The scene below stands (or falls) as a moment in support of that eternal search mentioned in the headline.
Scene Five: The Siren Call Of The Mountain Wind Song In The Search For The Blue- Pink Great American West Night
Hey, not every aspect of the 1960s blue-pink night was a search for some kind of transcendence. Mostly it was that, and its glow has kept a few of us warm through many a desperate dark, cold night since. But sometimes it was running away from the past, from roots, or maybe better, from rooted-ness. Or just plain old running away from what lurked ahead and ahead did not seem as good as the road, the road with all its troubles. For those who have read the previous scene, the scene where I got stuck down in a Steubenville, Ohio 1969 truck stop diner and got “lucky” finding a woman friend to share the road with, you know at the end of that episode we were heading out, or trying to head out West. For those who have not read that scene let me introduce my new lady friend, Angelica. Angelica, who, as fate would have it, was working in that diner truck stop where I got stuck and happened to think I was “nice” and after a little of this and that decided that her search for meaning in her young life entailed accompanying me on the road west. Whoa! In any case there she was walking beside me as we tried to hitch a ride from one of the rigs idling at the stop. If you want to know the details of the “how come” of our walking together just now go read that last scene, otherwise I will try to fill you in as we go along.
In the process of getting you filled in, let’s get one thing clear. When you were on the road, on the 1960s hitchhike road, and trying to get across the country the rules, the rules of the road, were a little different than the rules in workaday life. Your take on life and your, usually, transient relationships with passing strangers, male or female, got a little twisted. Not necessarily in a bad way, but twisted. I was pleased, pleased beyond belief, as least privately, to have winsome, fetching Angelica along. As I mentioned before in those hitchhike days it was always easier to get rides when you had a female companion, and one with good legs and a good shape, a shape that drivers could notice as they sped by was a plus. Maybe, thinking it was a mirage anyway, not every benny high, moony, overstretched transcontinental truck driver, running overweight anyway, would put on the airbrakes for her on the Interstate at eighty miles an hour. But those young, slower lane sedan drivers would slam on the brakes, and gladly. Ya, I know now it is not cool, nor should it be, to be using a woman as a “decoy” in that way but that was the way it was then “on the road.”
Now, if you don’t know, meaning you haven’t read the previous scenes, I, by this time, had been periodically crossing the country for some time in search of …... well, in search of something because just now, some forty years later, I am getting just a little weary of calling it the blue-pink night but this was Angelica’s whimsical maiden voyage. Angelica, was, moreover, pretty naïve about life and clueless about the road having just a few weeks earlier left home and hearth in cozy mid-country Muncie, Indiana. (Don’t tell me all about the famous Lynd sociological study of squaretown, oops, I mean, Middletown, that used that town as its sample back in the 1920s I already mentioned that before.) Therefore she was crushed beyond my comprehension, as we walked closer to the idling trucks on the other side of the diner, when I mentioned to her that the small suitcase (neatly packed) she was carrying was not a good road item compared to a nice fungible knapsack for when we had to do some walking between rides. I do not know, and I never found out, whether the look, not the nice sly, coquettish look that she greeted me with early in our “courtship” at the diner and that hooked me, but some volcanic devilish look she gave me was for when I mentioned to her the fact that she was going to have to abandon that suitcase or that the “road”, the real hitchhike road meant some walking. Later, and not much later at that, she saw my point about the suitcase, but that does not erase that look from my memory’s eye.
Nor was that little episode the end of our little road “adjustments.” In the few weeks that Angelica had been working long hours at the diner she served many of the truckers whose rigs were idling in the truck stop rest area we were cruising for rides. So, naturally, she tried to find out where some of those that she knew were heading. This day, they are heading mainly east, or anyway, not west. Finally, she ran into one burly teamster, Eddie, who was heading down Route 7 along the Ohio River to catch Interstate 64 further down river and then across through to Lexington, Kentucky. Angelica was thrilled because, as it turned out, she had kin (her term, okay), a cousin or something, down in Prestonsburg, Kentucky whom she hadn’t seen in a while and where we could stay for a few days and take in the mountain air (her idea of rest, mine then and now, was strictly ocean breezes, thank you). I tried, tried desperately, without being obnoxious about it, to tell her that heading south was not going to get us to the West very easily. She would have none of it, and she rightly said, that we were in no rush anyway and what was wrong with a little side trip to Kentucky anyway. Well, I suppose in the college human nature course, Spat-ology 101, if there was such a course then, and they taught it, I should have had enough sense to throw in the towel. After all this was Angelica’s first, now seriously, whimsical venture out on the road. And I did, in the end, throw in the towel, except not for the reason that you think.
