That old-time music

By Andrei Codrescu

For Mike Luster and Rachel Reynolds

Rolly doughy. In the whole world tremble my Jesus die. Do savor soul. Just look at my Jesus.

We listened to songs by Sadie Spencer, Booth Campbell and others, collected by Mary Celestia Parker in Arkansas in the ’50s and ’60s. This is folk music that mixes the joys of youth, the pleasures of the kitchen, the comedies of courtship and the love of the Lord in one rolling train of raspy-singing balladeering. All the days of the week get their due, but Sunday is by far the favorite, the day that smells the best and dresses pretty and brings everyone together in one place. The river, the mountain, the valley, the willow, the boat and the snake get their due in the season where they belong.

A couple of Sundays ago, Laura and I sat in the town square of the small mountain town and listened to church groups sing hymns that barely made it through the squeaky mic to dissolve into the sunsetty lavender air. I looked over a sea of hoary heads like a field of soft snow or a pasture of sleeping sheep, and I thought that I had died and gone to the wrong heaven. Not my own peoples’ heaven, anyway, but a no-nonsense Anglo heaven where peace and sobriety reigned harmoniously. My own heaven, if such a thing exists, is brunette and furious. Loud, too. But here was the quiet of old age earned. These folks had made peace with it and were rising into the sunset on thin threads of old-time music.

As I was going on this way in my head, an ancient spun to look at me — maybe I’d been saying these things out loud — and gave me a sly look and a smile that said, “I know where you’re coming from. You should see what goes on through my head.” He didn’t look that old either and had the ruddy face of a farmer who had driven some hard bargains in his life and had spent the week fixing heavy machinery. This was his Sunday all right, but he was far from done. He was merely enjoying himself. Well, that look got me back down to earth. People. I love ’em. When they aren’t hunting, they are so human.

There are over a hundred churches in this sparsely populated area, about one church for every 20 people, each one different from the other in style and, possibly, by one or two points of interpretation or emphasis. The tone and style of preachers can set in over two or three generations like a genetic marker, and there they are, the diverse godly physiognomies of meeting places. There isn’t much employment hereabouts. Poverty is present and long-standing. But the communities anchor in their churches and live and are buried by their communities. The wild ones escape into the cities where they carry the taste of something bitter in the back of their throats, like willow bark, and busy themselves with motors in the garage. The music they grew up with rises from the silence when the motors idle, then it goes under the vrroom. Hills of home, hear me Lord. How great Thou Art. Grown old, some of them return in fancy motor homes with satellite dishes.