Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley is the newest effort from Mary Lee Kortes. The album first will be released on vinyl on April 22 in conjunction with Record Store Day. A CD release will follow six months later in the Fall. Mary Lee has brought her considerable talents to craft songs that sound like they came right out of the Depression era. Her effort was aided in large part by working with legendary producer Hal Willner.
From the dark and eerie “Born A Happy Girl,” which premiered exclusively on ABS, to the lively yet angry “Greater Good,” the songs tell the story of Beulah Rowley. As the story behind the story goes, the life of Beulah Rowley may not have been remembered at all if it weren’t for a wrought iron piano bench.
Beulah Rowley was a Depression-era singer/songwriter. As Mary Lee tells the story, Beulah “…inherited a wrought iron piano bench that her grandfather had made for her grandmother. It had a lock and key and she was storing everything in there that she wrote – plus her diaries – in it. There was this horrible house fire one night and everything was destroyed. Including her.
But the wrought iron piano bench survived.” Beulah’s husband and infant daughter also died in that fire. Beulah was only 21.
In the decades that followed, through flea markets and different owners, the piano bench found its way to the Kortes family. “Sitting on this bench, playing the piano, I could always hear these papers rustling,” Mary Lee told me. An aspiring young writer and musician, she knew what she wanted for her 10th birthday. She told her father she wanted him to open that bench.
“So we took it to a local locksmith, got it opened…” Here she paused momentarily before proceeding with a hint of awe in her voice. “I opened the top and saw all these faded lead sheets, hand written notes and melodies and lyrics. I took them open and figured them out on the piano.” She determined she must find a way to bring these songs back out into the world, to have Beulah’s story become known.
And so we have the concept album Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley. As I said, that is the story behind the story. But is it the real story? How much is fiction and how much is fact?
For instance, was there really a piano bench?
“No,” Mary Lee says laughing. “I mean there is a piano bench in my family. There are elements of my own life in (the album).”
For those who want to know the real origin story of Beulah Rowley, it came about when Mary Lee was on tour in London trying to come up with a different way to tell a story in song. She didn’t quite know what that would be.
“So I went to bed with this on my mind,” she said. “I woke up in the morning with this woman Beulah Rowley in my head, a regionally famous Midwestern singer/songwriter. And I started writing ‘Born A Happy Girl.’”
Mary Lee says the songs on the album are not about her, and yet she admits to putting much of herself into them. Stepping into the persona of Beulah Rowley allowed her to write from a perspective she might not have had otherwise. The songs may tell us about the life of Beulah Rowley, but that life is viewed through the eyes and experience of Mary Lee Kortes.
I discussed with Mary Lee our favorite songs on the album. “Piano Bench” was a favorite of hers, not surprising given its importance in her life and the creation of the album. I expressed a fondness for “The Young Float Freely By,” an upbeat, whimsical tune with a definite 1930s vibe to it. The centerpiece of the album, though, has to be the title track. It is a question we all have asked ourselves at one time or another, and it is central to the Beulah Rowley story.
“One of the themes for me in that song and the story as a whole is your voice may be getting heard even if you don’t know,” Mary Lee told me.
There are two versions of the song “Will Anybody Know I Was Here” on the vinyl album. One version has full orchestration. The other is a rehearsal version with just Mary Lee, a guitar player and a bass player. The latter version is mesmerizing and well worth a listen. According to Mary Lee, when producer Hal Willner first heard it he said, “Wow! That’s Sinatra.” Coming from Hal, that was high praise indeed.
Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley drops on vinyl April 22. It is a mix of fact and fiction or, as Mary Lee Kortes puts it, “Just because I made it all up doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”