God gave them the mountain highlands. The music was their own. The Traveler’s Story.
July 4, 2013
A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns
The Scene: Ever since the days God, for whatever reason, created heaven and earth, Mountain View had been a patched hole in the poverty pocket of the Ozarks. Only dirt roads led to Mountain View. The first blacktop highways didn’t cut into Stone County until 1957. So nobody ever came in, and few ever left. There was never any reason or money to do either one. Those who did drive away out of the timbered hills dropped off the far side of the mountains and never came back.
The Sounds: The Ozark Mountains blanket a land of music. Back in the hollows, where early settlers carved out a meager living in a harsh country, homemade, hand-me-down music played in barn dances, on front porches, in back yards, and even on the steps of the Stone County Courthouse was their only form of entertainment. One man kept it from dying.
The Story: Before their first flight, Bookmiller Shannon and Lonnie Avey made a solemn promise to each other that neither would look out the window. But at twenty thousand feet, Bookmiller stole a glance with one eye and yelled, “Lonnie, hang on. We’ve played hell now.”
When the plane touched down in Washington, D.C., Jimmy Driftwood left his eighteen Rackensackers picking and singing on the Capitol steps, which were a tad higher than the courthouse steps, while he walked toward the committee room. After all, they were the heritage he sought to save. He kept remembering the words of those city officials. “Don’t embarrass us, Jimmy. We don’t want them laughing at us, Jimmy. All we need is forty-five thousand dollars, Jimmy. That’s all you need to ask for. Just forty-five thousand dollars.”
So Jimmy Driftwood stood up before the Ways and Means Committee, smiled that big Arkansas smile of his, and asked, without any hesitation at all, for fifteen million dollars. Nobody flinched. Nobody laughed. They had all hung around outside listening to the Rackensackers before the meeting was convened, just as Jimmy Driftwood knew they would. He walked out with two million dollars.
The Ozark Folk Center became a place to hear those old-fashioned songs, sung by old-fashioned voices, sometimes hoarse, sometimes broken, sometimes off-key, but always sincere, always pure. The hands that picked the banjos, guitars and dulcimers were gnarled and withered with age. Old-time crafts were demonstrated just the way they had always been done to provide life’s necessities on the farm or in a share-cropper’s shack. The Ozark Folk Center was creating jobs for mountain artisans so they would never have to leave their homes or their traditions behind.
Shortly after the Center was opened in 1973, Jimmy Driftwood was named its director of music. He promptly moved his sixty Rackensacker singers and craftsmen from the courthouse to the air-conditioned, 1,060-seat, stone encased auditorium, concerned only because the environment seemed a little too formal, the high-dollar sound a little too sophisticated to reflect the unspoiled soul of the mountains. But the songs were honest, and the crafts were authentic, and Mountain View had water and sewers, and, maybe, that was all that really mattered.
As the sun reaches down to touch the western topknot of the mountains, Jimmy Driftwood sits down on the front pew, pushes his black cowboy hat back on his head, and props his black cowboy boots up on the seat in front of him. He is lean and stooped, much older than he thinks he should be, and he moves with the bowlegged stiffness of a cowboy who has ridden far too many days on a rank horse, which is odd since Driftwood never owned a horse. Age is just as rank. The wrinkles are few on the hard-leather face of a man who looks far more like a farmer than a song writer. He glances at his watch and waits for the music.
Down at the foot of Blue Mountain, Bookmiller Shannon drives out slowly past the old cars scattered in his yard, the ’71 Ford with the busted piston, the ’65 Studebaker, the ’64 Ford pickup, the ’66 Chevy, and the ’37 Ford he bought from the feed man for seventy five dollars. He ought to get rid of them, and he knows it. But for Bookmiller Shannon, they are family, and he hates to lose anything with a familiar face.
Up on the mountain top, Lucy Johnson puts aside her weaving and the colored threads she has dyed with maple bark and red onions and marigolds. She and Waco are self-reliant with simple tastes. On one tour of college campuses, Driftwood gave them one thousand dollars, which was more money than they had ever seen at one time and more money than they knew how to spend. So they took the thousand bucks, hit the road for twenty-seven days of picking and singing in places at the far ends of highways they had never traveled before and still got home with eight hundred and twenty-six dollars and some odd cents.
