Friday, August 5, 2016

26 Letters, or Music in the Eye of the Beholder

It all started when a friend sent me a copy of an autobiography. Lee Smith's, to be exact. An Appalachian author whose roots run deep among the bigger mountains to our east. I wasn't familiar with Smith's work, nor her background. I'm a voracious reader, given half a chance, but things, and authors, do escape my attention at times. (Existing as I do outside the academic realms, I learn and read among different flows of life.)

My husband loves for me to read aloud to him. Once I had seen the Lee Smith book's foreword, I told him I had to share it with him, and so commenced a-readin'. That foreword is laced up and down with music. Words, yes, but also word of growing up among certain great music artists. She mentioned the _a capella_ rendition of O Death, by the late Dr. Ralph Stanley, and we were both hooked in. Music, and words, which sing the fine, sensitive neck hairs aloft, punching up lumps in throats and setting loose oceans of tears from a part of the mountain folk psyche that dates back to the stone age soul.

It's impressive what someone with skill can do with just 26 letters. It goes beyond mere words, above the pedantic, everyday of communication. Some of the greatest writers, past and present, have roots in the storyteller culture in these beleaguered hills. It's as if life sent them here to hone the experience those stories, bringing inevitable sharp clarity and razor keen insight to the human factor.

Some of these hollers don't see daylight until noon, each day, and sunset follows just as abruptly. Growing a garden is as much art as necessity... or it used to be.

Ronnie's comment, when I had stopped reading for the night sparked off a lively discussion. "I know you don't like Bluegrass music, but I just love it." Mistake. I quickly, and softly began to set him straight on his opinion. We've been together for 35 years, and sometimes I forget he wasn't this close to me when I was growing up. He would, I now remind myself, have loved it. I'm sorry he missed seeing it as I did, in fact.

My Daddy played a grand old Gibson guitar he acquired during the World War II era, indeed even playing it on stage during his own stint in the U.S. Army. He played with folks who had radio fame during that time, and I was privileged to know some of them. Little Clifford. The Coldirons. That wasn't all. My mother grew up knowing the Coon Creek Girls, jitterbugging and trying to make sense of a war she couldn't imagine the reality of in her wildest dreams. I was born late to my parents, preceded by a brother and a sister. The 1960s and 1970s rocked and rolled for my siblings, and I lay in a heap of old pillows and quilts beside a smokey cookout fire on weekends, near the lake Dad built, listening to country, folk, bluegrass, and some pop music of the time.The background noise was from the drag strip a few miles away, bull frogs, and crickets and cicadas. Kids and dogs, trail horses (with a hint of manure), laughter, the clinking of suspiciously aromatic bottles, the flop of bass sounding under a brilliant moon, often the _ban sidhe_ squall of a bobcat, and I knew I was home. I went to sleep countless nights while listening to some one tell an involved story, while not far away, someone tuned their instruments quietly, loosing that peculiar silken, metalic hiss of calloused fingers on metal strings.

Ballads were stories I could take with me by day, ragged canvas sneakers reeking of fish and squished earthworms spilled out and stepped on in the dark hours. I ate homegrown foods, toasted marshmallows to the tune of You Are My Sunshine. I even tried to sing along. (Bad, bad idea. Trust me on that one.)

I don't hate Bluegrass music. I hate fake Bluegrass music. There's a vast difference. I also know bullshit from horseshit, after only a whiff. Growing up real, you learn.

Plastic can't compare to the real thing, made by an artisan instead of some impersonal, soulless, money oriented machine. Money can't buy truth. Truth, illustrated by shapes made of 26 letters, music written on tough, gossamer souls, that's how the tune goes among my people.

A few still know how the song goes. The rest wish they did. The price is more than they'll want to pay; it's constant sorrow, history written on millstones and gravestones with equal eloquence. It's the cost of life, a life that no one expected to be easy, and few have been disappointed by.

Oh, the memories. Psalms limned on the shed bark of sycamore and bear hide. Old times, near forgotten.