the Lumineers, the band that may have started that whole ho! hey! thing a few years ago, tell pretty good stories in their songs. i had heard Cleopatra and was confused about what the song was about until I heard this.
We’re visiting my brother-in-law, Paul, at the nursing home on top of the mountain in Williamson. It’s a typical visit. We bring Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. Not Pepsi. Not Sprite. Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. We drop them off at the dining hall where a local gospel group is beginning to play. Two men, two women. An acoustic guitar wired to a little Fender amp. They sing loudly, all feeling, no nuance. Gathered around are the usual assortment of residents in wheelchairs.
Paul is there but he has no interest in staying so we go back to his room to visit a little. After a while, it’s time to leave. We hear the music from the dining hall so we go back to listen for a bit.
The music is as country gospel as you can get, full of twang and southern West Virginia. They’re singing a song I’ve never heard.
Not long after that, Johnny Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin and produced American Recordings. Cash was old, the production bare, stripped down to Cash’s raspy, but still strong voice singing Nine Inch Nails and gospel and old folk songs. One of my favorite albums of all time.
I knew a little about Hank Williams. Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia.
Kathy Mattea was born just a few miles from where I was.
And somehow I knew that the music I listen to now, The Avett Brothers, Tyler Childers, Parker Milsap, has its roots in country music.
And then there’s this whole songwriting thing I’ve been tinkering with.
So when I heard about the Ken Burns film, I knew I was going to watch it from beginning to end.
And here’s the thing. Yes, it’s about music. There are beautiful voices, virtuoso instrumental performances, showmanship and charisma. But also performers who wouldn’t make the first cut in today’s made-for-tv singing competitions. Modest talent. Three chords and the truth. The truth being what it’s really all about. Triumph and joy, but more often struggle and heartbreak. Stories set to music. No achy-breaky heart. More like Roseanne Cash singing I Still Miss Someone at her father’s memorial.
If you’re a writer, you’ll find inspiration in the film. If you’re a songwriter, you should be required to watch it. It features some of the best songwriters ever.
I’m so lonesome I could cry. – Hank Williams
I’d trade all my tomorrows, for one single yesterday. – Kris Kristoferson
I’m crazy for trying, crazy for crying, and I’m crazy for loving you. – Willie Nelson
Go rest high on that mountain Son, your work on earth is done. Go to heaven a-shoutin’ Love for the Father and the Son. – Vince Gill
I think I may be the only who saw it. Every time I try to start a conversation about it, seems like no one else has watched it.
Have you? If not, you can still watch the entire film online. Click the link below.
I don’t dance I can’t dance I don’t know how to dance and never will But sometimes Things just happen
I wasn’t there to dance At this little dinner club Where through the old sagging glass I watch the river flow lazy As it always has and will forever
I’m not from here Not that it matters And maybe that’s why this place is special No one knows me No one cares
I eat alone, as always Steak, medium well, baked potato I don’t drink except for when I’m here Ice cold beer From the tap
And here All is well, peaceful My other life, mistakes I’ve made, mistakes to come Is miles upriver, coming for me But not here yet
Most everyone is coupled up A group of four or party of six If I’m the object of pity or curiosity I don’t care Because the steak is good And the solitude comforting
In a far corner A black man named Bob plays jazz on the piano While a skinny white boy named Solomon blows a saxophone Lipton’s on guitar And Jupie lays down the beat
I know their names But to them I’m just a guy by the window eating a steak Maybe not even that And that’s how it should be
Somewhere in New York Or Singapore The same scene is played out with different actors But no better than Right here, right now
Yes, another beer So I don’t have to leave Because across the room with the party of six Sits a woman Alone
She’s in the company of others A man works to keep her attention And though she is with him and smiles on cue She’s not really with him And she knows I know
And Bob plays slowly And Jupie taps the high hat And the couples can’t resist as they move to the center of the room And embrace politely And sway as Solomon plays
And Savannah dances too Though that’s not her name But it should be because it’s a beautiful name They dance as two Who will never be one
She knows I’m watching And I smile And she smiles and we both sense the same thing And we both know That possibilities are impossible
And the song ends And most sit As the tempo changes and dancing is less forgiving They, like me Don’t dance
My glass is empty My time is done And I look to her table and she’s not there And as I lay my napkin beside my plate I look once more
I see her as I walk across the room Walking toward me And we meet in the center of the room, the music daring us And I accept the dare And reach for her hand
Her right hand in my left My hand on her waist And we move slowly to the beat, and she is smiling And I don’t know what I’m doing But it feels right
I pull her hand in front of us And her momentum Sends her into a soft twirl, her hair flying toward me And as she comes back, I pull her close And I kiss her
She blushes And behind me I hear gasps From the table of six and I can imagine their looks Though I’ll never know Because hers is all that matters
The music plays But I release her soft hands And I won’t even turn to look as I walk away And I know I’ll never go back As Solomon plays
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Most are not leaders of nations. Most are not creators of wealth. Most are not icons of sports or entertainment. Their names will not be written in the annals of history.
