Wednesday, March 25, 2015
In The Hills And Hollows Again- With Mountain Music Man Norman Blake In Mind
Recently in discussing Sam Lowell’s relationship with mountain music, the music from down in the hills and hollows of Kentucky where his father and his people before him had lived dirt poor for generations eking almost nothing out of the land that had been abandoned decades before by some going west driven spirits who played the land out and moved on, some moving on until they reached ocean edge California, Bart Webber noticed that he had concentrated a little too heavily on Sam’ s father’s Kentucky hills and hollows. There were places like in the Piedmont of North Carolina with a cleaner picking style as exemplified more recently by Norman Blake who has revived the work of performers like Edda Baker and Pappy Sims by playing the old tunes. Also places like the inner edges of Tennessee and Georgia where the kindred also dwelled, places as well where if the land had played out there they, the ones who stayed behind in there tacky cabins barely protected against the weathers, their lack of niceties of modern existence a result not because they distained such things but down in the hollows they did not know about them, did not seem to notice the bustling outside world.
They all, all the hills and hollows people, just kept plucking away barely making ends meet, usually not doing so in some periods, and once they had abandoned cultivating the land these sedentary heredity “master-less men” thrown out their old countries, mainly the British Isles, for any number of petty crimes, but crimes against property and so they had to go on their own or face involuntary transportation they went into the “black god” mines or sharecropping for some Mister to live short, nasty, brutish lives before the deluge. But come Saturday night, come old Fred Brown’s worn out in need of paint red barn the hill people, the mountain people, the piedmont brethren, hell, maybe a few swamp-dwellers too, would gather up their instruments, their sweet liquor jugs, their un-scrubbed bare-foot children or their best guy or gal and play the night away as the winds came down the mountains. This DNA etched in his bones by his father and the kindred is what Sam had denied for much of his life.
But like Bart said when discussing the matter with Sam one night sometimes what goes around comes around as the old-time expression had it. Take for example Sam Lowell’s youthful interest in folk music back in the early 1960s when it had crashed out of exotic haunts like Harvard Square, Ann Arbor, Old Town Chi Town and North Beach/Berkeley out in Frisco. Crashed out by word of mouth at first and ran into a lot of kids, a lot of kids like Sam, who got his word from Diana Nelson who got it from a cousin from North Adamsville nearer Boston who frequented the coffeehouse on Beacon Hill and Harvard Square hipped her to this new folk music program that he had found flipping the dial of his transistor radio one Sunday night.
See Sam and Diana were tucked away from the swirl down in Carver about thirty miles as the crow flies from Boston and Cambridge but maybe a million social miles from those locales and had picked up the thread somewhat belatedly. He, along with his corner boys, had lived in their little corner boy cocoon out in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner figuring out ways to get next to girls like Diana but who were stuck, stuck like glue to listening to the “put to sleep” music that was finding its way to clog up Jimmy Jack’s’ hither-to-fore “boss” jukebox. Christ, stuff like Percy Faith’s Moon River that parents could swoon over, and dance to. Had picked the sound up belatedly when they were fed up with what was being presented on American Bandstand and WJDA the local rock station, when they were looking for something different, something that they were not sure of but that smelled, tasted, felt, and looked different from a kind of one-size-fits-all vanilla existence.
Oh sure, as Bart recognized once he thought about it for a while, every generation in their youth since the days when you could draw a distinction between youth and adulthood a century or so ago and have it count has tried to draw its own symbolic beat but this was different, this involved a big mix of things all jumbled together, political, social, economic, cultural, the whole bag of societal distinctions which would not be settled until the end of that decade, maybe the first part of the next. That big picture is what interested him. What Sam was interested then down there in Carver about thirty miles south of Boston was the music, his interest in the other trends did not come until later, much later long after the whole thing had ebbed and they were fighting an unsuccessful rearguard action against the night-takers and he was forced to consider other issues. And Sam had been like that ever after.
The way Sam told it one night a few years back, according to Bart, some forty or so years after his ear changed forever that change had been a bumpy road. Sam had been at his bi-weekly book club in Plymouth where the topic selected for the next meeting was the musical influences, if any, that defined one’s tastes and he had volunteered to speak then since he had just read a book, The Mountain View, about the central place of mountain music, for lack of a better term, in the American songbook. He had along with Bart and Jack Dawson also had been around that time discussing how they had been looking for roots as kids. Musical roots which were a very big concern for a part of their generation, a generation that was looking for roots, for rootedness not just in music but in literature, art, and even in the family tree.
