Saturday, July 09, 2016

******Will The Circle Be Unbroken-The Music Of The Carter Family (First Generation)

******Will The Circle Be Unbroken-The Music Of The Carter Family (First Generation)

From The Pen Of Bart Webber

You know it took a long time for Sam Eaton to figure out why he was drawn, seemingly out of nowhere, to the mountain music most famously brought to public, Northern public, attention by the likes of the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, Etta Baker, The Seegers and the Lomaxes back a couple of generations ago. The Carter Family famously arrived via a record contract in Bristol, Tennessee in the days when radio and record companies were looking for music, authentic American music to fill the air and their catalogs. (Jimmy Rodgers, the great Texas yodeler was discovered at that same time and place. In fact what the record companies were doing to their profit was to send out agents to grab whatever they could. That is how guys like Son House and Skip James got their record debuts, “race record” debut but that is a story for another time although it will be told so don’t worry). The Seegers and Lomaxes went out into the sweated dusty fields, out to the Saturday night red barn dance the winds coming down the Appalachian hollows, I refuse to say hollas okay, out to the Sunday morning praise Jehovah gathered church brethren (and many sinners Saturday wine, women and song singers as well as your ordinary blasphemous bad thought sinners, out to the juke joint(ditto on the sinning but in high fiddle on Uncle Jack’s freshly “bonded” sour mash come Saturday absolution for sins is the last thing on the brethren’s minds), down to the mountain general store to grab whatever was available some of it pretty remarkable filled with fiddles, banjos and mandolins.

As a kid, as a very conscious Northern city boy, Sam could not abide that kind of music (and I know because if I tried to even mention something Johnny Cash who was really then a rock and roll stud he would turn seven shades of his patented fury) but later on he figured that was because he was so embroiled in the uprising jail-break music of his, our generation, rock and roll, that anything else faded, faded badly by comparison. (And I was with him the first night we heard Bill Haley and the Comets blasting Rock Around The Clock in the front end  of a double feature of Blackboard Jungle at the Strand Theater when it was playing re-runs so you know I lived and died for the new sounds)   

Later in high school, Lasalle High, when Brian Pirot would drive us down to Cambridge and after high school in college when Sam used to hang around Harvard Square to be around the burgeoning folk scene that was emerging for what he later would call the "folk minute of the early 1960s" he would let something like Gold Watch And Chain register a bit, registering a bit then meaning that he would find himself occasionally idly humming such a tune. (The version done by Alice Stuart at the time gleaned when he had heard her perform at the Club Nana in the Square one time when he had enough dough for two coffees, a shared pastry and money for the “basket” for a date, a cheap date.) The only Carter Family song that Sam consciously could claim he knew of theirs was Under the Weeping Willow although he may have unconsciously known others from seventh grade music class when Mr. Dasher would bury us with all kind of songs and genre from the American songbook so we would not get tied down to that heathen “rock and roll” that drove him crazy when we asked him to play some for us. (“Don’t be a masher, Mister Dasher,” the implications of which today would get him in plenty of hot water if anybody in authority heard such talk in an excess of caution but which simple had been used as one more rhyming scheme when that fad hit the junior high schools in the 1960s and whose origins probably came from the song Monster Mash not the old-fashioned sense of a lady-killer) But again more urban, more protest-oriented folk music was what caught Sam’s attention when the folk minute was at high tide in the early 1960s.           

Then one day not all that many years ago as part of a final reconciliation with his family which Sam had been estranged from periodically since teenage-hood, going back to his own roots, making peace with his old growing up neighborhood, he started asking many questions about how things turned so sour back when he was young. More importantly asking questions that had stirred in his mind for a long time and formed part of the reason that he went for reconciliation. To find out what his roots were while somebody was around to explain the days before he could rightly remember the early days. And in that process he finally, finally figured out why the Carter Family and others began to “speak” to him.         

The thing was simplicity itself. If he had thought about and not let the years of animosity, of estrangement, hell of denial that he even came from the town that he came from things had been that bad toward the end although all those animosities, estrangements, denials should not have been laid at the door of that simple, hard-working father who never got a break, a break that he saw. Didn’t see that the break for his father was his wife, didn’t see that whatever hardship that man faced it was better than where he had from, all that wisdom came too late and a belated public eulogy in front a whole crowd in town, that stingy back-biting Olde Saco of a town, some who knew the Sheik (he was so alienated some stranger, stranger to him, had to tell him that had been what his father’s moniker had been when he was in the Marines and later when a few ladies in town thinking with his dark good looks he was French-Canadian, one of them, had furtively set their sights on him) and some who didn’t but it was the kind of town that set store by memory glances of those who had lived and toiled in the hard-bitten bogs for so long. Hell, in the end, also too late but only by a whisper he realized that all those animosities, estrangements and denials should not have been laid at the door of his mother either but no private sorrows eulogy at a class reunion could put that wall back together.

Here is how the whole thing played out. See his father hailed (nice word, a weather word, not a good weather word and maybe that was a portent, another nice word for the troubles ahead) from Kentucky, Hazard, Kentucky long noted in song and legend as hard coal country. A place where the L&N stopped no more, where “which side are you on” was more than a question but hard fighting words, maybe a little gunplay too, a place where the hills and hollows had that “black gold,” that seamy dust settling over every tar-papered roof and windowless cabin with a brood, another nice word for the occasion for widower Father John and come Saturday night, rain dust, gun play, railroad-less tracks down at Fred Dyer’s old dilapidated red barn Joe Valance and the boys would play fiddle, guitar, mando, and Sweet Emma on mountain harp all the swingy and sad tunes that drove their forbears to this desolate land (so you can image what their prospects were in the old country to drive them out. Nelson Algren wrote profusely about such driven-out people and what it did to them over several generations so to wander aimlessly others to sit still aimlessly)

When World War II came along, not as infamy, not as catastrophe, but like rain he left to join the Marines to get the hell out of there. During his tour of duty he was stationed for a short while at the Portsmouth Naval Base and during that stay attended a USO dance held in Portland where he met Sam’s mother who had grown up in deep French-Canadian Olde Saco. Needless to say he stayed in the North, for better or worse, working the mills in Olde Saco until they closed or headed south, headed south back close to his homeland in North Carolina and South Carolina too, to  for cheaper labor and then worked at whatever jobs he could find. All during Sam’s childhood though along with that popular music that got many mothers and fathers through the war mountain music, although he would not have called it that then filtered in the background on the family living room record player.

But here is the real “discovery,” a discovery that could only be disclosed by Sam’s parents, if he had asked and if they had been willing to tell them like they did his older brother Prescott who got along with them better when he was young and they were first born proud of him and his looks. Early on in their marriage they had tried to go back to Hazard to see if they could make a go of it there, so you know things were dicey or getting dicey in Olde Saco if they were going to half-dying eastern coal country mainly played out or being replaced by oils and gases. This was after Prescott was born and while his mother was carrying him. Apparently they stayed for several months in Hazard before they left to go back to Olde Saco a short time before Sam was born since he had been born in Portland General Hospital, which is what it said on his birth certificate when he had to go get a copy for his first passport application. So see that damn mountain, that damn mountain music, those many generations of back-breaking work in the old country before the work ran out or they were run as vagabonds and thieves and that wandering and sitting still in the murky hills and hollows coal enough to choke you but also remember all those generations of Fred Dyer’s red barn Saturday fiddle, guitar, mando and some vagrant Sweet Emma on mountain harp playing the swingy and sad tunes that go back beyond Child ballad time, was in his DNA, was just harkening to him when he got the bug. Funny, isn’t it.            

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