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  • Front Porch
  • Harry L. Watson

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It looks like we've found a tradition. This is our Second Annual Music Issue, complete with another new CD full of ballads, blues, and bluegrass from great southern artists known and less known. Look for A Place Called the South inside the back cover. Gospel singer "Flat Top," in Camp B, Lambert, Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi, 1968, courtesy of the William R. Ferris Collection in Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Drumroll, please. This is Southern Cultures's second music issue, complete with another new CD full of ballads, blues, and bluegrass from great southern artists known and less known. While this is only our second version of this issue, it looks like we've found a tradition. No matter how people define southern culture, the subject of music comes up pretty fast, so a special issue on southern sounds is irresistible. When southerners mix African beats and Celtic tunes on compelling instruments like the banjo and guitar, the resulting series of unique gumbos—blues, jazz, country, and on and on—wins fans throughout the world. It's hard to say why this is true, because many people besides southerners have their own musical [End Page 1] genius, but it's also difficult to point to another region with so much musical variety and so much music with world-wide appeal. Who can say why?

The materials in this issue are rich and varied—and don't all fit within a tidy set of categories. We have two fine pieces by Bill Ferris: an interview (in collaboration with Michael K. Honey) with folk singer Pete Seeger about his love for southern music and his efforts to share it with others, and then a memoir of folklorist Alan Lomax, the song collector who turned the South upside down to record its field hollers, blues, jazz, and ballads, fiddle tunes and protest songs. Both pieces are tributes to nonsoutherners who performed Herculean labors to preserve and disseminate the music of southern peoples—African American, Anglo, Hispanic, Cajun, and every other community. Once again, music historian Josh Guthman has compiled a hot CD that mingles recollections by Seeger with a variety of old-time numbers, ranging from the classic English ballad "Barbry Allen" to gospel numbers and more.

Speaking of ballads, Elizabeth Hadaway's poem "Living with Ballads" reminds us that mountain folk did more than preserve old favorites. They also wrote their own ballads well into the twentieth century. Hadaway's mother's favorite was "Sidna Allen," commemorating a 1912 courtroom shootout in Hillsville, Virginia. Equally dramatic is Randy Rudder's back-from-the-jaws-of-death story, not about a medical miracle but the resurrection of Bill Monroe's mandolin, smashed by vandals in 1985 and lovingly restored by Charlie Derrington.

This issue has a lot of variety, yet the longer essays remind me of the same haunting song. Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" is one of the most anguished songs in the blues repertoire. Buried for decades in Johnson's nearly forgotten handful of recordings, "Love in Vain" reappeared when the Rolling Stones issued their own version in 1969, followed by an Eric Clapton cover in 2004. Whenever I think about the blues, the chords of "Love in Vain" start to echo in my head.

The song is about a break-up, of course. The singer follows his lover to the train station, where she boards and rides away, presumably forever. The singer sums up the situation this way:

When the train, it left the station with two lights on behind, When the train, it left the station with two lights on behind, Well, the blue light was my blues and the red light was my mind. All my love's in vain.

That's it. No redeeming hope, no dream of a better tomorrow. All that stuff is just in vain. The singer is left instead with two struggling forces: the infinite sorrow of the blue light and the helpless desire and fury of the red.

Think about the contrast with another famous light...


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