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Monday, August 23, 2010

RALPH STANLEY'S VOICE

summer leaves
Ralph Stanley was interviewed on the Diane Rehm radio show on NPR late last year. It was such a good interview and hearing Ralph talk, I ordered the cd from NPR. A few minutes ago I put it in the cd player. It pulled me in right away. Diane pretty much started with Ralph singing Man of Constant Sorrow. I believe I can rest assured if I hadn't come to the mountains I'd have never heard of Ralph Stanley or the Stanley Brothers. He talks like a man of these mountains of his generation, 80s. A man is talking on the phone saying Ralph's singing touches the depth of his soul. Well put. It hits me there too. And Carter's voice.
I'd bought his book MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW, read it loving every page, and when he came to Fairview for a concert, I arrived early with book for him to sign. There was no one around. I could have talked with him for 10 minutes uninterrupted. I didn't know what to say. Froze. It was Ralph Stanley. I wasn't prepared. I knew he was just a man, but he was also Ralph Stanley. I was star struck. That's the only way I can see it. In my music firmament, Ralph Stanley is the brightest star. He sings mountain music just right. Now he's lining out Amazing Grace the band is singing a capella. His singing style is very much that of a preacher. When he sings a gospel song, you can feel it. Of all the pop musicians I've listened to over a lot of years, Ralph Stanley's star shines brighter than Bob Dylan's, John Lee Hooker's, Lauryn Hill's or Burning Spear's. No music but mountain music has ever brought tears to my eyes.
Ralph's singing brings back Elder Millard Pruitt's singing, Ray Caudill's singing, Elder Garvey Killon's singing, Elder Walter Green's singing. It brings back times in the Regular Baptist churches, sitting with tears running down the face from the fullness of the spirit. Those old hymns could bring tears too. I have felt that same spirit at Ralph Stanley concerts. He sings an old hymn with the meaning in the song foremost. He articulates the words like they're important to hear. Diane asked him how he got his voice that so many people feel so moved by. He said, It's a gift. She said, A gift? He said, A gift. Plain and straightforward about it. Simply a gift God gave him. He said he'd never tried to change his voice because it's what God gave him. It sounded good hearing him talk mountain in a context of urban middle class talk. Nobody would ever mistake him for a Yankee.
Today's foreign film was EVERLASTING MOMENTS. Swedish. The story of a woman whose husband was something of a Stanley Kowalski, rough guy having a hard time not being a rounder, and lapses often. 7 kids. She had a camera I think she'd won at a raffle some time before. The studio photographer in the town helped her learn to use it. It was like when she was taking a picture and developing a print she was in her own world for a few moments. Husband became jealous of her photographs. She had a rough life, but she came through. It was like God put this and that down before her to get through and she did, every time. It's the story of many a woman's life, a story that doesn't get told often. The time frame was before WWI and during WWI, though the war was off someplace else. Husband went away to war but never engaged in action. They were people in hard times every way you look at it. She sewed to help make ends meet. Sometimes taking photographs helped. She loved her kids and they loved her. The film was released 2008.
Tree frogs and katydids are going at it outside. Some of them sound like they're inside my head. The sounds blend inside and outside until what's going on out there is going on in here too. They must have been really loud in the old days. Walking a road after dark it could become convincing the sound was made by stars, the music of the spheres. They said the sky was thick with stars. By now the Milky Way that was dense with stars then is now not much more dense than the sky out from it. Makes me wonder how much longer the earth can sustain us in our race to make every species of plant, animal, fish, reptile and bird extinct. It's not the same thing as putting pesticides all over your lawn and petroleum based fertilizers. When I say We, I do not include myself and you. We're not part of that we. We have no say in it whatsoever. None. The people that make the decisions that are annihilating our context don't care about pelicans and sea turtles in the Gulf. Collateral damage. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong turn.

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