What Angelica didn’t know until later, and you didn’t know until now, was that I was deathly afraid of going to Kentucky. See, I had set myself up to the world as, and was in fact in my head, a Yankee, an Oceanside Yankee, if you like. I was born in Massachusetts and have the papers to prove it, but on those papers there is an important fact included. My father’s place of birth was Hazard, Kentucky probably not more than fifty to one hundred miles away from Prestonsburg. He was born down in the hills and hollows of mining country, coal mining country, made famous in song and legend. And also made infamous (to me) by Michael Harrington’s Other America which described in detail the plight of Appalachian whites, my father’s people. And also, as a result of the publicity about the situation down there, the subject in my early 1960s high school of a clothing drive to help them out. My father left the mines when World War II started, enlisted in the Marines, saw his fair share of battles in the Pacific, got stationed before discharge at a Naval Depot in Massachusetts and never looked back. And see I never wanted him to look back. That’s the way it was back then, make of it what you will. Sure, now, among other things, I can thank winsome, head-strong Angelica for making that move, but then, well, like I said I threw in the towel, but I was not happy about it. Not happy at all.
Actually the ride down Route 7 was pretty uneventful and, for somebody who did not feel comfortable looking at trees and mountains, some of the scenery was pretty breath-taking. That is until we started getting maybe twenty miles from Prestonsburg and the air changed, the scenery changed, and the feel of the social milieu changed. See we were getting in the edges of coal country, not the serious “Bloody Harlan” stuff of legend but the older, scrap heap part that had been worked over, and “worked out” long along. The coal bosses had taken the earth’s assets and left the remnants behind to foul the air and foul the place.
But, mostly, and here is where I finally understood why my father took his chances in World War II and also why he never looked back, shacks. Nothing but haphazardly placed, unpainted shacks, with hard-scrabble patched roofs just barely covering them. With out-houses, out-houses can you believe that in America in the 1960s. And with plenty of kids hanging out in the decidedly non-manicured front yards waiting… well, just waiting. Look, I came up in my early youth in a public housing project that had all the pathologies one has come to associate with that form of social organization. Later, in my coming of age days we lived in a tiny, very tiny, single family house but I was not prepared for this. All that I can say about my feelings at the time was that I would be more than willing to crawl on all fours to get back to my crummy old growing up homestead rather than fight the dread of this place.
Fortunately Angelica’s kin (second cousin), Annadeene, husband and two kids all at about age twenty, lived further down the road, out of town, in a trailer camp which the husband, Fred, had expanded so that it had the feel of a small country house. More importantly it had indoor plumbing and a spare room where Angelica and I could sleep and put our stuff. Fred, as I recall, was something of a skilled mechanic (coal equipment mechanic) who worked for a firm that was indirectly connected to the Eastern Kentucky coal mines.
This Prestonsburg, as you can imagine, in the 1960s was nothing but one of a thousand such towns that I had (and have) passed through. A main street with a few essential stores, some boarded up retail space and then you are out of town. Then hardly worth, and maybe now too, putting a strip mall into. Moreover, Route 7 as it turned into Route 23 heading into Prestonsburg and then further down turned into nothing but an old country, pass at your own risk, country road about where Angelica’s cousin lived. What I am trying to get at though is that although these people were in the 20th century they were somewhat behind the curve. This is, as it probably was in my father’s time, patriotic country, country where you did your military service came home, worked, if you could find it, got married and raised a family. Just in tougher circumstances than elsewhere.
I understood that part. What I did not understand then, and am still somewhat confused about, is the insularity of the place. The wariness, serious wariness, of strangers even of strangers brought to the hills and hollows by kin. I was not well received at least at first, and I still am not quite sure if I ever was, by Angelica’s kin and I suppose if I thought about it while they had heard of “hippies” (every male with beard, long hair, and jeans was suspected of belonging to that category) Prestonsburg was more like something from Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee lyrics than Haight-Ashbury. Angelica kept saying that I would grow on them (like I did on her) but I knew, knew down deep that we had best get out of there. I kept pressing the issue but she refused to listen to any thoughts of our leaving until after Saturday night’s barn dance. Fred and Annadeene had after all especially invited us to go along with them. We could leave Sunday morning but not before. Christ, a hillbilly hoe-down.
Probably about twenty years ago I would have felt no compulsion to go into anything but superficial detail about this barn dance. Today though I do have that need. Otherwise this scene lacks completeness. I will say that I have, twenty years ago or now, a very clear picture of Angelica being fetching for this dance. All her feminine wiles got a workout that night. What I can’t remember is what she wore or how she wore her hair (up, I think) but the effect on me (and the other guys) was calculated to make me glad, glad as hell, that we stayed for this thing. What I can remember vividly though is that this barn dance actually took place in a barn, just a plain old ordinary barn that had been used in this area for years (according to the oldsters since back in the 1920s) for the periodic dances that filled up the year and broke the monotony of the mountain existence. The old faded red-painted barn, sturdily build to withstand the mountain winds and containing a stage for such occasions was something out of a movie, some movie that you have seen, so you have some idea of what it was like even if you have never been within a hundred miles of a barn.
