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Sunday, January 16, 2011


on the road to woodlawn

Waking up this Sunday morning I was hearing Willard Gayheart singing his song Sweet Virginia, not the Rolling Stones words, but an old one Willard found, a love song to the state by someone whose home was in Virginia, but had been away, longing for, missing sweet Virginia. It has an ambiguity about it, too, so it could be a woman named Virginia, like "sweet Virginia, you know I'm gonna win ya." You might say it's both. That runs the risk of dropping off into way too corny, but the balance is just right in the song. The original Yellow Rose of Texas, which Willard also sings, has no ambiguity about it. It's not about Texas. It's a woman named Rose who lives in Texas. After Sweet Virginia played out in my head, Willard singing Take Me Back To Tulsa began in my head. "Suzy she's a doozie." Willard and Scott play western swing well together, make it a natural sound instead of pointing at it saying: western swing.

I came here to the computer and went to YouTube to hear Willard sing these songs. Before turning in last night I found the cd of Willard and Bobby Patterson with Sweet Virginia on it. It was recorded before it came to Willard to play it with a western swing rhythm, or Bob Wills. I wasn't expecting it and it sounded odd. I remembered loving it when I heard it on the cd a year or so ago, and now, after having Willard's Bob Wills rhythm going in my head from hearing him play it at the Front Porch and replaying the videos on YouTube, his original way of playing it sounds like nothing after hearing the way he plays it now. I turned it off in the middle of the song, because it wasn't what I put it on to hear. And this morning after I'd played those two songs by Willard, I had to hear him sing Catfish John again. It's a great song and I've never heard it done better, not even by Allison Krauss.

I remember the first time I heard Willard sing Catfish John at an Alternate Roots concert, his band at the time, in Jefferson maybe 7 years ago. Willard had recorded the song with his band The Highlanders some years before, which I didn't know at the time. While the band was playing Catfish John I was hoping it would be on their next album, which, alas, never happened. I was able to record him singing the song when the Highlanders played at the Front Porch and Catfish John was one of their songs.

Mama said, Don't go near that river,

Don't you be hangin around old Catfish John.

Come the morning I'd always be there,

Walkin in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn.

Catfish John was an old black man, a freed slave, living in a shack by the river. The song is the songwriter's memory as presumably a boy who looked up to old Catfish John, appreciated who he was when nobody else did.

It brings to mind 2 beautiful reads from the past, The Last Algonquin and The Education of Little Tree. Last Algonquin was written by a man from Long Island who knew when he was a child an old Indian who lived nearby in most humble circumstances. He was the last living member of his tribe, the Algonquins. The boy spent a lot of time with him, as much as he could, and learned his story, which he told in the book later. The Education of Little Tree is written as by the man who was once the boy who lived the story as it's told. I believe the man who wrote it was the Governor of Arkansas, so it doesn't quite compute that he grew up a Cherokee kid in the Smoky Mountains sent off to Indian school. It's an excellent job of projection, writing it as if he'd experienced it. And it's one of the most beautiful stories that can be read. They made a good film of it too, but the film is missing the emotional involvement the writing carried so nicely. Not that the film was dry of emotion, because it was full of emotion, and beautiful to look at. I don't know of anybody that's ever read it that didn't love it from the heart.

I continue to feel privileged to be able to go to the Front Porch on Friday nights to witness the music there, whoever is playing. With the kids Friday night, the enjoyment wasn't the music so much as seeing 8 kids learning mountain music from Scott, the future of mountain music. At least some of them will be ones to carry it into the next generations. They are living mountain music, the same as Scott and Willard are. Whether or not they play mountain music the rest of their lives is irrelevant. Whatever they do, mountain music will be in them as their beginning, the source. One of the boys playing, Ethan Edwards, I can see in his mid and late teens taking ribbons at fiddlers conventions, and becoming a dynamite bluegrass mandolin picker. He has a seriousness about him that says he aims to master this music. He has a look that says this music will matter to him all his life. He wore a camouflage ballcap with a Confederate flag on the bill. I see him in that hat, carrying the mandolin, and I say, "Good pickin." Future bluegrass musician of Grayson County, Virginia.

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