11.20.2005

bill monroe and revisionist history

Oftentimes, i sabotage my own happiness. I've put off writing the following post because i don't feel comfortable about it. The reason is that what i want to talk about concerns "the good old days" in America. Like, back in the fiction of Leave it to Beaver and Mayberry. Revisionist history (if i'm using the term correctly) has kind of taught me that there never were any "good old days." The good old days were simply back when white men ruled the earth (at least, more effectively than they do today). Everything was just hunky-dory.

what the hell is "hunky-dory?"

I've been reading a book that is a collection of magazine articles, scholarly writings, interviews and liner notes concerning blue grass music. Here is a section from that book...

"In the fourties, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were not only a bluegrass band, but also a baseball team. Shumate explained how this worked. "We'd get to town early, usually around three or four o'clock. I'd go to the pool hall or somewhere where i could find some young guys and ask them if they had a ball team there in town. Most of em did, and i'd tell em who we was and that we had a bluegrass team and we'd like to challenge em. Oh man! They'd get busy and get their gang together and meet us at the field. Sometimes they'd meet us in an hour. We did that all over the country. Sometimes we had good crowds just for a ballgame. We had a lot of fun. we played for keeps and had a prety good team. We had uniforms and everything. I played shortstop and was a pretty good hitter too. I could lay the timber to that ball. String pitched, and he was a good pitcher. I believe Lester played third base."

Jim Shumate was Bill's fiddler. He invented the famous "da-da-da-daddat" and "chit-chit-chit" kick off heard at the beginning of so many blue grass tunes.
"String" refers to Stringbean, whose real name was David Akeman. Akeman was one of the forerunners of the Scruggs style--not quite clawhammer, not quite three-finger style. Akeman would later be the victim of an infamous nashville murder. A common rumor around Nashville in the early seventies was that Stringbean kept thousands of dollars stuffed up inside his chimney. Thieves killed him and his wife.
"Lester" refers to Lester Flatt, half of Flatt and Scruggs--of Beverly Hillbillies fame, for you neophytes--and the great uncle of one of alison's childhood friends.

Anyway. What an amazing story! I'm going to assume i don't have to tell you why i think so.

Here's what's at stake for me in this tale: First of all, it made me nostalgic for a time i didn't even know. And then, second, it made me feel guilty that i was enjoying a story that takes place in an America swimming in sexism and racism. I imagine you guys can probably relate.

Now, if i set that guilt aside for a second, if we set the mayberry fiction and the larger historical framework on the backburner for just a second, does this story say anything about yet another America that has been lost? One that might have possibly been better than our current moment?

That story is packed to the gills with references to the concept of liesurely community. Boys at the pool hall. Baseball. Celebrities playing a ballgame because they wanted to. Small towns with ball teams (and uniforms!) willing and ready to accept a friendly challenge.

Jesus! What have we've given up to be where we are?

I don't know if this story, and the stories of (an as yet unrealized) racial and sexual equality, coincide. I can't tell if this is a story that speaks to what economics and technology have done to us. I can't tell if it is a tale of things gained, or things lost.
I do know that i would have liked to have played baseball with bill monroe. i'd even settle for being one of the boys at the pool hall....but what would i have to do in order to feel okay about it?

5 comments:

Alison said...

Yeah, that story makes me think of how much you and I enjoy going to little-bitty country stores in little-bitty Southern towns, and how--years ago--we had the realization that we can ONLY enjoy that because we're white. If we were black, that whole experience that we find joyful would instead be terrifying (or anxiety-provoking, at the very least).

Cate Bush said...

I felt such a mix of emotions after reading your post - thanks. I too long for a more leisurely today (revisionist history aside) - sigh. Leisure seems much more individualized now and not necessarily community driven. Or is that just a perception? And would I even participate in community leisure, being an introvert who really only wants to hang out with her closest friends :)?

Looking forward to hanging with you and A in Cookeville over the break! Good luck with the remainder of your semester.

christiemckaskle said...

I think this is a story of something real that was lost because of an unwillingness to share it. I think many of us can enjoy the kind of leisurely community you describe, but there are those of us who can enjoy those things only when everyone is welcome. And there are (still) people who can enjoy things because they get to enjoy them and others don't.

Case in point: I once read a NY Times survey that asked people whether they'd rather have everyone making $120,000 (including themselves), or make $100,000 while most other people made $80,000. While there were some folks who were delighted at the idea of everyone having ample, more than half (I don't remember the exact number) of the people surveyed would rather have less, as long as they could have more than other people.

Sorry, I know that's not very uplifting. My point is, I don't think you have to feel guilty about wishing you could play baseball with Bill Monroe, because sounds like you would have been happy for anyone to challenge you to a game.

Eliza McGraw said...

I think you need to listen to more pop country. It's all about the faux nostalgia--reminiscing about a quiet life in these country towns that the same singers have sort of helped destroy by hawking their wares at Wal-Mart. People are everlastingly fishing and going to some small church where they know everyone in those songs, but really you know they're going to a mega-church which was built on land that used to be in a rural preserve or something. And Walter, I think you do a good job of grabbing those community moments when you can, which I will not go into because I don't want anyone else to feel like I am being exclusive with my nostalgia. But I guess I think that is the best we can do, is moment by moment.

Aaron's wedding looks great.

Was anyone else's verification word dlebch? It almost sounds like a real word.

Lainie said...

Have your seen and heard #Gangstagrass? This band brings bluegrass and hip hop together in a heady mix that Bill Monroe could never have seen coming and a lesson in racial harmony that he likely would have rejected, and may, in fact, have him turning over in his grave. What do we know of Monroe's views on race---anything? I seem to have some notion that he did express a racist viewpoint at one point or another, but I don't know if I'm halfway remembering something I read or that was said, or if I'm just presuming he would have had a racist viewpoint. Does anyone know for sure?