Y’ever heard the one about the transvestite in turn-of-the-century Oxnard who worked as a stylist for local debutantes? Mary Z. Wilson has. In fact, she wrote a song about her…er, him…it. Her (or whatever) name was Lucy Hicks, and in the early 1900s, she was not only a fashion guru to the city’s elite but a high-profile madam as well. That is, until a Navy man caught a nasty case of VD at one of her brothels, bringing down her business and unraveling her secret identity all in one fell swoop.
“Lucy is our local Boy Named Sue,” Wilson says.
Ms. Hicks only one of a multitude of true-life characters whose stories Wilson has collected and adapted into song over the last five years. That’s how long ago she started Turn Back the Pages, a project aimed at capturing the history of Ventura County through a medium with which she is greatly familiar: folk music. As a former member of Americana vocal trio the Tatters, Wilson has been singing about historical matters for quite a while, but this is the first time she has made a concerted effort to catalogue tales specifically from this region’s past. Now, after months spent getting the material together, writing lyrics and commissioning other local artists to perform the songs, she is just about ready to release a CD for the public. And what they hear about their home county just might surprise them.
“We are in the Wild West, that’s for sure,” Wilson says.
Wilson had the idea for Turn Back the Pages while still acting as chief songwriter for the Tatters. Performing “Sweet Señorita” with the group outside an area bookstore one day, the owner commented that the song reminded him of his grandmother. Curious, Wilson probed the man about her, and what she received was a colorful biography that was, indeed, straight out of the Wild West. She assumed other Ventura County families must have similar stories. As an adult educator, Wilson realized she had the opportunity to speak to many of the county’s older residents, particularly in her Music and Memories program, taught in local assisted living homes and hospitals. Before long, she amassed a stack of audio tapes containing many family anecdotes based around historical events and eras: the 1917 Ojai fires, Port Hueneme’s farming years, Santa Paula’s days as a silent film mecca, etc. She adapted some Chumash legends as well. She also employed Virginia Stout, a docent for the Museum of Ventura County, who pulled articles from the museum library concerning notable moments and people.
“The goal was to get something written for every town and every area and region of the county, from the pioneer days up to the 1930s,” Wilson says. “I wasn’t looking for current stuff. This isn’t Johnny Cash — it’s stagecoaches.”
After composing the lyrics, Wilson outsourced the melodies to some of her friends in the county singer-songwriter community, including J. Peter Boles, Rain Perry, Jimmy Adams, Joe Paquin and Jonathan McEuen, among others. She now has 20 songs total — enough, she believes, to begin recording. Money for the project has been raised through a Ventura Unified School District grant and an endowment from Forum of the Arts. Once finished, tk will be available at public and school libraries and in the museum archives. She has also put together a band, the Restless Hillfillies, to perform the songs live. All that’s left is finding an artist to illustrate the lyrics for the CD booklet.
In addition, Wilson is planning on putting together a video for a song about the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928, the second greatest catastrophe in California history behind the San Francisco earthquake 22 years earlier, which sent a veritable tidal wave through Fillmore and Santa Paula, killing more than 600 people. She plans to use archival photographs from the museum to recount the tragedy.
This is, she assures, not a one-and-done deal. Considering the size of the county, the amount of stories out there is practically infinitesimal. Ultimately, Wilson says she would like to see songwriters in other towns pick up on the concept.
“We read about most famous people in a county usually, but there’re a lot of cool things that go untold,” she says. “I’m encouraging people to tell their stories while they’re still around.”