Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bluegrass Music--Penetrating the Veil

Ralph Stanley: Short Life of Trouble--Songs of Grayson and Whittier
A few days ago, while listening to Ralph Stanley sing the songs of Grayson and Whittier, I was reminded of the phrase Louise Cowan uses in her essay "Epic as Cosmopoesis."  She refers to the primary feature of epic literature being the "penetration of the veil separating material and immaterial existence" or "the veil separating the human from the divine."  The point that led to this thought relates to the themes of so many of the songs on this bluegrass collection as well as songs lodged within the broader scope of bluegrass, mountain, folk, southern, and rural music.

These songs deal with brutal, cruel, sad, and tragic aspects of life.  Not every song has a somber theme, for sometimes trains, love, women, dancing, and dogs lift the spirits. Yet, the darker side of life is ever present in bluegrass music.  Consider the song "Rose Conley" in this collection.  The story in this song is about a man who kills the woman he loves.  This idea comes up repeatedly in bluegrass and folk music.  The passion and irrationality associated with love and hate can evoke the strangest of actions.  It is unthinkable, but men have responded with jilted love or unrequited love by violence.  It is the human heart in emotional chaos.  While it does not happen often, the fact that it does happen is enough to unsettle the soul.  And bluegrass music is soul music.

"Short Life of Trouble" has a theme that is self explanatory.  In this song, the young man has been rejected by the girl who promised her love only a week before.  This is a heart-ache quite familiar to many people.  Rejection is painful, but the lyrical experience of a poem or song expresses the pain of a moment.  That moment of pain, however, seems to be extended into eternity when it is happening.

Short life of trouble
A few more words to part
Short life of trouble dear girl
For a boy with a broken heart

"Nine Pound Hammer," despite its jaunty air, is a lament of the pains of physical labor.  Bluegrass music grew out of the experience of farmers, miners, lumbermill workers, factory hands, and other folks who sweated long and hard to survive.  A teacher like me who works in an air conditioned building could never write true folk and roots music about my experiences.  (Consider "I was lecturing on the history of the War Between the States...." to the tune of "Tennessee Waltz.") 

"He's Coming to Us Dead" is a mournful song about a man waiting for his son at the train station.  As the song develops, it becomes clear that the son was killed in battle and his body was being returned home for burial.  The homecoming is a sad one.

"A Dark Road is a Hard Road to Travel" works on the biblical imagery of light and darkness. 

A dark road's a hard road to travel
A light road is always the best
A dark road will lead you to trouble
A light road will lead you to rest

Those troubles can include jail and other miseries.  These things may come out of the choices men make, but the troubles are painful all the same.

"On the Banks of Old Tennessee" deals with loss and displacement.  The singer laments not having a father, a mother, a brother, sister, or true love.  They are all resting on the banks of the Old Tennessee.  Whether it is a specific tragedy or just time, he has been separated from family.  There is an empty sadness in this kind of song.  Again, that is a momentary emotional response fitting for lyrics.

It is interesting that fans and artists in the bluegrass arena gravitated to so many doleful, melancholy, shocking, and saddening themes and ideas.  No doubt this was because of the proximity of human woe and depravity.  Folks either experienced these sad times or they had kinfolks and neighbors who experienced them.  Life experiences were not sanitized.  Death was not ignored.  The tunes, often driving and perhaps upbeat, reflect an attitude that accepted the tragic dimensions of life because life here on this earth is only part of the story.  Music was a coping mechanism that enabled hurt people to press on with life under the sun.  Only God knows the reasons for all our troubles.  The music penetrates the veil separating us and our woes from God and His glory.

It is no wonder that Ralph Stanley, along with his brother Carter, borrowed from the obscure duo known as Whittier and Grayson.  Those two Virginia boys recorded about 40 songs from 1927 to 1929.  "Train 45" contains fiddle playing that, when done well, sounds like a train.  Bluegrass, country, and folk musicians were fascinated by the world-changing nature of trains.  Trains could become means of leaving, returning, sinning, hoping, or figuring out life.

Gilliam Grayson, 1888-1930, was basically blind (he had a small amount of vision), so he turned to the only outlet for a man in his situation:  He learned to play the guitar, harmonica, mandolin, organ, piano, and fiddle.  He teamed up with Henry Whittier, a guitar player.  Their small body of bluegrass songs (before it was defined as bluegrass) included such tunes as "Tom Dooley," "Little Maggie," "The Banks of the Ohio," and the songs listed above.  Their short singing career included an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1930, but later that year, Grayson was killed in an auto accident. 

Sad to say, but there is no available collection of Whittier and Grayson themselves, but other artists like Stanley have kept the music alive.  This collection was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 1998.

Pioneers of Roots Music: Gilliam Grayson and Henry Whittier (c. 1928)

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