Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.
As a special Valentine’s Day present to all the Tufa fans, here’s the advance trailer for Wisp of a Thing, including music by the first honorary Tufa, Jennifer Goree.
Enjoy, share, repost, and otherwise pass amongst yourselves.
Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.
Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.
You can watch the trailer:
and additional clips can be found here.
Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.
This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.
Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).
How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?
The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.
So far, there are three honorary Tufas.
The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.
Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.
He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title. You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.
And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”
So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.
When I began planning Time of the Season, my holiday-themed e-book chapbook, I already had two of the stories. Both the title story and “A Ghost, and a Chance” had been around for a while. But I wanted to write something new, and I’d gotten such a good response from my novel, The Hum and the Shiver, that I decided to write a holiday story set in the that world. The Tufa stories all revolve around music, so I needed a song to form the center of this new one. So I asked around: did anyone know of an original winter or holiday song, one by an indie artist who could grant permission for me to use the lyrics in a story?
The first time I heard it, I knew it was the right song.
I contacted Andrew Brasfield, and happily, he agreed to let me quote from the lyrics in the story. This is a trickier proposition than it sounds, because a lot of musicians, particularly the ones played on mainstream radio, don’t actually own the rights to their own songs. Music publishers, record labels and other for-profit intermediaries have to also grant permission, and usually require payment to do so. Happily, there’s a whole world of great music being done by people like Andrew (and Jennifer Goree, and Laura Powers, and Jen Cass, and Kate Campbell) who not only own all their own rights, they’re delighted to have them included in a story or used in a book trailer.
Andrew also recorded a new version of the song at AudioCzar Productions, and played all the instruments himself (except for percussion). That version is available as a free download when you buy Time of the Season.
Andrew was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions about the song.
1) What inspired “Cold Wind”?
I used to work in television and was sent out west to Lander, Wyoming for a documentary shoot a few times over the course of 2010. On one of the final trips we set out early in the morning to catch some college students who were waking up for the last of their 21 day trip in the Wind River Range. It was really early in the morning and beautiful and I had some time to think while we were hiking. The wind was very cold and cut through me and I thought, the cold wind is an interesting image. So I came up with the first line then thought of other natural elements. Fire and water were classic images so and made verses to go with all of them. Somehow I remembered those lyrics and committed them to a small Holiday Inn Express notepad as soon as I got back to my room late that evening.
Side note: The cover photo for the song is actually a public domain photo of the Wind River Range that I manipulated a bit.
2) Your cousin Dale Short first told me about “Cold Wind,” and directed me toward the video. I had that same thing happen with the characters in the story: they learned the song from that same video. What’s the story behind the video?
There is no real story to be honest. I knew I wanted folks to hear some of my songs and while they can get a glimpse from the three songs I wrote on the first Motel Ice Machine CD, those aren’t the only songs I have in me and some of those are arranged differently from the way I usually do them. Also, I don’t have the cash to get into a studio whenever I write a new song so YouTube seemed like a more accessible medium. I’ll be certainly be adding more videos soon.
Dale still hasn’t given me all the details on how we are kin, but he is a good guy nonetheless and I appreciate what he does for local musicians through his radio show.
3) What did you think of the story that incorporates your song?
I really dug the way you wove it all together. I actually got chills when I read my lyrics in the story. I’m a big Tufa fan and having the Hyatt’s play my song in their living room is sort of surreal. I read The Hum and the Shiver shortly after it came out and was hooked. I’m (im)patiently waiting for Wisp of a Thing.
Andrew Brasfield is from a small town in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His main axe is harmonica, which he wields in a few different bands including Motel Ice Machine and The Lefty Collins Band. He also plays a bit of guitar, bass and ukulele. He knows a handful of mandolin chords and has a few piano tricks. You can find out more about him here.
So this year I’m trying something new: through the good folks at Story Vault, I’m releasing a three-story ebook chapbook for the holidays.
“Cold Wind,” a Tufa story that updates us on Bronwyn and Craig from The Hum and the Shiver.
“A Ghost, and a Chance,” in which Sir Francis Colby from Blood Groove crosses paths with the most famous Christmas ghosts of all.
“Time of the Season,” a New Year’s story about a very special visitor to the home of Firefly Witch Tanna Tully.
