It was also in Mooresville that I first encountered my other great love:
music. It may even be a greater love; if I’d been born with
more musical ability and weren’t so lazy, I might have made
myself a competent performer. There is an interview with Walker Percy
in which he is asked what he would have liked to be if he had not
been a writer; he replies that he would have liked to be an operatic
tenor, a heldentenor. When I asked myself a similar question, the answer came to me
instantly: I would have liked to be a really, really good electric guitar player.
My earliest memory in which music plays a part is only a sort of
fragmented image. I think it was before my father remarried, though I
can’t be sure; if that’s true I was probably around five years old.
It was in the old house in Mooresville, in a wing that had just been
converted into an apartment for my uncle Jimmy and his wife (I have a
few memories of the conversion, of someone letting me hold a
paintbrush and slap it at an upstairs wall). Jimmy and his father, my
grandfather, were playing music, Jimmy on guitar and my grandfather
on mandolin. I think other people were there. Perhaps it was a sort
of party. They may have played “The Blue-tailed Fly”; at any rate I associate the song with that memory, and with that apartment.
I was fascinated by the instruments, especially the guitar. It was
an arch-top, which was not usual for country or folk music, with
f-holes like a violin, and a sunburst finish. I thought it was
extremely beautiful, but I don’t think I was allowed to touch
it, or perhaps I was just too shy to ask.
The odd thing is that I don’t remember this happening more
than once. Of course it may have—after all, I didn’t live
there. But I don’t remember either my grandfather or my uncle
playing music again, except once, many years later, my uncle.
My first memory of hearing rock-and-roll is in Mooresville: I am
outside my grandparent’s house and I hear Elvis Presley singing
“Hound Dog.” I suppose it must have been coming from a
car radio. That must have been 1956, when I was eight.
My grandfather was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, among other
things, and I loved to go to his shop with him, a small dim building
a couple of blocks from their home, filled with aromatic lumber and
well-made, well-kept tools. I even said at the time that I wanted to
be a carpenter, which is very funny to me now and no doubt even more
so to anyone familiar with my talents in the building line. But in my
most vivid memory of the shop, I’m standing outside it, beside
my grandfather’s car, a black ‘40s or early ‘50s-style Chevrolet if my memory is correct, listening
to the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up, Little Susie,”
on the radio. That would have been 1957, when I was nine.
My grandfather did not live much longer than that. I believe I was
not more than ten when he died of lung cancer. It was a few years
later—a long time in my life—that I began to have a
conscious enthusiasm for music, and it was my grandmother Hill,
whom I visited often, who
provided the material. She had a record player, and a few dozen
records, among which were Harry Belafonte’s two Carnegie Hall
concert albums, Belafonte
at Carnegie Hall and
Returns to Carnegie Hall.
(She also liked Elvis.) These two albums, each one consisting of two
LPs, were my gateway to a musical wonderland, and my grandmother
eventually bought me my own copy of the first one.
There came a time when they
seemed old-fashioned and too slick and show-business-y for my taste,
and I haven’t heard them for decades. But looking at the track
lists now, and remembering them, I understand why I was captivated.
They have a sample of most of the interesting folk music that was
happening outside the confines of commercial radio: American, both
black and white, (Odetta singing both); calypso (the famous “Day-O”
and others); college folk (The Chad Mitchell Trio); African (Miriam
Makeba); Latin (“La Bamba”). There is humor (“A
Hole in the Bucket”); sophistication (“The Ballad of
Sigmund Freud,” with the chorus “Oh Doctor Freud, oh
Doctor Freud, how we wish you had been differently employed”);
high-energy dance-play songs (“Jump Down Spin Around”);
emotional ballads (“Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah”).
It was world music long before the term was coined, though the
emphasis was on American music.
I continued to like
rock-and-roll, but through my early adolescence it was folk music
that I loved most. For a while it was the highly polished pop-folk of
groups like the Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, and Peter, Paul, and
Mary. By the time I was in high school my beloved grandmother’s
mind had failed and she had been moved to a nursing home (more on
that in another chapter), and when I
visited in Mooresville it was at the home of my uncle Jimmy and his
wife Libby, now living in a house they had built next door to the old
family home. There I got a taste of the originals from whom the pop
folksters had gotten their material and inspiration. There I heard
real blues for the first time, in particular the sound of the blues
guitar, for which I had an instantaneous love which has not only
never faded but has grown stronger over the 45 years or so since I
first heard it. As B.B. King said of hearing Bukka White for the
first time: “that sound would go all through me,”
and it still does.
When I was old enough to drive I
sometimes spent Saturday nights at Libby and Jimmy’s. They
cooked steaks and played records for me, and sometimes let me drink a
beer or two. Jimmy’s great love was country blues, the rough one-man
acoustic blues as it was played in the south, before Muddy Waters and
others took it to Chicago and introduced the electric guitar and the rhythm section:
Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy. Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred
McDowell. Those evenings were magical, filled not only with the sense
of discovery but with a sense of growing into something, of a sort of initiation, that
probably can be had only in youth: the discovery of discovery,
perhaps. One year they gave me, either for Christmas or my birthday,
a four-LP anthology of folk music from the Vanguard label, which at
the time had an excellent roster of folk and near-folk artists,
people who were not necessarily the originators, discovered in
Appalachia or rural Mississippi, but not the highly commercial
popularizers, either—people like Joan Baez and Ian and Sylvia
on the one hand, and Doc Watson and the Georgia Sea Island Singers
on the other.
That set became a sort of encyclopedia of folk music for me,
serving me somewhat as the broader and more important
Harry Smith anthology (which I still have
never heard) served Dylan and other discoverers of folk music in the late 1950s. I was
even a bit of a folk-music snob for a while, until 1965 or so, when rock got interesting,
with Dylan moving that way and the Beatles getting adventurous
and folk-rock appearing.
I don’t want to make this
sound like music was something that I only heard in Mooresville. My
mother made an attempt to introduce us to classical music with a
recording of the Nutcracker Suite,
which I liked, and she had some Broadway show albums that she played
from time to time, of which I remember only My Fair Lady,
which I considered not too bad for that sort of thing (but have since
learned to admire). But there was not the same level of interest there as