THE SONGBIRD OF MANZANAR (2016)
In 1942, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 giving the war department authority to define military areas in the Western states, and to exclude anyone who might threaten the war effort. 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. were incarcerated. Mary Kageyama Nomura was interned at the Manzanar relocation camp in Eastern California. Two-thirds of the internees were, like Mary, native-born American citizens under the age of 21.
Music provided relief during the years of the Japanese American internment during WWII. Mary performed in Manzanar all three years she was incarcerated, and she became known as the "Songbird of Manzanar." In this film, Mary shares old field recordings of her singing in Manzanar, and these are believed to be the only surviving field recordings of music from Japanese American incarceration camps. In the conclusion of the film, Mary honors her nickname and sings one of her favorite jazz standards by George Gershwin.
“I started singing, actually, when I was five years old, at my mother’s concert. She was a teacher of classical Japanese singing, and her students were all men. I used to watch them and listen to them, and it is a type of singing that a gentlemen will sing all the parts in an opera: the male, the female and the child, or whatever the story. I started singing it and copying them, and I guess my mother thought ‘Wow! She knows this stuff,’ so she put me on stage when I was five, and made me the costume the men would wear and I sang. The stage was in Los Angeles and the audience was so intrigued they cried and they threw money on to the stage. In those days it was acceptable to get money thrown at you, now it is an insult!
That’s how I started and all of my siblings would always sing. We would put the radio on and sing all the hits of those days. I always loved to sing and my mother was always sure we had music in the house. I still remember her cranking up the old victrola and playing Japanese music, or classical music, I remember her playing Dvorak’s 'New World Symphony' for us. When my mother was alive she always installed the love of music into all of us.
MARY KAGEYAMA NOMURA
By the time I was in grammar school I would go into these talent shows, at school, and participate. I guess I was always a ham. I actually was very shy girl. I was always in the back and never said much, but when it came to music I have always stepped up, and always wanted to sing.
My father died when I was four, and then four years later my mother died. Frank (Mary’s older brother) kept us together. He went to work at a nursery. He went to the library and studied books on horticulture, and he still does gardening, but that is how he supported us. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be around, we would have been in an orphanage. He is the one who quit school at 17 to support us, he was our guardian. Can you imagine he was in high school when our mother died. In those days the 1930s. Wow! That was hard.
By the time I was 12 years old my brother decided he was going to spend some money, that he could not afford, to send me to music school to learn how to sing properly. I learned proper breath control from Ralph Snyder, who became a family friend. He used to come over to the house and eat with us, or go fishing with us. He was actually a musician for Paul Whiteman, and was his pianist. One of Paul Whiteman’s singers was Bing Crosby, and they were called the Rhythm Boys, and he showed us pictures of the Rhythm Boys and there he was, young Bing Crosby! Ralph taught me until I was 16 years old, and that is when the Japanese were evacuated into camp and that was the last of my singing lessons."
The Songbird of Manzanar, California, 2016, digital video, 16 minutes., color
June, 2017 - Deep End Ranch, Santa Paula, California
August, 2017 - LA Louver, Venice, California
August, 2019 - The National Steinbeck Center, Salinas, California
L.A. Louver film premiere
L.A. Louver curated the premiere of “The Songbird of Manzanar” on Wednesday, August 30, 2017. This is the transcript of a conversation between Edison and Nomura moderated by Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña. The event concluded with an unforgettable musical performance by Nomura in the gallery space exhibiting Ed and Nancy Kienholz’s “The Non-War Memorial” (1970).
Renee Tajima-Peña: I guess they had to chase some people away. It's like a Trump rally you know, “What a great crowd this is…” I’m sorry. That's it. So thank you to Beatrice (of L.A. Louver) for inviting me. I think we've known each other forever. This is really a pleasure. This is very meaningful for me. My family was incarcerated in Heart Mountain, Tule Lake, and Gila River during the war of course.
My father and my uncles were in the U.S. armed services but everybody else was incarcerated. So this is the narrative that I grew up with in my childhood and has so much meaning for me because I knew it was a dangerous story. Growing up here in Los Angeles I was told by one of my teachers that my mother and grandmother were lying about their history in the camp and they advocated the story. So I knew it was a dangerous story and I knew at the age of 10 that it was a story I had to keep on telling.
