04 November 2007
When I woke from my dreaming, my idols were clay...
A few weeks ago, Josh and I drove to Pearisburg on a photo/thrift store scavenger hunt. When we got into town, we noticed some tents and speakers in front of the Giles County Courthouse, so we decided to stop and look around. The gathering turned out to be several realty companies that had gathered to sell not only the place, but an idea of the place, a packaged version of the mountains that--curiously--not only outsiders but many people who've lived there their entire lives buy into.
Part of the packaging included a local radio station playing "mountain" music. Rather than showcase the wealth of diverse local talent, they had "Rocky Top" on repeat. I suppose "Rocky Top" has become synonymous with a kind of Dukes of Hazard/HeeHaw version of the South and Appalachia, with its images of good ole boys swilling corn whiskey and half-wild, sexually starved barefoot mountain girls. I don't necessarily see anything wrong with corn whiskey or barefoot mountain girls, but I don't think "Rocky Top" has anything to do with the dirt and grit and soul of Giles County.
It didn't take long for Josh and I to decide we'd had enough of the starched collars and canned music of the reality agents, so we walked over to Main St. and were pleasantly surprised to find four men gathered in front of a row of washing machines at the local appliance store playing the real deal. Between songs, the men told us that they had been getting together at the store during their lunchbreaks on most Thursdays for the past 20 years or so. To me, the unspoken leader of the group was the man in my first photo. Part of the reason for that was his voice--a haunting, lonesome tenor akin to Hank Williams.
Apart from his voice, he also seemed to lead through his playing and an unspoken dialogue with the other men. He was comfortable picking hard or holding back, and he seemed to be keeping things going through nods and glances. He reminded me of Creole, the leader of the jazz band in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," and--even though their style of music was different--I think the men at the appliance store were telling the same story as Sonny and Creole in Baldwin's story. As Sonny's brother in the story says, "For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard." Unfortunately, that tale doesn't sell dreams, fantasies, or real estate.
Josh is pretty handy with a guitar or banjo or mandolin himself (check out his myspace page), so after one of the other men left, he picked up a guitar and joined them in picking "Wildwood Flower," an old A.P. Carter tune. It was fun watching Josh interact with the men; since I have no musical talent, I was kind of envious, but listening is part of the equation, too. In any case, I wanted to include a video of "Wildwood Flower" here, but I couldn't find one on youtube I was happy with, so instead I'll leave you with Doc Boggs playing "Pretty Polly." In 1927, executives from the Brunswick label in New York drove down to the coal-mining country of Norton, VA to audition talent, and Boggs beat out A.P. Carter to win a deal to get his first album recorded. Since I couldn't find a Carter tune I wanted to use, I suppose Boggs fits the bill.