is gone Kitty brings home the most amazing machine – a tabletop phonograph with a microphone. Flip the right switches, turn the right knobs and you can watch it cut voices onto heavy shellac platters. The tape recorder of its day. Won’t this be a great surprise for her talented boy when he comes home?

["Same Old Shillelagh" sung by Kathleen Barrett, 10.29.43]

My mother, a teenager then, figures out how to make the newfangled machine work. And she’s the one who saves the two dozen 78s that capture the voices of her family and friends. They put on mock quiz shows. [Quiz show intro by Bill Barrett, no date] They get boisterous and silly. ["I'm Gonna Eat Worms" sung by Lester Hohmann, 2.12.44] And they sing all the old songs. ["Let Me Call You Sweetheart" sung by crowd, 10.28.44, "You Tell Me Your Dreams" by Joe Foley, 2.12.44]

But there is no music to go with the singing voices. They are waiting for Bob to come home.

April 30, 1942: Bob hears he’s going to be shipped out to the Aleutians and gets a short furlough. He calls home, begs my grandmother to wire him money. The banks are closed. She borrows it from Mr. Catanzaro the produce man at the store. Bob gets his money, buys a United Airlines ticket. He is so visibly excited about going home that a soldier booked on an earlier flight trades tickets with him. It is a wicked twist of fate, because that plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains. Bob is dead.

Kitty suffers another heartbreak.

When his body is brought home and laid out in the front room of their apartment for the wake, an overnight guest finds Kitty alone with him after everyone else has gone home. Kitty is singing “Danny Boy.”

["Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)" sung by Kitty Curran, 2.4.43] 

The point of this story is that, when darkness once again descends upon Kitty’s family, she sings. She sings.

["Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)" sung by Kitty Curran & friends, 2.12.44] 

It’s the Irish blues, I guess. Sing at the wake. Keep singing. Invite your friends over. Sing some more.

Throughout all those home recordings, you’ll find Kitty Curran singing “Danny Boy.” With no musical accompaniment, it always veers off key, but it never sounds sad. There is always a great cackle of laughter somewhere in the piece.

I knew that cackle. And I knew her to sing “Danny Boy” off key at the end of long parties. As kids we thought she was a funny old lady. I know now that her favorite song was forever connected with the death of her son. But, as I listen to those old recordings and hear that cackle of laughter, it always reminds me that, no matter what life hands them, great dames keep on singing.

["Danny Boy (Londonderry Air)" sung by Kitty Curran & friends, 2.12.44] 

For the basics, check the summary of the Flanagan kids and the timeline of their demise.

*These are factual errors as we finally discovered. Their stories as we know them now are here. The truth is no less tragic.