The Endurance

War In the Closed World 20: Mooresville and Music

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.

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I don't really remember a time when I wasn't in love with music. My paternal grandmother had the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. I used to wonder if I just thought that because I grew up hearing her voice, but my mother agrees with me and she wasn't too keen on my grandmother. :-) From the time I was born, I suppose, she used to sing to me and then with me. When I was 5, we sang together in my kindergarten talent show. We lived on the same piece of property, so I could walk to her house whenever I wanted. One of my favorite times of the week was when I used to sit with her in the choir on Sundays, surrounded by beautiful Latin hymns.

When my grandparents babysat for us, they always seemed to watch The Lawrence Welk Show. I didn't think much of that music. I did love the Lennon Sisters, however, because one of them was named Janet.

My dad had a stereo very early on and played jazz and musicals all the time. I never had to develop a taste for My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews sang to us all the time.


When I was eleven, we moved to another part of town and from then on, every Sunday we would go to my grandparents' house for dinner. This was when I really fell in love with popular music. While the grownups would visit, I would go to my grandmother's bedroom and listen to the top 40 station on the radio. Sometimes when I wasn't listening to the radio, though, I was putting music to all the poems in "The Best Loved Poems of the American People." I would love to have a tape of myself singing "The Creamation of Sam McGee."

At one time, I was going to major in music in college and for years I was in some sort of music group or choir. Now, I hardly ever sing or listen to music. It's so strange. I have no idea how or when this happened, but sometimes it makes me sad.

AMDG

Wow--that story about setting the poems to music is like something you'd read in a composer's biography. I bet your kids would love to have that tape, too. For that matter, I'd like to hear it.

I've always wanted to see a tape (or better yet, an actual look into the past) of my wife as a little girl. I know she was unbelievably cute.

That loss of interest really is strange, and really is sad. I think the only way that could happen to me with music would be if I sort of overdosed on it: if I had absolutely no restrictions on when and how long I could listen, maybe I would get bored with it. But that's not the sort of thing you're talking about, I think.

I don't remember what my melodies sounded like, but I'm sure that they weren't great compositions.

I'm going to have to sit and think about when, exactly, I stopped playing and singing music. I think it must have been within the last 15 years, and maybe less. I know I've only picked up my guitar a few times since we moved here.

And really, I wonder if my love of listening to music hasn't been replace by my deepening love of silence. In a way, (and this analogy fails in about 10 different ways) my sadness over the lack of music in my life is something like the sadness of a priest over giving up family life. It's more of a wistfulness, really, and in my case I haven't totally given it up. I've really enjoyed listening to the music on this blog since I got DSL. In fact, probably 90% of the music I've listened to in the past couple of years has been videos or links from this blog.

Part of the problem, too, is that I can't afford to buy music and there's not much I want to hear on the radio.

AMDG

I'm sure they weren't great melodies, but the fact that you were doing it at all is pretty impressive.

I would like silence if I could experience it, which, thanks to tinnitis, I can't.

There's not much I want to hear on the radio, either. At least I assume that's still true--I haven't actually tried it for a while, at least for music. I do listen to a bit of NPR news etc. now and then.

Well, you know, I sort of have that problem too.

AMDG

It's only comparative silence--now that I find sad.

AMDG

Have you tried "Late Junction" on BBC Radio 3? (Although you'd presumably have to listen online, which perhaps defeats the point of it being radio?)

An American student in Oxford once complained to me about how awful radio was in England compared to "back home", but with what I'd heard of American Forces Radio I wasn't convinced the difference was all that pronounced.

There's a Dutch Catholic radio station, "Radio Maria", that broadcasts the office and the rosary, and some of the best talk segments I've ever heard on radio, but consistently plays the worst music I've heard anywhere in my life (much of it, it must be said, American).

I really only listen to the radio in the car, so BBC3 isn't an option for me. And then most of the time I'd rather put on music of my choosing. But I'm looking at Radio 3's web site and it looks pretty good--I may try it online.

"American radio" covers an awful lot of territory. Average commercial pop station--yeah, pretty dreary. Same for talk radio. I can't stand commercials for very long. But there are some really good music stations in the bigger cities. And NPR does some great stuff, even though it often has a political bias that's not to my liking.

A guy in my parish, owner of a very popular restaurant, is starting this Catholic AM station:

http://www.wngl1410am.com/

I'm embarrassed to say that although I've given them some money I have yet to listen to it...

I've been listening to music since day one -- my mom and dad were both musicians and loved music. We have photos of me wearing headphones at a very young age -- under two, I imagine.

We are fortunate enough here to have a 24/7 classical music station. Our other NPR station seems to play primarily blues and female folksingers. I gave up on it years ago.

Likewise, I haven't listened to pop radio of any sort for close to 20 years.

"primarily blues and female folksingers" doesn't sound bad to me.

I used to check in on the not-totally-hopeless pop music stations every now and then but I haven't even done that in years.

I don't think they had headphones when I was two.

AMDG

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