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Piano Man: 1941

Piano Man: 1941

March 1941. "Mission pianist in his room at the Helping Hand Mission. Portsmouth, Virginia." Acetate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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Dangerous room to live in. If the wiring doesn't catch on fire, the leaky stove pipe will get you with carbon monoxide.


He reminds me very much of another musician -- Riley Puckett, guitarist and vocalist of my favorite old-timey string band, the Skillet Lickers.

Weird mental acrobatics on my part but --

There was that keyboard player in early Rolling Stones lineup who did not fit in the band's image.

Who is the "piano man"?

He is Clayton William Pierce (1905-1953). He never married and lived with his parents, and then his married sister, in Portsmouth for most of his life. He was a piano teacher his entire adult life. He died of heart disease at age 47. His WWII draft card indicated he was 5' 6" tall, 235 pounds, brown eyes, black hair, ruddy complexion, and a scar on his right cheek. ~ Steve

Plugs and Pictures

I also find the wiring a bit worrisome; the relatively short time I spent as a volunteer firefighter instilled in me fire prevention measures that will always be with me. I hope he unplugged that mess when he left the room.

Also, the older looking picture of two people on the wall seems to me as if it should be a man with a large bundle of sticks on his back; the condition of the wall matches that of the Led Zeppelin IV album cover.


From that bottle of hooch on the dresser I am guessing that this mission is not being run by strict Baptists.

Strike up the band

I believe the inscription reads "I'll be seeing you at the Gates Theater starting Sunday September 29th -- Mickey." The Gates Theatre was a cinema in Portsmouth in this era. Rooney's third(!) film of 1940, "Strike up the Band," was released on September 29, which was a Sunday.

It appears our musician in the photo was a vermouth drinker. That's a bottle of Gambarelli & Davitto dry American vermouth on the chest of drawers.

Lighten up, everybody

How many of us are wearing a tie?

The Face on the Wall

Curious about the man's portrait on the wall obscured by 'wiring,' I checked out a few of Vachon's other photos of this profoundly sad room. I came across this shot of our dour keyboard artist, which has an unobstructed view of the portrait which appears to be of, and inscribed by, Mickey I right?

[You are right, and it bears the inscription "I'll be seeing you at the Gxxxx Theater Something" and then maybe "Sunday September Xth -- Mickey" - Dave]

Two out of three!

Although the clocks don't agree on the time of the picture, his wristwatch and the mantel clock on the left appear to agree that it is 8:43 p.m. I suggest p.m. since it appears to be dark outside the window, as it would be in Virginia in March.

[Your mantel clock is off by an hour -- it says 7:43. - Dave]

Déjà vu

I feel like the photo hanging above the mantel is one I've seen on Shorpy before.

What time is it?

Was this photo taken at 2:12 or 7:43?

A tip of the cap to Mad Magazine

In my misspent youth, Mad Magazine had a regular feature called "What's Wrong with This Picture?" Most of them looked a lot like this one.

Early Power Bar

We plug our scanners, computers, printers, etc. into a power bar with a circuit breaker. The octopus wiring setup in this photo might be considered an earlier version of the same thing. Having moved into my 1928 home in 1977 that still had its original 30 amp 115 volt panel with fuses, I soon learned which electrical appliances could not be plugged in simultaneously. Within three years the house was upgraded to a 125 amp system with 115 and 240 volts available.

I might also note that many of John Vachon's photos of people bear a resemblance to those of Diane Arbus in the 1960s.

Sad quarters

Jenny Pennifer mentioned paint, wallpaper and scary wiring, but this is really, umm, *basic* living! How about that toaster, jammed on the back of the crowded dresser? Is that the only suggestion of cooking in the room? And, as with any man with two clocks, he has no idea of the time of day.

Looks familiar

I just took painted wallpaper off exterior plaster (on brick) walls, in a house that's probably older than the place pictured here. And the walls looked ... about like that.

Love the stove

But the draft situation looks sketchy.

An entertainer's lot

is not a happy one even if it includes a Loths Air Blast (a name not dissimilar to that of a local brew in a far away place I once knew). Don't you just love this truly magnificent piece of kit!

The inclusion of a multiple light extravaganza with a suspended control centre however is still not enough to please our master of the keys. Having just recently adjusted and fine tuned (with a hammer?) the contemporary air conditioning (note the spare parts in the storage facility behind the seat) he is left to contemplate the reason why one of his timepiece collection appears to be malfunctioning.

With regard to curtains and paint, the property is owned by others, in this case "the Mission," wherein lies the economic scantiness of the trend-setting decor. Entertainers the world over are quite inured against the quality of gaffs between

There are also reasons to be found for the crutch standing forlornly in the corner. Excellent material for the housebound Shorpyite.

The stove flue

caught my eye right away. I wonder how hard it was to get a draft going. While the flue pipe may radiate a lot of trapped heat, getting that heat to go down and then up is no easy task. All I can see is smoke billowing from the door each time it's stoked. I look at the walls and wonder what became of the trim around the windows. Perhaps the stove can tell us. I'm with Penny on the sketchy wiring. It reminds me of A Christmas Story.

Way Down On The List

Yes, we see a lot of places we wouldn't want to live on Shorpy. I think it's driven by the everyday need to acquire basic necessities to survive back then (and for a lot of folks today too). The furnishings are nice and the place looks clean.

Living Simply

He probably lives in such spartan conditions because he works at the mission for nothing, or next to nothing. Believe it or not, there used to be a time when people did church work because they loved people and cared about them. I would hazard a guess that the modern-day 'teaching pastor' or 'praise team' member wouldn't be caught dead living in a hovel like this so that they could have the privilege to minister to the needs of their fellow man!

On the far wall

The picture looks like it may be Dickie Powell.

Re: crazy

Now that I own my house (an old one), I do fix-it work non-stop. As a rental tenant, though, I never did a thing – I figured it was the landlord’s responsibility. What I didn’t realize in my younger years was that, even though I didn’t own my home back then, I would have improved my living conditions immeasurably had I painted or gardened, despite the fact that I was maintaining someone else’s property. All the work put into my rented place by myself would have benefited myself, but I didn’t understand this concept. With regard to the piano man’s place, it needs more than a lick of paint -- some preliminary plaster work is definitely required.

Rings a bell

The image above our man’s right shoulder—man and woman in a field—is Millet’s “Angelus,” which depicts farm laborers stopping their work to pray at the 6 p.m. ringing of the bells.

Speaking of time, the unsynchronized clocks on the mantel fit right into the general decrepitude.

"Outside these walls"

Hope our subject lightened up a bit when he played for the audience.

Call me crazy

but I am always amazed at photos like this, of the decrepit state of the walls, and in this case even the mantelpiece. Had these folks never heard of paint? Were they so destitute that they could not afford even a single coat, or a layer of wallpaper? Or were they too lazy, or did they simply not care? The ugliness had to have threatened to suck the life right out of them. I'll wager that even the goldfish would have agreed with me. And don't get me started on that welter of wires.

Picture on the far wall

I wonder who that is in that picture. It looks like it could be an entertainer. Who does the Mission pianist idolize? Any Shorpy fans have any ideas?

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