Quite a lot I question what it is about mountain music that took such a hold on me and makes my eyes tear up from joy that's flowing over in my heart. When I hear Ralph Stanley sing Rank Stranger or Amazing Grace I also hear Elder Millard Pruitt singing in the Regular Baptist Church. I discovered it in the time I knew Brother Millard, that feeling in old-time mountain music is the emphasis in the singing. The feeling can be expressed just fine through any kind of voice when the one with that voice is feeling it.
An old Regular Baptist preacher of the Little River Association, Garvey Killon, his joints locked tight from arthritis, in his 80s stood up to the pulpit, his energy too weak for what it would take to cut loose into preaching, and he could barely stand. He was the only preacher there that morning, and it was all on him. He stood at the pulpit and sang Amazing Grace a capella and slow as it could be sung, every verse. It was an old man's croaking kind of voice he was ashamed of, but the feeling came through, and all the more for his weariness. It had an ancient and universal quality about it.
I thought of old Plains Indians singing around a drum. Different words, but coming from the same place, the inner core, the heart, the soul. I believe it came through better than if his voice had been clear and more articulate. That moment continues to well tears up in my eyes. It was also the last time I saw him at a pulpit, the last time I saw him. Brother Garvey was one of the great singing preachers that only the people in the church could ever hear. Millard Pruitt too. Every time I sat listening to one of them sing, my mind spoke to itself saying, this is real as it gets.
I felt privileged they let me sit among them, feel what they felt, be one of them. I'd think of the little churches in North Carolina mountains, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Regular Baptists and the Primitive Baptists, singing like this. I think of the old preachers who could sing like Ralph Stanley, over the last few hundred years in time, no one outside the church ever heard. I love that. I don't mean only the preachers could sing. People in the congregation can hold your attention singing a song too. Eura Lee Phipps sang tenor with Brother Millard's lead such that I thought this is good as it gets, every song.
This old-time religion singing is the foundation of what we call American music; Americana, rock, country, blues, jazz, urban folk, contemporary gospel. Ralph Stanley has become a conduit from what I like to think of as the soul of American music, old-time church singing mixed with square-dance fiddlin and banjo pickin. Bluegrass it and you've got the Stanley Brothers. I don't mean to sound like a purist, because this is not about that and I'm not about purism. I'm just exploring what I've seen along the way, not making pronouncements. Connecting dots again like finding constellations in the night sky, making up my own.
The hymnal we used had quite a number of Carter Family songs in them. We sang Come Angel Band that the Stanley Brothers did so well. Singing the old-time way came from the feeling center within, the heart. Body movement of any sort, tapping of feet, bobbing of heads, clapping or any physical expression, ruled out. No need for it. The feeling and the meaning in the words are what the song is about. Body movement is for dancing to the devil's instrument, the fiddle, forbidden in the church. The fiddle is about dancing. Dancing is sin, among the worst. No place for it in church. I like the spark in the tension of opposites, sin and grace, that encircles the whole human being, body and soul.
It looks like where music comes from, not just the music of our own cultural experience, music anywhere in any time, is praise on the one hand and shakin your bootie on the other. Isn't that how we live our lives? The tension of opposites in motion is duality, the condition of reality the soul is experiencing in the universe. Looking at the line of pop music from minstrel shows to rap, everything changed and nothing changed. Ralph Stanley's music is true to the entire human experience. That's where I believe my tears come from, feeling in touch with the hearts of the people I live among and love, through his singing.