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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

LANGUAGE AND THE OLD WAYS




Every morning through that first winter Tom pulled up out front and honked. I was to get out there in the truck with him and we'd ride to the barn. In times of ice, he put chains on all four tires. With 4-wheel drive, Tom went anyplace he wanted. I'd go into the barn and he would drive around under the opening at the opposite end of the barn where the hay was kept. I dropped however many bales we needed into the back of the truck. I'd close up the barn and get back in the truck. We'd drive to the meadow where the cows were kept. I'd get out, open the gate, Tom drove through, I closed gate and climbed into the back with the hay. With pocket knife I cut the twine on the bales to throw them out on the ground in small squares to break up hitting the ground. Here come the cows. He wintered the cows on the meadows we used for hay in the summer for the obvious reason of fertilizing them with manure all over it. Where we went to put out the hay would be different every day.



Riding over the meadows I sat in the back of the truck along the side. Tom, who spent a large part of his life on horses and working horses, would drive over the meadow like he would on the road. I think he liked the bounding up and down over the uneven ground, because he sure never caught on that it rode smoother going slower. He liked it rough. In the back, I'm mostly paying attention to my balance, taking the shocks of up and down with loose knees and a good bit of hanging on. I always put the seat belt on riding in the cab with Tom. I did anyway. A law passed in NC about getting fined for not wearing the belt. One day not long after that was on the news Tom asked if I wear the seatbelt because of the law. I said, "Yeah," feeling it unnecessary to explain it's to keep the roof of the truck from bashing the top of my head every few seconds. Learning to stand in the back of the pickup became a skill I enjoyed getting good at.



Forever fresh in soluble memory was a morning with snow on the ground. We were passing the meadow with the cows and their calves in it on the way to the barn to get some hay. A small brush pile was in the meadow. The calves were at the age where they run and play like lambs. One jumped the brush pile and Tom suddenly jerked the truck back into the road. He said, "Caif jump 'at braish almost run off the road." That's how it was with Tom. He didn't make himself clear the way we do by being specific and providing context. The way we talk now is all school learned. Tom spoke the music of the old way of talking. Much of what we of our time call being specific, getting the particulars lined out, was implied in the old way. His sentence concerning why he almost ran off the road was perfectly clear. He was watching the calf just like I was. To be specific and particular it was too long a sentence to say comfortably in one remark, so he edited it down to essentials, like in Chinese where the words are pictures.


I loved to listen to Tom talk. It was the language of the old way of talking that had music in it. We talk now in grammar. They talked then in music. Colloquialisms and turns of phrase were used for rhythmic purpose. In a few really poor people I've met who live back in hollers, the rhythm they speak with is Shakespearean, iambic, meaning emphasis every other syllable. The one man I've known who talks the cloest to the old way as I've heard is an old boy named Kyle Shinault. Very emphatic when he talks, the iambic rhythm, every other syllable heartily emphatic, as strong in his voice as a drum. Once, I listened to him talk for three hours without a break. It was music such that I was the same as listening to a symphony. He told good stories, like the time he was working with a circus and the elephant and some other critters got out in Roanoke.



The old old-time fiddlers that have been dead a long time, played the fiddle with a very strong rhythm. Joe Birchfield of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers played a fiddle that way. I'm guessing, as I'm not a folklorist, that keeping rhythm with the fiddle in the time before guitars and banjos would be essential at dances when it was only the fiddle playing, and dances was why the fiddle played. That's how it got named by Baptists, the devil's instrument. Mountain music has had banjo, guitar and bass so long now that for a fiddler to keep a strong rhythm becomes simply a part of his style.



When I say Shakespearean, I don't mean it came from Shakespeare, but Shakespeare, like early American mountain people, used the English language of Elizabethan England, the old-old way of talking with emphasis on every other syllable. Spending a little time in London, listening to the English not just accent, but rhythms and everything else, I felt I understood English poetry the first time, contemporary and past, esp. the poetry of Ted Hughes. His writing had an awkward feel to me that I couldn't quite get my mind around. I picked up a book of his poems after I'd been there a few months and found his rhythms those of the English language as spoken mid-Twentieth Century. Then I had the chance to see/hear him read at Royal Festival Hall, of all places, from Crow, then new. I understood him for the first time. I was in the world of his rhythms. Yeats and Blake came to life for me, too.



The rhythms of speaking change in place and time in whatever language. Language, like everything else is fluid, subject to ongoing change. Here, now, the older people talk a softened version of the old time way, the next generation speaks the way that generation talked, the Del Reeves, Hank Williams generation. Then you get the rock generation when mountain boys let their hair grow long, and how they talk. Next is the rap generation that is totally out of touch with older people. Can't even communicate. Not even the same language. They're off California dreamin in the Southern Cal of television.



All the time I knew Tom, I was fascinated by the different worlds we lived in in our minds and experience while inhabiting roughly the same place. He was from the time of my great grandparents which was not all that long ago. He was from the time before electricity. If electricity and plumbing hadn't come along, we'd be talking the same language as then, old-time music would be just music, no old-time about it. There's no going back. Once we've had the experience of a toilet instead of an outhouse, there's no turning back. The principle is too easy. Where this passion for the New is leading us nobody knows. We do know that all the traditions from that time before electricity are falling to the ground like the old barns over the last 50 years.



I treasured Tom as a peephole into the time before electricity when the traditions the people lived by without question were the foundation of community. Now the traditions are gone, the language is gone, the way of life is gone, even old-time religion has reformed or it would be gone. We're in the age of homogenization by pop culture. I see now in my own advanced years that I cannot connect with pop culture as something to live by. When I was younger I could, to a point, but it got away from me. Now I'm going off in another direction. Living what I believe are the best of the old-time ways, to carry some of it into the future like Whitetop Mountain Band carries old-time music into the future.










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