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Music and memories: Local journalist Carmen Fields recalls her musician father in debut book

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Music and memories: Local journalist Carmen Fields recalls her musician father in debut book
Carmen Fields new book chronicles the life of her musician father, Ernie Fields. IMAGE: COURTESY CARMEN FIELDS

Award-winning Boston-based journalist Carmen Fields grew up in a house full of music. Her father, Ernest (Ernie) Lawrence Fields, was a trombonist, pianist, musical arranger and bandleader who toured in the Southern United States with an orchestral territory band. After decades of hearing her father’s melodies and stories, Fields has crafted them into a book, “Going Back to T-Town: The Ernie Fields Territory Big Band.”

Carmen Fields with her father, Ernie Fields. PHOTO: COURTESY CARMEN FIELDS

“Going Back to T-Town” debuts on June 8 with The University of Oklahoma Press and represents decades of research, sorting through photographs and family conversations as Fields delved into her father’s background. She began interviewing her father, formally and informally, in the mid 1980s, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 shut down the distractions of everyday life that she officially put pen to paper for the book.

Ernie was a pioneering musician in the field of territory bands. Though he toured with a 17-piece orchestra all over Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, as was typical for these regional bands in the 1950s, he also started his own record label, Frisco Records. He recorded and distributed records of his orchestra, a feat that was highly unusual at the time, especially when done solo without the help of a promoter or agent.

Ernie Fields and his big band. PHOTO: COURTESY CARMEN FIELDS

His work was a cut above many territory bands of the time, but Ernie also represents the challenges Black musicians had working between the ’20s and the ’60s in the American South. Laws and social customs dictated where musicians of color could and couldn’t sleep, eat, perform and exist. Any perceived toe over that line could erupt in violence or jail time.

“The mistreatment that they sometimes received, it was startling,” says Fields. “He was traveling around the country with, you know, a 17-piece orchestra of Black musicians, oftentimes in the Deep South, where it was so easy to break some unwritten rule.”

Despite these challenges, Ernie told mostly fond stories of his touring days up until his passing in 1997. Friendship, entrepreneurship and hard work are other themes Fields explores in the book, and those were the cornerstones of building Ernie’s musical career.

Ernie Fields and his big band in 1939. PHOTO: COURTESY CARMEN FIELDS

Working with The University of Oklahoma to make the book a reality was a very intentional choice. “That was where my father was based for his career. Although he traveled all over the country, he always came back to Tulsa to raise our family,” says Fields. “I really appreciated the opportunity of an academic press because they had an eye on documentation and facts.” This is Fields’ first book. It is non-fiction but is written mainly in Fields’ own voice for an experience that’s both informative and enjoyable.

The book can be purchased through The University of Oklahoma Press or locally at Wellesley Books and Brookline Booksmith.

Fields’ brother, Ernie Fields Jr., is a musician as well, carrying on that family birthright. Though Fields struggled through her own childhood piano lessons, memorializing her father’s work in this book is her contribution to his legacy.

“This is a story of survival,” says Fields. “Ultimately, as musical trends changed and audience expectations changed, he still managed by sheer grit and will to survive. And that goes along with the survival stories of many African Americans.”

books, Carmen Fields, Ernie Fields, music, tulsa
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