Their parents’ generation no matter how long it had been since the first family immigration wave had spilled them onto these shores was in the red scare Cold War post-World War II period very consciously ignoring every trace of roots in order to be fully vanilla Americanized. So their generation had had to pick up the pieces not only of that very shaky family tree but everything else that had been downplayed during that period.
Since Sam had tired of the lazy hazy rock and roll that was being produced and which the local rock radio stations were force- feeding him and others like him looking to break out through their beloved transistor radios he had started looking elsewhere on the tiny dial for something different after Diana had clued him in about that folk music program. Although for a while he could not find that particular program or Carver was out of range for the airwaves. But like a lot of young people, as he would find out later when he would meet kindred in Harvard Square, the Village, Ann Arbor, Berkeley he fortunately had been looking for that something different at just that moment when something called folk music, roots music, actually was being played on select stations for short periods of time each week and so it was before long that he was tuned in.
His own lucky station had been a small station, an AM station, from Providence in Rhode Island which he would find out later had put the program on Monday nights from eight to eleven at the request of Brown and URI students who had picked up the folk music bug on trips to the Village (Monday a dead music night in advertising circles then, maybe now too, thus fine for talk shows, community service programs and odd-ball stuff like roots music to comply with whatever necessary FCC mandates went with the license.) That is where he first heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk, a new guy named Tom Rush from Harvard whom he would hear in person many times over the years, and another guy, Eric Von Schmidt whom he would meet later in one of the Harvard Square coffeehouses that were proliferating to feed the demand to hear folk music. Those coffeehouses were manna from heaven, well, because they were cheap for guys with little money. Cheap alone or on a date, basically as Sam related to his book club listeners for a couple of bucks at most admission, the price of a cup of coffee to keep in front of you and thus your place, maybe a pastry if alone and just double that up for a date except share the pasty you had your date deal all set for the evening hearing performers perfecting their acts before hitting the A-list clubs.
He listened to it all, liked some of it, other stuff, the more protest stuff he could take or leave depending on the performer but what drew his attention, strangely then was when somebody on the radio or on stage performed mountain music, you know, the music of the hills and hollows that came out of Appalachia mainly down among the dust and weeds. Things like Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow, Gold Watch and Chain, Fair and Tender Ladies, Pretty Saro, and lots of instrumentals by guys like Buell Kazee, Hobart Smith, The Charles River Boys, Norman Blake just starting his rise along with various expert band members to bring bluegrass to the wider younger audience that did not relate to guys like Bill Monroe and his various band combinations, and some other bluegrass bands as well that had now escaped his memory.
This is where it all got jumbled up for him Sam said since he was strictly a city boy, made private fun of the farm boys, the cranberry boggers, who then made up a significant part of his high school. He furthermore had no interest in stuff like the Grand Ole Opry and that kind of thing, none. Still he always wondered about the source, about why he felt some kinship with the music of the Saturday night red barn, probably broken down, certainly in need of paint, and thus available for the dance complete with the full complement of guitars, fiddles, bass, mandolin and full complement too of Bobby Joe’s just made white lightening, playing plainsong for the folk down in the wind-swept hills and hollows.
Then one night, a Sunday night after he had picked up the Boston folk program station on the family radio (apparently the weak transistor radio did not have the energy to pick up a Boston station) he was listening to the Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower when his father came in and began singing along. After asking Sam about whether he liked the song and Sam answered that he did but could not explain why his father told him a story that maybe put the whole thing in perspective. After Sam’s older brother, Lawrence, had been born and things looked pretty dicey for a guy from the South with no education and no skill except useless coal-mining his father decided that maybe they should go back to Kentucky and see if things were better for a guy like him there. No dice, after had been in the north, after seeing the same old tacky cabins, the played out land, the endless streams of a new generation of shoeless kids Sam’s father decided to head back north and try to eke something out in a better place. But get this while Sam’s parents were in Kentucky Sam had been conceived. Yeah, so maybe it was in the genes all along.