Today, in this historic moment so many Americans are under attack, constitutional rights are under attack by racial hatred. This story is something we forget at our peril. Beatrice asked me to contextualize Mary's story. Her personal story of the larger picture of the hundred and twenty thousand Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in prison during the war. In fact, this is the seventy-fifth anniversary of executive order 9066 which resulted in the evacuation and imprisonment of those Japanese Americans. Seventy-five years ago in August probably Mary and other Japanese Americans I know my mother was living in the Santa Anita racetrack horse stall in Arcadia, California and they were being taken to these godforsaken places around the West where they were behind barbed wire and that was probably about this time seventy-five years ago.
The story of people like Mary and the incarcerated Japanese Americans is not only a story of victims, at all, because they created community in the camps, they created art and culture in the camps and they cultivated agriculture in places that were barren before the Japanese Americans arrived. Places like Heart Mountain. They performed like Mary performed. They painted, they carved, they filled swimming holes, they had boy scout troops and baseball teams. Places like Manzanar where Mary was incarcerated recites of resistance, collective resistance, individual acts of resistance, as well as these sites of this very very vital building of Japanese American community.
The other part of Mary's story that's important to me is this forgotten story of Nisei Japanese American performers of that era. There were these amazing talents like Mary but people that we're a little older than her like Betty Inada who was an incredible dancer, singer, musician who had to confront racism in the entertainment business. They couldn't get into musicians unions because of racism. They couldn't get roles on screen or on stage. Some of them went back to Japan in the 1930s and were trapped there during the war. Some of them ended up in camps and some of them took on Chinese stage names.
So they were not able to actualize their talents in this broader kind of stage although they created something wherever they were. They create something in their entities in Little Tokyo, in Manzanar wherever they could. They left this legacy and they left their voice and we're so happy that Mary left this just spectacular voice, a voice we get to hear today. So with that, I'll shut up because I'm sure you want to hear from Cody, the filmmaker, and from Mary herself. And what we'll do today is I'll have a short discussion with both of them and then we'll open it up to you for questions and comments. So, Mary and Cody, can you join me.
Renee: OK let me start with a few questions for Cody. So, Cody, I read your biography. You're from Chicago. Cubs are ahead so we're really happy. And then you studied at CalArts you divide your time between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. How did you find out about Mary’s story? What brought you to Mary?
Cody Edison: Well first I want to say when I met Mary I always dreamed that I could show the film in a gallery with her present to speak and to sing live. I think this completes the journey. My experience with her was all about music but there is a lot more to the story and I'm happy she can speak about that today.
For a long time I focused on photography and while my grandmother was alive I went with her to photograph a social group of German widows. They were singing old songs and it was the first time in my experience as a photographer I thought this is something I have to film so I put my still camera down (and started filming video on my iPhone). It really struck me that these are important songs that I wanted to document them. This is here in California, and after that experience, I started exploring how generations, and the generations that follow, are affected by war through music. Music is a really interesting access point because I saw my grandma and these war brides were just like little girls. They were so happy you could see that singing was healing to them. So I made a film about them and my family.
Later on, I came to Southern California and I was introduced to Scott Nagatani, and after I got to meet him and speak to him about his music he connected me with Mary. When I first met Mary we had some tea and at the very end of our meeting, she sang two songs for me (“Embraceable You”, & “St. Louis Blues”). I was blown away and couldn’t believe who I had just met. This was one of the most beautiful performances I've ever heard or seen and I thought well that has to be the end of the film.
Renee: And did you know anything about the incarceration camps before you met Mary.
Cody: Yes. When 9/11 happened I just turned twelve and my school gave us Farewell to Manzanar (by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston), and I read that as a kid and it stuck with me my whole life. That was my first introduction to the Japanese American incarceration camps.
Renee: Mary do you remember first meeting Cody.
Mary Kageyama Nomura: No I don’t…
Renee: Just another one of the guys.
Mary: No. I was so honored to meet him. He was so sweet and so sincere and was easy. It was easy for me to love him.
Renee: Can you hear us?
Mary: Oh, I didn’t put the microphone up.
Cody: Do you want to say that again?
Mary: I just really appreciate what he did, and I can never thank you enough for making me feel like I'm important.
Renee: So Cody were there any surprises as you were delving into Mary's story and the story of the Japanese American concentration camps? Or anything of the history or her personal history or just her personality that really jolted you?
Cody: You know I I learned a lot about Mary's values. She is humble and kind. My first surprise was how she became a singer. I have some text that accompanies the video where she told me about her mother who sang Japanese classical music and how when she was a child she would listen to her lessons and memorize all the parts which were sung by men. You were born a performer. One day Mary’s mom heard her singing and she thought, “Oh, she's good,” so she encouraged Mary to continue and to participate in talent shows.
