The Universal Language

My ancestors are from England, France, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, and Switzerland. Those countries cover just a few of the 6,900-plus languages in the world. That’s a lot of different languages! But according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, there is one universal language: Music. Like most languages, music has its own system of symbols and the combination of those symbols produces phrases—or a composition—that can be interpreted by instruments or voices. Since music is such a big part of my life I decided to find other people in my family who also speak that language.

The Greats

William Wesley Gibson (1853-1928), my third cousin, four times removed, was also known as “Singing Billy.” I’m still looking for the story about how he got that name. My mother’s paternal grandfather, William Benton “Will” McKenzie (1867-1924), directed a community band and chorus, and also played the bass drum. Her maternal grandfather, Neil Henry Reynolds (1879-1920), sang in the community chorus Will directed.

I’ve already written about my great grandaunt Grace Rohleder who sang in her church choir, and her brother Mortimer who helped to establish a community choir. Their brother Andrew Hamilton Rohleder (1870-1950), my great grandfather, also knew the language of music. He played the piano and sang. When he was first transferred from Richmond, Virginia, to Charlotte, North Carolina, around 1911, he went by himself to get established before his family joined him in 1912. He joined the Elizabeth College Choral Society and participated in a production of Flotow’s opera Martha in May 1911. (Elizabeth College was a four-year women’s college located on the land now occupied by Presbyterian Hospital.)

The Grands

Andrew’s eldest child, Susie Dallas Rohleder (1892-1976), inherited some of his musical ability. Aunt Susie had a piano in her living room and an old pump organ on her front porch. Andrew lived with her for a while, so I expect both those instruments got a lot of use. My grandmother, Myrtle Primm, never worked as a young woman, but spent her time learning music. She played violin and “sang great alto” (according to her son).


My parents’ generation produced several musically conversant folks. My mother majored in music and was known for her soprano voice. We always had a piano at home. The first one was purchased from Queen’s College in Charlotte. It was an old upright Chickering that had been in a practice room for years. I expect the price was right, but it wasn’t long before a couple of the keys would no longer play and it wouldn’t stay in tune. Momma’s brother William Benton McKenzie (1929-2014) played trumpet in the school band. Daddy’s brother Bub (Milton Arnold Rohleder, 1922-1969) played the piano by ear. This always fascinated me: how can anyone do this? I can barely play anything with the music in front of me.

My mother’s first cousin, Elizabeth McRae Reynolds (1950-2005, daughter of Sara McRae Reynolds), started with music at a young age. She started studying piano at age three, and later sang in church and school choirs, ensembles, and participated in the annual high school musical production (starring as Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner). Elizabeth was a voice major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. There, she continued singing in choirs and starring in musicals (e.g., Maria in West Side Story). The last time I heard Elizabeth sing, she was touring with the UNC-G choir and was the soloist in Poulenc’s Gloria. That was the first time I had ever heard the piece and it became my favorite piece of music. (Several years ago I was able to sing, at church, one of the solos from that work, and I finally fulfilled my dream of singing the entire work as part of the chorus when the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra performed it in March.) Elizabeth went on to direct church choirs, and teach music and drama.

Although my father couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, he did enjoy listening to the radio and liked to dance.

My Generation

I have some musical cousins from my generation. Marcia Baxley participated in the musicals in high school and would sing duets with Elizabeth at church. Mike Rohleder played guitar and sang in a rock-n-roll band in high school. David McKenzie played guitar when he was younger.

Being silly with my brother Carl. That’s the harpsichord he built.

My siblings also speak the language. My sister, Ruth, sings and plays piano. My brother, Carl, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in music, and was a band director for several years before joining the staff of a South Carolina music store. He later sold musical instruments for Selmer. Carl started out on the flute and switched to oboe. During football season he played drums (oboes aren’t in a marching band), and he also played saxophone in the dance band. While in college he built a harpsichord from a kit; it’s in his living room and he still plays it.


My music studies started when I was in grade school and wanted to take piano lessons. Momma taught me how to read music and where the notes were on the piano. I also sang in the children’s choirat church where Momma was the choir director. I pretty much went about three or four years teaching myself piano. Unfortunately, technique (scales, fingering, etc.) wasn’t part of those lessons and my bad habits stuck. I took a couple of years of piano when we moved to Rockingham, but I wasn’t interested in practicing or performing (i.e., memorizing) music in a recital. Singing was my thing, and my junior high music teacher, Mack Israel, had me singing solos. In high school I sang in the girl’s glee club my freshman year, and after that was part of a small ensemble called the 8 O’Clockers (so named because when they first started the only time they had to rehears was at 8 a.m. before classes started). Also during high school I attended summer choral workshops at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for four years. They were so much fun and we sang a wide variety of music. The summer after my freshman year was when I first encountered the music of French composer Francis Poulenc (his Christmas motets) and knew modern music was something I really liked. That was enforced during the summer following my junior year in high school when I was fortunate enough to attend the Governor’s School of North Carolina. We sang mainly 20th century music, and I loved it all!

I majored in music at Lenoir-Rhyne College (now Lenoir-Rhyne University) and sang in the choir and small ensemble. We did a wide variety of music and some of those pieces are still on my favorites list. After college, the family moved to Charlotte and I began singing with the Charlotte Opera Chorus, the Singing Christmas Tree, and various church choirs. Although I never worked in the field, I’ve rarely been away from singing. Today I sing in my church choir (even do a few solos), and a few community choruses.

The Future

The children and grandchildren of my first and second cousins are carrying on the family music tradition. Bryn Hagman studied music in college and sang in opera and musical theater productions. Riley Dixon plays the baritone saxophone. Young Abby is making her way in the musical theater genre. Chuck Wright majored in music and is now teaching elementary school music, directing a church choir, and singing the occasional solo. He sang beautifully at my mother’s memorial service.

These are the people I know about. If I’ve missed anyone, please leave a comment with the details.

This entry was posted in 52Ancestors, Gibson, McKenzie, Primm, Reynolds, Rohleder. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Universal Language

  1. Eilene Lyon says:

    So Elizabeth College had a co-ed choir despite being a women’s school. Was it a community choir?
    I really like your creative take on this topic! I think too literally myself.
    I was jealous that my brothers seemed to inherit all the musical ability. I’m glad you got your fair share!


    • leafyvines says:

      From what I gather of the news clippings, it was a community choir. I haven’t found any other performance notices, so maybe this was a one-time deal for this particular opera. I came across that Longfellow quote when I was looking for something else, and it prompted this post. I was going to skip this one as I haven’t done any work in any other language. And remember, an appreciative audience is very important!

      Liked by 1 person

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