In 1961 my grandmother bought a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder at a tag sale and began asking neighbors and friends if they knew anyone around her part of Southern Vermont who still sang traditional songs. While at the Vermont Folklife Center last week I came across a leather three-ringed binder of hers from that time. In careful cursive she wrote down the names, addresses, and if they had one, telephone numbers of the people recommended to her. Leone…Ruby…Lester. Beside many of the names she wrote, “no longer there” or “out” or, occasionally “dead.” Others she did manage to contact, charm, and cajole into letting her record them singing. Thanks to the generosity of the Folklife Center, I now have those field recordings in my laptop.
And I’ve been listening. I grew up hearing my grandmother’s renditions of many of these songs, so the material is not at all unfamiliar to me. But the stark dryness of the singing is. I rocked my childhood years to blues, country, rock and roll and other American musical hybridizations rich with African influenced rhythms. My taste has always led me toward music that swings, pulses, twangs and undulates. Things which this music, the stuff my grandmother recorded, does not do. It is about as stark, musically, as any music I’ve known. I have heard many similar ballads from Appalachia, and these recordings are like those transferred to black and white, or as if the singers had eaten hay for breakfast rather than biscuits and gravy. Which makes me reflect on this place where I live, and the people who lived here before me.
The family who built my grandparents’ farmhouse in 1830 had thirteen children. The walls of their house had no insulation. The nearest neighbor was a mile away. The wife gave birth, no doubt, thirteen times in the downstairs parlor. These hillsides, I know, grow small rocks better than they grow potatoes. The winters are unbearably long. With electricity. And with only kerosene? It makes me think of those thirteen children sitting around the fire on winter nights freezing their butts off and listening to these ballads about lost lovers and sword fights and train accidents and fires, the wind howling through the cracks around their single-pane windows. It is a haunting image. It makes me love the music even more.
And reminds me of the photographs of Walker Evans, whose images have always stilled me with their reminder of the bones beneath our skin, of the look in our eyes we all might have, had our lives come to that. It’s a fascination and enjoyment that is a long cry from, say, my enjoyment of an Otis Redding number. I do not shake, shimmy, or pull my husband or daughter up off the couch while listening to these songs. I do not feel inclined to sing along. Rather, I close my eyes and imagine what our lives would (may) look like without electricity, running water, cars, or grocery stores full of colorful fruit. I wonder what our singing would become, and which stories we would hold on to, and why. And it makes me wonder how the timbre of our voices would change. What edges we would find there, what hard spots, what clear unaffected sounds.