Renee: Did your grandmother ever meet Mary.
Cody: My grandma did not meet Mary, but I told her all about Mary and shared my film.
Renee: They’re the same generation?
Renee: And Mary can you talk a little bit about before the war you grew up here on the West Side in Venice you said?
Mary: Yeah. I started third grade here in Venice and went to junior high here and in high school. I was in 11th grade when the 9066 came out. I was told that we had to leave and I was living with my brother and my two sisters and my two older sisters and two little sisters. We had no parents. I lost my father when I was four years old, and my mother I lost when I was eight years old. So my brother raised us, quitting high school , and he and my sister, who was just a year and a half younger than he, they both quit high schools to raise us. And in those days it was the Depression years and so the 1930s. He knew how much I loved music. And in those days I mean we barely had money... but he was able to scrape up 50 cents a week for me to go take singing lessons. And that's how I learned how to breathe and sing and all that. But I just owe it all to my brothers and for all to honor him I named my first son after him in the end because we survived in Venice. I have good memories of Venice.
Cody: When you were taking those music lessons I’d say another thing that surprised me about your story was when you told me about Ralph Snyder. Who was he?
Mary: He was a pianist for an old-time music orchestra with Paul Whiteman. I don't know if anybody knows who Paul Whiteman was but my singing teacher was his pianist and his brother played the guitar and there are three boys in the back who sang the songs who were the rhythm boys. And one of their members was Bing Crosby. We had a picture of the whole orchestra with Paul Whiteman standing there… and I can't find that picture.
Mary: I saw the photo several years ago but my brother must not have put it away in a safe place. We could not find it after my brother passed and we looked and looked and couldn't find it but that was history.
Renee: So what were your dreams before the war? How did you see yourself? What hopes did you have?
Mary: Well I knew that I would never appear in the movies so I always wanted to be a singer on the radio. Where they won't see me but they'll hear my voice and I always wanted to sing on the radio and make records.
Renee: So when you went to Manzanar did you go directly to Manzanar?
Mary: Yes we went directly on the bus.
Renee: Can you tell me did you think about you know what's going to happen to my career or was it more like fundamental worries that you had?
Mary: I had no inkling of what I wanted to be at that time. I was just a little snot-nosed 16-year old that was very naive and didn't know much about the world. I thought, “Hey we're going to go to the camp. We were going to go to someplace I never got to go anywhere and a trip out of Venice.” We got onto a bus and gosh it must've been seven or eight hours from Venice all the way to Manzanar. And we stopped at the gate and we looked and said, “This is where we're going to live? This is the camp?" Dusty, clothes dirty and people looking up into the bus see who's on the bus. Thinking one of our friends or one of our relatives because they went in groups of six and where they lived in L.A. or around Santa Monica or Venice. So they were all looking for their friends.
And how those people were looking at us they had World War I uniforms on to keep them warm. The low hat caps and jackets they're all in khaki. And it was a shock. I mean they had goggles on because the sand was blowing in their eyes and I mean it was a shock. And I was only 16 and thought, "Wow! We are going to live with them. How long?" We had no idea. And as the days went by they told us what we had to do, and what they expected us all of us. It was no picnic. It was a shock.
Renee: If you don't know where Manzanar is you can visit. It's near Lone Pine and Bishop in the Mojave Desert. Right. And it's still kind of God forsaken but they have a really amazing new interpretive center and the National Park Service has put up a lot of great history there. And every year in April there is a pilgrimage. The community takes a lot of young people, people of all different backgrounds, and they pay tribute and tour camps.
Mary: Well we don't go every year for our pilgrimage but when my husband passed he said he wanted his ashes strewn over the Eastern Sierra. And I could not afford to hire an airplane to do that. So we as a family took his ashes out to Manzanar near the creek and we scattered his ashes and we paid our own private tribute to him and my daughter brought flowers out of her garden and we all placed of flowers and bade him goodbye. And so we didn't go back every single year. It's so many years in between. But this past year it was a 75th year of the incarceration so we all went as a group of I think through about 14 or 15 members of my family. And we went to pay respect to him and just went out to the desert and enjoyed the desert just for him.
Renee: So interesting because for a lot of Japanese Americans the camps were like almost the low points.
Renee: And you know as such an incredible injustice so to spread your husband's and his wishes have his ashes spread at Manzanar…
Mary: He loved Manzanar.
