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 Belafonte 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 in Mooresville.