Art West strides out of his Rainbow Cafe, a dulcimer under his arm, the one he made from the weathered boards from his grandfather’s back hollow cabin. Ed Sutterfield sticks a harmonica in his shirt pocket. Adrian Parker gathers up his homemade fiddle, similar to the ones his father and grandfather made long before he ever drug a bow across the strings. And as the shadows fall onto a chilled, cloudless Saturday night, they all head down to the center. Last night they passed the hat, and they all earned a dollar apiece. Maybe tonight they’ll be more fortunate.
Jimmy Driftwood ambles toward the stage. A lady in a pink dress nervously stops him. “Will you sing ‘Tennessee Stud’?” she asks.
“Haven’t you heard Eddy Arnold sing it?” He smiles.
“He sings it a lot better than I do.”
“But you’re the man who wrote it,” she says. “I’d rather hear the man who wrote it.”
His smile is broader now, and Jimmy Driftwood doesn’t feel as old as he did when he woke up that morning.
Out back, Waco Johnson is talking to a young boy. “I play the oldest style of banjo playin’ the country,” he says.
“Why, I was playin’ long before anybody ever heard of Bluegrass,” Waco says.
“Did you learn the banjo from Earl Scruggs?”
“No, son,” Waco answers softly. “I learned a lifetime before Earl Scruggs ever saw a banjo.”
Driftwood examines Parks’ latest fiddle creation and tells him, “Back in the old days, communities wouldn’t even allow fiddles in town. They thought the devil was roostin’ in the fiddle. You can blame the preachers for that. If there was a big dance on Saturday night, folks gave their nickels to the fiddler, then they didn’t have any nickels left to give the preacher on Sunday.” Driftwood grins. “I’ve seen lots of old timers puttin’ rattlesnake rattles in their fiddles,” he says.
“Did it help their playin’?”
“No. But the rattles flat scared the devil out.”
On stage, Bookmiller Shannon, Lonnie Avey and Leslie Walls are crowded together, lost in the memories of a song their daddies taught them.
“Great song,” somebody yells when they have stopped, and the stage is silent again. “What was it?”
Bookmiller Shannon slowly brushes back his white hair and hollers back, “Sugar Hill.”
Leslie Walls nods, looks around for a spittoon, wiping stray tobacco juice away from the corners of his mouth and saying, “You know, I believe that’s what it was, too.’
And Lonnie Avey only shakes his head. “Hell,” he says, “I thought we was playin’ “Bunker Hill.”
Percy Copeland, his overalls hanging loosely over his frail body, follows them to the microphone. He glances out at the crowd, licks his harmonica a time or two, then says simply, “We’re gonna play what we was playin’ out yonder in the hills,” and that’s as close to a song title as he ever gets or needs to. Then again, what Percy Copeland plays may have never had a title in the first place. It could be an Elizabethan ballad brought to the mountains in a covered wagon or a song he’s making up as he goes along. No one knows for sure, and neither does Percy.
The music they had played out yonder in the hills had celebrated feast and famine, weddings and buryings, love and heartache, God and his mercy, God and his vengeance. Their songs grieved, but also grinned. They promised a better day tomorrow even when they knew better, even when there were no good times at all to sing about, which was most of the time.
The music faded. For years, it lay dormant. And when it returned, along with the thousands who come to hear it, many in Mountain View became concerned, worried and downright irate. One man came to Driftwood and told him, “You’re gonna bring so many folks in here it’ll change this old country of ours. You’ll ruin it. We don’t want to change from our old ways.”
Driftwood scratched his chin, and his eyes narrowed. “Do you remember when we used to sit on that mountain top up there possum hunting?”
“Remember how we used to look down that valley and see the light from five or six oil lamps? No town lights, just lamp lights.”
“Remember how we had no highway, just a dirt road and when we heard wagon wheels creaking down the trail we all wondered who it was comin’ into the valley so late at night?”
“Like it was yesterday.” The man paused, then whispered, though it hurt him. “It’s already changed, ain’t it.”
Jimmy Driftwood nodded, and, after awhile, nothing whined anymore in the mountains except an occasional fiddle, and a whole new generation was coming to learn the songs written without notes and very seldom ever sung the same way twice. The music, Driftwood, swore, was even louder than it had been before, and it would be there when he was gone, which was all that mattered. Even after he, Bookmiller, Seth, Lonnie, Percy, Waco, Kermit and the boys made their last journey to the burying ground, the old roots, whether anyone liked it or not, had become forever intertwined with the new.
Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.
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