Renee: Really? He loved Manzanar?
Mary: He wrote up every month for a periodical at Eastern California Museum which is about 14 miles north of the Manzanar interpretive center. And he worked there for 20 some odd years. I think to put things from camp into the museum to show that everyone experienced a life there. He put pictures in, he made all different things he went all over Los Angeles county seeking out people who lived in camp, and begged them to give up some of the things that they had in camp they made or they borrowed or given. And you made up that museum display at the Eastern California Museum, and they called it the Manzanar project and they're still taking care of that and showing it to the public and I'm very proud of what he did.
Renee: I had no idea. And I think your kids are also here right?
Mary: Oh yes. I have three of my five children here.
Renee: Can you stand up?
Mary: And I have nieces and cousins. One son in Encinitas could not make it. And my eldest my daughter in half moon bay up in San Francisco area could not make it but I'm so proud that you came to support me and my nieces and my nephews in oh I'm just so proud.
Renee: As a Sansay born after the camps I had always so much anger. I can never understand because my family did have an affection for their time there and I used to get so mad at them, “Why aren’t you pissed off like I am?” and they were angry but I think because they built something there. So you built a legacy cultural legacy there and your husband not only built a life there but then he kept that history going so it's kind of a different way of looking at experience.
Mary: He said if it wasn't for camp I never would have met you. He said I never would have had these children and wouldn't have all of these relatives. I mean he had all his brothers and sisters there too. And then they had their family. One sister had ten children. She had eight when she went there. She had two more when she was here and they're all just good family and they made a good life in being part of the community and not harboring ill thoughts. They made the best of it by being positive.
You know when we first bought the property for our burial. We were going to be buried by his father and brother who were already in camp. Also after a while, we start working for the museum he says, “You know I want my ashes strewn over the Sierras because that's where I want to be.” So that's what we did.
Renee: And I think Cody is pointing out…
Cody: At that exhibit at the Eastern California Museum there's a plaque honoring your husband that has this quote, “in Manzanar… so close to freedom but yet so far… You can corral my body, you can control my movements but not my spirit.”
Mary: Yeah. That was something he firmly believed in. He made that up and that's what we remember him by. He was a very compassionate man…
Rene: And he was a poet?
Mary: No! He just loved to write!
Mary: So he used to write for newspapers and things just do gossip things and even recipes and stuff but he just really enjoyed people. He enjoyed people…friendly old guy.
Cody: You said earlier that he saw you singing and he knew.
Mary: When I was 14 years old I sang at a talent show in Los Angeles. I was up on that big stage that’s not even there anymore. But I was singing as a 14-year-old. He's sitting there in the audience with a beautiful young lady he was almost engaged to her. She went to another camp which made him very sad and but he heard me singing he says he points and he says, “I’m going to marry that girl.” Woah, what a two-face! Geez!
Mary: The fellow who came to introduce us for the first blind date was the best man (at our wedding).
Renee: So Cody you made an interesting decision to really not only make a film about Mary’s career as a singer but also a love story. Which is not the obvious way of approaching something like you know great injustice of these concentration camps. Can you talk about making that decision as a filmmaker?
Cody: Yeah this story came into place when Mary played for me the recordings that she had of herself singing in camp. These are only known existing field recordings of music during the internment of that time in the United States. There's the one song where you hear Louis Frisell accompanying her, and then the other song where your husband sent you the lyrics to a poem he wrote. You were out of Manzanar and decided to send a recording of you singing those words back to him while he was still incarcerated. And you know, I heard the story which I wasn't aware of before meeting her and I decided to build the film around these two recordings.
Renee: Maybe either one of you can answer this. Louis Frisell who I think had a great career actually and Broadway and why in the hell did he go to Manzanar. Why did he make that decision?
Mary: He was a student at UCLA. He was about the same age as my husband in his 20s. Twenty-two or three I guess. When he went to camp when they were looking for volunteers to go to the camps to become teachers do in whatever subject they were good at. And he decided he's going to go teach music in Manzanar and he volunteered. And what a blessing he was so prolific in his writing and his music and a lovely voice. And he took me under his wings and he nurtured me to sing different kinds of songs and whether it was swing songs or lovely ballads or blues. But he was really just a wonderful person and he wrote a song for me and I still have his original music that he wrote and it's a song about the camp life in Manzanar for teenagers and the lack of privacy. How they made do with whatever they could, with no more theaters, and no proms, and things like that that average teenagers would have if there were out of camp. I was very proud when chosen to sing a song that he wrote. And I still sing it in different places. It's about this young man lamenting about the lack of privacy and what good could do and could not do, but I always lovingly call it the Manzanar song.
