I’ve been trying, for the last week, to write the liner notes for Red Heart the Ticker’s new record. I want to say something succinct and not-too-sentimental about my grandmother and her music making and this place and why I’ve chosen to make a record of my own from the songs she collected. But the trouble is this: I keep wanting to expand each sentence beyond the appropriate confines of record liner notes. I want to write about how my grandmother came to this part of Southern Vermont at twenty, the mother of a two-year-old with another on the way (my dad), and lived, for a year, in a sugar house in the woods below her in-laws’ house before finding a place of their own. And how that place they did find—what is now a beautifully restored 1803 farmhouse on a hill with a view with running water and a furnace and dishwasher and light switches et al—at that point was a shell of a house: white paint chipping, broken windows and doors, floors eaten by porcupines, without insulation, or electricity, or running water, or telephone lines, or neighbors. Of how, too broke to hire anyone else to work on the house, my grandfather worked two jobs (teaching science at the newborn Marlboro College and, on weekends, working at the Estey Organ factory in Brattleboro), cut fifteen chords of wood each summer, and fixed the house, inch by inch, nail by nail, in his “free time.” And my grandmother? A mother of two, with yet another on the way, planted an enormous vegetable garden and started baking mountains of whole-wheat bread.
What I want to write about is how my grandmother’s relationship with these old songs I am singing is so different than my own; how she learned them and sang them as a way to fend off the deep loneliness that found her. She bore five children before the house got electricity, or telephone poles. My grandfather’s brother was doing research in Panama and my grandfather would join him there, for stretches of the winter, to help count birds and bugs and identify plant leaves, leaving my grandmother, with three, four, five babies to tend to, in a house on a nearly impassable road, without neighbors, without lights, for weeks at a time. What did she do? She sang these songs. To her children. Around the fire. They were wild children; still are. But they sat still for old ballads about murders and drownings and lost loves and Robin Hood’s merciless protection of the poor. It makes my singing seem so blithe.
But see? Here I am, meandering, taking excursions, telling too much of this human story, when all I really need to say is the name of my grandmother, and the name of the songs.
And I would want to say, too, how my grandmother used to work as an artist in the schools in Tucson, Arizona, and found that the only way to get the kids on the wrong side of the tracks to be quiet was to sing the murder ballads—the real dark and bloody ones—and how that has always seemed to me an amazing cross-cultural phenomenon.
Or of how, when my grandmother was a girl, she lived in a National Forest near Bakersfield, California and rode thirty minutes on the mail truck through the lettuce fields with a kid named Fernando to get to school, singing songs in Spanish the entire way.
See? Too much!
Too much for liner notes, too little for a book. And there’s another problem, too: I can’t help but make it sentimental. See how it leaks out, a tender juice, between the lines? I am reading Wells Tower now, a funny writer, a smart writer, a loquacious writer, who does not defer to these sentimental pinings. He writes with wit and irony and a perceptive eye, not drooping, as I do, can’t help but do, towards the purple heart.
But oh well. Tender-juiced I am. And these liner notes? What will they be? And more importantly, what will become of all that gets discarded?