There’s also a special gift: a free download of the song “Cold Wind” by Andrew Brasfield.
I’ll let you know when it’s available, but in the meantime, here’s the cover:
Jean Ritchie (with Pete Seeger watching) performing her version of “Shady Grove”:
We think of songs, in the current popular sense, as fixed points: once the lyrics are written and the music composed, that’s it. Our vast music industry supports this notion, because that’s how they make their living (organizations such as ASCAP exist entirely to enforce the idea that “this is the song.”) But historically, before songs could be fixed in either documents or recordings, this wasn’t the case. Songs changed each time someone sang them, and especially when they were brought to new areas. An example: “Shady Grove.”
This little ditty is a bluegrass/country/folk standard, having been recorded by the likes of Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs and the Everly Brothers. I first encountered it on Jennifer Goree’s self-titled debut album. And to show how fascinating it is, I’d like to compare Goree’s version with folksinger Michael Johnathon’s version, both from 1997.
Musicological scholarship says “Shady Grove” originated with the song “Matty Groves,” That song dates reliably to the early 1600s. As it traveled from Europe to the US, it grew more abiguous and mysterious. Is “Shady Grove” a place, or a person? Evidently the answer is, “Yes.”
In the two versions I’m comparing, Shady Grove is clearly a person, a female character very dear to the singer. But the lyrical differences are significant. Here’s an example:
Well, I went to see my Shady Grove, she was standing in the door
Flowers and beads all in her hair, and little bare feet on the floor
“My mother sang it to me as a baby,” she says. “I don’t think I’d ever heard a ‘real’ version of it before I recorded mine. It’s just a lovely melody and I kind of made up my own version of the lyrics since I didn’t have much to go on. That is the beauty of such songs!”
In this version, Shady Grove seems to be a child dear to the singer. There’s a tenderness and wistfulness to it, not least because it’s done a capella. When I asked her, she agreed that she sees Shady Grove as a child, “Yes, that is what i think too: a little girl standing in the doorway of an homesteader’s house.”
She continues, “But there is something a little more romantic /grown-up about the second verse: wish I had a big white horse corn to feed him on pretty little girl just to stay at home and to feed him when I’m gone…so it is a little mysterious as to whether shady grove is a daughter or a lover…maybe that is why it is an compelling song.”
Michael Johnathon’s version is much darker, played with a full, almost rock-band arrangement. In his book WoodSongs II he says, “The old chestnut ‘Shady Grove’ is actually about an abusive, over-protective stalker. Yet thousands of folks sing it as if it was a simple mountain tune.” This evokes all those happy couples who play “Every Breath You Take” at their wedding.
The first time I saw Shady Grove, she was standing at the door,
Shoes and stockings in her hand, little bare feet on the floor.
The image is blatantly sexual, post-coital and possibly illicit. The meaning, Jonathon says, depends on which verses the singer chooses. “To me, Shady Grove was a young woman literally stalked and possessed by her lover. She was probably very lonely, very humble, very scared. If you listen to the lyrics of the verses I chose for the song, it is a reflection of violence and spousal abuse.”
He first encountered the song in grammar school in upstate New York. “Can you believe this is taught in schools? That’s why I love folk music. Then I moved into the Appalachian Mountains and traveled up and down the hollers with my guitar and banjo hearing scores of verses to the song I never even knew exsisted. I collected over 38 verses before I stopped.”
In recording his version, he says, “Because of the dramatic nature of the lyrics, I wanted the song to be more powerful than just a simple Appalachian ballad. Jean Ritchie starts the song off with her lap dulcimer, the way folks played it in the mountains for two centuries … but then we power in ast her and bring the song forward. I play it in drop-D on the guitar, which gives it a deeper, ominous tone.”
How could two, let alone hundreds, of variations of the same song exist? It’s significant that both Goree and Jonathon first learned the song not from records or the radio, but from other people. For centuries that was the way people did it, a process that couldn’t avoid change. “Matty Groves” becomes “Shady Grove,” and if technology hadn’t codified it on record, CD and digital file, it might’ve mutated further. It stands as a fascinating artifact of a time when the music was as alive as those who played it.
I’ll leave you with the Stray Cats in Paris, circa 1989:
(Special thanks to Jennifer Goree and Michael Johnathon for sharing their insights.)