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PostPosted: Fri 25 Jan , 2008 3:37 am 
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My dear friend tinwe sent me 2 cd’s of The Waterboys’ music for Christmas. I like them very much. But because my car is old and its stereo is old too, the cd player in my car just spits them out - they are cds that tinwe burned for me on his computer. I’ve had the same trouble with some other home-burned cds, and it’s really annoying. I can listen to them in the house, and have done so, and when I get the cd player installed in the pickup I will be able to listen to them then, but in the meantime, they are merely decorative in the glove compartment.

My Mum gave me a Hank Williams collection, which is wonderful. There was no one like Hank Williams and although I always say I don’t like country music, I love Hank Williams, could listen and weep all the way to Newfoundland and back, if the opportunity arose.

Mum also gave me a cd by the Original Carter Family, “Can the Circle be Unbroken”. I listened to it a lot after Christmas, just for pleasure and now, after my sister’s death, I listen to it for comfort. It’s odd music, I admit, and not to everyone’s taste. Yet, the Carter family was enormously popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s, selling millions of records. They also had a hugely successful radio show, broadcast from Mexico and heard all over the US and Canada. I remember my Dad telling me he used to hear them on the radio, although I don’t recall the call letters.

Nowadays they call it “American roots music”, since some of these songs were made newly popular in the movie O Brother, Where art Thou. But the re-tooling and revamping of the Carter family sound didn’t improve things in my ears, not at all. It prettified it, it smoothed it out, it made it more modern, but it doesn’t have the same emotional impact on me, nowhere near it. It is not smooth and pretty, it is rough and raw and, I guess, unsophisticated. They were not amateurs, not in any sense, but they came out of the hills of Virginia and Tennesee, along with Jimmy “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers, and they stayed what they were, in sound at least. They sound, in the way of white country singers, as Leadbelly or Robert Johnson sound for black blues singers. Bare bones, plain.

There was A. P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle Addington. Maybelle later married A. P.’s brother Ezra, and as Mother Maybelle Carter her career lasted decades after the original group was gone, as head of The Carter Family. Her daughter June famously married Johnny Cash.

On most of the recordings it is Sara’s voice we hear in the lead, Maybelle sang only harmony. Sara’s is an odd voice, not what you would call musical. It fits the stern young woman on the album cover though, with her un-made-up face and no-how hairstyle. Her strong country accent is very noticeable, the pronunciation of some words very strange indeed: she sings of the River Jordan and says “Jerdan” for Jordan. Many of the songs on this particular album are gospel songs, most credited to A. P. Carter as composer, although he didn’t compose them. It was common practice for people to take credit for “traditional” songs in order to get the royalties. He did write some, though. He was the brains of the outfit, as my Dad said. He plays guitar and he sings some, too. There he is, in “On the Rock Where Moses Stood”: he says, “Great God” in the background, clear as clear. He looked an awful lot like Abraham Lincoln, without the beard. And handsomer. Yes, he was a handsome man.

One of the most famous country songs of all is on this album: The Wildwood Flower. I know nothing about music whatsoever, only what I like, but I remember reading or hearing somewhere that Maybelle did something different in the guitar-playing line on this song and that every guitarist in the world learns to play it. Certainly every folk singer or country guitarist I ever heard HAS to play “Wildwood Flower”, and not one of them has ever been able to explain to me what it was that Maybelle did. It is a very, very beautiful song, and I know all the words to the first verse, which no one else EVER does, and I wonder if anyone here knows them.

“Lula Walls” is on this cd, too. “. . .If she was only mine, I would build a house so fine, Around it, so many fences tall, It would make me jealous pleased, That no one else but me, Could gaze upon that beauty, Lula Walls”. But Lula “ . . only turned away, And nothing would she say, That aggravating beauty, Lula Walls”. A girl who wasn’t easily won, Lula Walls.

“I am thinking tonight of my blue eyes”. Yes. I am thinking tonight of a blue-eyed sister. The fresh sorrow, washing over me. When Lindy and I were little, this is the kind of music we heard. My Dad sang some of these songs, his friend Jones played the guitar, Dad would play the mouth organ. We never said “harmonica”. Our old dog Pal would howl, whether singing along or protesting, we never knew. Lindy and I would sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’”. We sang, “Let the Sunshine In”. When we were singing we weren’t fighting. It was fun.

Lindy loved Elvis Presley. She saw “Blue Hawaii” about 20 times. She thought he had a beautiful voice. I didn’t, then. But now I think that “That’s All Right, Mama” is the greatest recording ever made, only it’s too short. Lindy didn’t like the “early” primitive Elvis. She liked the smooth-haired charmer in the movies, she saw the rhinestone Elvis in Las Vegas. I liked the country boy that horrible Colonel Parker ruined. Luckily, there was always enough Elvis to go around.

Kids nowadays seem to attach much more importance to “their music” than I ever did, though. When I was a teenager we didn’t even have a record player, and my Mum and Dad picked the radio station we listened to. Kids in town watched “American Bandstand”, but our TV didn’t get that station. I always had my nose in a book, and until I took up liking folk music, I didn’t listen to much of anything. I still don’t, except in the car, and mostly only when I’m alone. Another person distracts me, even the boys. When they were littler, they would listen to my music and like it, but not now. We can agree on Neil Young, but that’s about it. Not that there’s anything wrong with Neil Young.

I don’t know what Lindy listened to, these last years. I know she didn’t listen to the Carter Family, though. She didn’t hear this one, that makes me cry something fierce: “There’s a little black train a’comin. It may be here tonight.”

God damn it, that little black train.

Living on Earth is expensive,
but it does include a free trip
around the sun every year.

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