But without them, we would be nothing.
Their fathers worked with pride as pipe-fitters and welders and electricians. Their fathers mined coal and dug ditches and toiled with dignity. They did what was necessary to provide food and shelter and clothes. They did what was necessary to provide hope for a better tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, and it was better, and the sons and daughters of the fathers went to school and became teachers and writers and lawyers and engineers. They became fathers and mothers themselves and likewise provided for their families.
They did all of this without the need for attention, without the need for adulation, without the need for self-aggrandizement.
Fathers persevere and sacrifice. They do what needs to be done. They are good and honorable.
No, not all fathers. Some abandon. Some abuse. Some give up.
It’s not about gender roles. Sometimes the mother is the father. Sometimes she is both.
It’s not about being the breadwinner. It’s about being strong for the family. It’s about providing direction to those who wander and encouragement to those who strive.
Now they rest, their work less strenuous, their lives less demanding, and they sit quietly, content to let others lead.
They have lived simply. They have lived nobly. They have given their all. They are fathers.
everything is unremarkable the sky is overcast the air is heavy and damp a lawnmower hums three yards over somewhere a child squeals but the birds are quiet there will be no spectacular sunset there is nothing but contentment and all is grace
Every year about this time we go to the cemeteries and clean the graves of those who have gone before. It makes you realize how fast time flies. Has it really been that long? And then there are all those forgotten graves. What was their story? Maybe this.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. up the steep gravel road, through the woods to the clearing where the old grey headstones were covered in moss and leaned toward the earth as if they were too tired to stand up straight, for so long they had stood in testament to the forgotten lives of those whose names were were worn from the stone by the unrelenting and unforgiving passage of time.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. because there were snakes and yellow jackets and maybe bears. and at night across the hollows voices and laughter and music and now and then a gunshot would echo from neighbors unknown, and though the graveyard was close it was no place for a young girl alone.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but along with the grey, rough tablets of ancient men and their wives and their children, were smooth slabs of curved and polished marble with praying hands and crosses and Bible verses written in script, and names her grandmother knew of this cousin and that uncle, and her grandmother’s husband, the grandfather she had never known.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. under the deep shade cast by towering oaks and maples where grass wouldn’t grow and moss and lichens clung easily to the old stones and left her grandfather’s headstone untouched by nature, save for the pollen in the spring that she would wipe with her finger from the smooth marble, that also promised that her grandmother would someday rest with him.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but her grandmother worried too much. she had never seen a snake and stayed clear of the bees and the idea of bears just seemed silly, and it was peaceful always peaceful. and she would talk to God and ask why other kids teased her, though she knew it was because her clothes were old and she was poor.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and she sat beside the grandfather she knew only from photographs, and read Psalms from his old Bible and drew wisdom from the words that would stay with her all of her days, and give her comfort through her pain, and strength through her weakness, and courage through her fears.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and when she saw him she knew her grandmother had been right, and she had been foolish, and as he came toward her he took a drink from a bottle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve and laughed, and she knew that he had come from the valley of the shadow of death.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. but she would fear no evil and she always carried a staff, the old iron pipe from her grandfather’s workshop, heavy and cool, and she stood and gripped it in both hands and drew back and stepped toward him and swung, and he screamed as it struck against his ribs, and his bottle dropped, and she ran off the hill.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. she didn’t tell her grandmother and she didn’t sleep for days, and when the kids teased her because she had to tape the soles of her shoes, and because she lived in a shack with her grandmother because her mother had killed herself with a needle, she cried into her pillow softly, so her grandmother wouldn’t hear.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and it was weeks before she went back to find her staff, her grandfather’s iron pipe, which had given her comfort, and to find the peace that had left her. but it wasn’t the same. she couldn’t read she couldn’t pray she couldn’t close her eyes because he might be out there still.
she wasn’t supposed to go there by herself. and though she was afraid, she still went there by herself, because it was there she had learned of peace and strength and courage. and she would grow and live far away from the hollows, and the kids who teased her, and she would become a woman strong in her will and strong in her faith and though she was never alone she went there by herself.
copyright 2017, joseph e bird photo copyright 2017, joseph e bird
1950s movie starlet at home for the Christmas holidays.
Could have been. She had those classic movie-star looks. She always wanted to be “discovered.” But her choice was her family. She was a stay-at-home mom. That’s what most mothers did back then. So maybe life in the limelight was not her destiny. In some ways it was a sacrifice. Still, it was her choice. Her calling was hard, sometimes wearisome, and largely unglamorous. But it was also noble and virtuous and rewarding in immeasurable ways.
She was my mother.
“Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.”