Cody: Did you stay in touch with him after Manzanar?
Mary: I did see him a couple of times at reunions, high school reunions and then we used to go to a restaurant in Little Tokyo and he would meet me there and he'd play the piano and I would sing in the bar oh we had fun.
Renee: What bar was that?
Mary: What was the name Lisa? Tokyo Kaikan. It had a sushi bar, tempura, shabu shabu… what else?
Mary: He would love to take people there to entertain them. He was a fun guy.
Renee: So you know I grew up listening to the stories of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated. I always wondered what did the other non-Japanese Americans when they saw, you know, their neighbors being taken away. So did Lou ever talk to you about his response to seeing Manzanar to seeing all these people behind barbed wire?
Mary: Not that I recall ever. I know the way he nurtured all those students and gave them a positive attitude and he made life so much better for us and teenagers in camp and we really owe him a lot.
Renee: OK well we can open it up to questions from the audience for Cody and Mary.
Question: This is a question for Mary. How were you rounded up? How did it happen with you and your family? By this time both your parents were gone?
Mary: Oh yes…
Renee: Everybody hear the question? You know I think my job is done here you can use this mic.
Question continued: I want to understand what it was like to be ripped away from everything you knew at home? The mechanics of how you were all rounded up? What did you have to leave behind and coming out of the camp how did you reintegrate? What seemed different what seemed the same? How did people treat you?
Mary: Well we were notified by posters that were put on telephone poles saying, “All Japanese people of this area has to be at this certain place and you are all going to be sent to a camp.” So we just followed. We didn’t have rabble-rousers in those days. We just did what we were told to do and we went peacefully.
We could only take what we could carry. We could not ship anything. We didn’t have the facilities to ask anyone to take anything for us. Whatever we could put into duffel bags, or suitcases or only what we could carry… We couldn’t take food because it was going to be a long trip on the bus and once we got there we were told where to go and what barrack to move into. Kids who had to go to school were told to go to this place at a certain time of the day. We had to go to mess halls to eat and then they told us that the war was over they said, “Now you can go home.” We had no home, everything was gone. So they gave you $25 each and said, “Ok go make a life for yourself.” We had nowhere to go. There were places that accepted the incarcerees at hostels, or they had friends from before who would let them stay at their place or find a place for you to stay. In those days it was pretty hard to find logging because all the service men came back. The funny thing is the barracks (from camps) were dismantled and only the service men could buy the lumber so they could build a home. We had absolutely nothing. I took a job as a house keeper and my husband took a job as a gardener. We left in January of 1945 but he left in March in 1945 and he used to be a farmer… later on he was able to borrow some money and then we moved. We had nothing when we left camp.
Question: How were you treated by society?
Mary: OH! Pfff. There was a professor at CalTech who took my brother under his wing to study there. He sponsored us from camp and he found a place for us to rent. He gave my brother a job and he said, “Well you and Shi,” my husband's name was Shiro but his nickname was Shi. “You and Shi are getting married so I am going to go buy you a wedding present.” He took me to a store and we picked up a stainless steel saucepan and the lady who was helping us looked at me and said, “You aren’t one of those dirty Japs are you?” The professor was so angry he put the pot down and we both walked out.
Before we went to camp one of the teachers knew that we were all going to evacuated. “When are you going to leave, when are you going to leave here? I’ll never forget that it was a teacher. That was how it was. People would stare at us. When I first came out of camp I just couldn’t take it. People would stare…I just felt so uneasy.
Question: Auntie Mary, how did you begin singing again after camp?
Mary: After the camp, I think the first place I sang at was at a big public dance. I sang a song that was current at the time and that was the first time I sang after camp. Later on, I sang in Little Tokyo and then after a while, I started having kids so I was too busy to be singing and for a long time, I did not sing. Around 2000, maybe earlier, a group called the Grateful Crane Ensemble was putting on a play about camp life and they put out songs of that era and they needed an old geezer that you know of that era so they asked me to sing. I sang a couple of songs and Scott, the young man accompanying me today, he is the number one piano player accompanist.
Renee: Well, I think that is the perfect segway (for the music performance).
* L.A. Louver color photographs by Al Nomura.
* Field recordings and archival photographs in the film were used by permission thanks to the Eastern California Museum (Independence, CA).