When I was a kid, suits only came in one color: blue. Or at least, that’s the way it seemed. Janesville wasn’t much of a dress-up town in those days. Other than on Sundays (for those who went to church,) weddings and funerals, overalls and work shirts were the attire of choice. My Dad, like most of his friends, wore Oshkosh B-Gosh bib overalls which were treasured because they had enough pockets to stash jack knives, chewing tobacco, coins, keys and a billfold, with plenty of room left over for screwdrivers, pliers and other hand tools. There was even a loop on the side of the pant leg to carry a hammer.
My Father did have a dark blue gabardine suit, but most of the time it hung in the back of the closet. In those days, he wasn’t much of a church-goer and weddings and funerals were few and far between, so his suit was definitely low-mileage. Ties were a mystery that my Father never solved. When I was old enough to wear a white shirt and tie, I had to ask my brother-in-law Ed to show me how to tie a tie. Despite my efforts to teach my Father, he never learned how. On the rare occasion when he did wear a tie, he’d carefully loosen it and slip it over his head and hang it up in the back of the closet with his suit.
As the years passed, my Father gradually changed shape. In his youth, he was 5’10” tall and on the slim side. By the time he reached his 60’s, he’d lost a couple of inches in height, and gained a few in diameter. Along the way, his suit subtly changed proportions, right along with him. It was made of good stock. In my Father’s mind, there was nothing wrong with his one suit, even if he’d had it since he was a young man. The suit was older than I was, but it still had plenty of good wear in it. My Mother was of a different persuasion: especially in the later years when my Father got religion and they were going to church every Sunday. The seat of the suit pants had taken on an iridescence like a puddle of gasoline in the summer sun and the once-sturdy gabardine fabric had lost its memory and hung dispirited on his frame.
Finally, my Mother talked my Father into buying a new suit (even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with his old blue suit.) When I was home visiting one summer, I was given the honor of laying my Father’s old blue suit to rest. It would have been most fitting to give it a Christian burial, but because it still had plenty of life left in it, I took it over to the Salvation Army one afternoon and donated it. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else is still wearing my it. I know that my Father thought that it was a complete waste of money to be laid to rest in his new blue suit when it had a good fifty years of wear still left in it.
When I wrote the song Old Blue Suit, I wanted to include a few other images that are still vivid in my mind. Friday nights were special in our town because it was the only night of the week when the stores were open until 9. It was a night when it seemed like everyone went downtown. The Rexall Drugstore on the corner of Main and Milwaukee was always full of people, and the ice cream counter was the center of attention. People paraded up and down the streets, stopping to say hello to neighbors or wave to friends driving by. We didn’t have a car until I was 15, and it was a thirty-seven Chevy Coupe. We bought it very used, but it might as well have been a Cadillac as far as I was concerned. My Mother and both of my sisters learned to drive in that old Chevy. (It wasn’t a convertible, though.)
The reference to the Feed Store reflects the importance of the store in spreading news around the town. Farmers would stop by on a Saturday ostensibly to pick up a few bags of seed, and would settle in for a leisurely conversation with other “reg’lars” of similar bent. The women in town may have picked up all the “news” on the party line phones, but the men had their own pipe line of information. It was somewhere between the feed sacks and the seed bags.
Old Blue Suit Words & music by Jerry Rasmussen Copyright 1985
When he was a boy, just 16 years
Bursting at the elbows, wet behind the ears
Poppa called him in and sat him in a chair
Saying, Son I think it’s time you had a suit to wear
CHORUS: It was his old blue suit, the one he used to wear With the pants all shiny and the cuffs worn bare He never had much, but he always bought the best
And in his old blue suit, today, they’re laying him to rest
Every Friday evening, driving into town
In his thirty-seven Chevy with the top rolled down
Waving at the ladies, he’d give his horn a toot
Sitting there a’beaming in his old blue suit
Down at the feed store, only yesterday
Everyone was talking ‘bout how he passed away
And when he meets Peter on the golden stairs
I guess I don’t have to tell you what he’ll wear
I have recorded this song on Get Down Home - Folk Legacy records.