Moreover the locals had gone to some effort to decorate the place, provide plenty of refreshments and use some lighting to good effect. What was missing was any booze. This was a “dry” county then (and maybe still is) but not to worry wink, wink there was plenty of “white lightning” around out in the makeshift dirt parking lot where clusters of good old boys hovered around certain cars whose owners had all you needed. Just bring your own fixings. After we had checked out the arrangements in the barn and Annadeene had introduced us to her neighbors Fred tapped me on the shoulder and “hipped” me to the liquor scene. We went outside. Fred talked quietly to one of the busy car owners and then produced a small jar for my inspection. “Hey, wait,” he said “you have to cut that stuff a little with some water if you are not used to it.” I took my jar, added some water, and took a swig. Jesus Christ, I almost fell down the stuff was so powerful. Look, I used to drink whiskey straight up in those days, or I thought I drank whiskey straight up but after one swig, one swig, my friends, I confess I was a mere teetotaler. Several minutes later we went back inside and I nursed, literally nursed, that jar for the rest of the night. But you know I got “high” off it and was in good spirits. So good that I started dancing with Angelica once the coterie of banjo players, fiddlers, guitarists and mandolin players got finished warming up. I am not much of a dancer under the best of circumstances but, according to her, I did okay that night.
Hey, you’d expect that the music was something out of the Grand Ole Opry, some Hee-Haw hoe-down stuff, some Arkansas Jamboree hokum, right? Forget that. See back in the mountains, at least in the 1960s mountains, they did not have access to much television or sheet music or other such refinements. What they played they learned from mama and papa, or some uncle who got it from god knows where. It’s all passed down from something like time immemorial and then traced back to the old county, the British Isles mainly. Oh sure there was a “square” hoe-down thing or two but what I heard that night was something out of the mountain night high-powered eerie winds as they rolled down the hills and hollows (hollers, if you are from there). Something that spoke of hard traveling first from the old country when luck ran out there, then from the east coast of America when that got too crowded and just sat down when it hit those grey-blue mountains, or maybe, although I never asked (and under the circumstances would not have dared to ask) formed their version of the blue-pink great American West night, and this is as far as they got, or cared to go.
Some of this music I knew from my folk experiences in Boston and Cambridge earlier in the 1960s when everybody, including me, was looking for the roots of folk music. Certainly I knew Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies when the band played it instrumentally. That was one of the first songs, done by gravelly-voiced Dave Van Ronk, I heard on the folk radio station that I listened to. But, see, back in those early days that stuff, for the most part, was too, well you know, too my father’s music for me to take seriously. Bob Dylan was easier to listen to for a message that “spoke” to me. But this night I thrilled to hear real pros going one-on-one to out-fiddle, out-banjo, out-mandolin, out, out-any instrument each other in some mad dash to appease the mountain nymphs, or whatever or whoever was being evoked to keep civilization away from the purity of the music. That night was as close as I got to my roots, and feeling good about those roots, and also as close as I got to Angelica. I could go on and give examples that you could go check out on YouTube and listen to but this is one of those moments you had to be there, okay.
About 12:30 or one o’clock the dance broke up, although as we headed down the rutted, jagged street we could still hear banjos and fiddles flailing away to see who really was “king of the hill.” Angelica said she was glad that we stayed, and I agreed. She also said that, yes, I was right; it was time to head west. She said it in such a way that I felt that she could have been some old time pioneer woman who once she recognized that the land was exhausted knew that the family had to pull up stakes and push on. It was just a matter of putting the bundles together and saying goodbye to the neighbors left behind. Needless to say old resource road companion Angelica, sweet, fetching Angelica put that fetchiness to good use and had us lined up for a ride from another Eddie truck driver who, if he was sober enough, was heading out with a load at 6:00 AM to Winchester just outside Lexington from where we could make better connections west. 6:00 AM, are you kidding? I am still wearing about eight pound of that white lightning, or whatever it was. Angelica merely pointed out in her winsome, fetching way that nobody forced me to drink that rotgut (her word) liquor when softer refreshments had been available inside. Touché, 6:00 AM it is.
Dog tired, smelling of a distillery, or some old time hardware store (where the white lightning ingredients probably came from) Angelica and I laid our heads down to get a few hours sleep. Gently she nuzzled up to my side (how she did it through the alcoholic haze I do not know) and gave every indication that she wanted to make love. Now we are right next door to the two unnamed sleeping children, sleeping the sleep of the just, and as she got more aggressive we have to be, or we think we have to be, more quiet. No making the earth under the Steubenville truck stop motel cabin shake this night. And, as we talked about it on the road later, that was not what was in her mind. She just wanted to show, in a very simple way, that she appreciated that I had stayed, that I had been wise enough to figure out how long we should stay, and that, drunk or sober, I would take her feelings into account. Not a bad night’s work. And so amid some low giggles we did our exploration. Oh, here is the part that will tell you more than a little about Angelica. She also wanted to please me this night because she did not know, given the vagaries of the road, when we would be able to do it again. Practical girl.
In the groggy, misty, dark before dawn, half awake, no quarter awake night Angelica tapped me to get up. We quickly packed, she ate a little food (I could barely stand up never mind do something as complicated as eat food), and we made our goodbyes, genuine this morning by all parties. As we went out the front trailer door and headed up the road to the place where Eddie had said to meet him I swear, I swear on all the dreams of whatever color that I have ever had, that the background mountains that were starting to take form out of the dark started to play, and to play like that music I heard last night from those demon fiddlers and banjo players. I asked, when we met Eddie, who was only a few minutes late, and who looked and felt (as he told me) worst that I did (except that he proudly stated that he was used to it, okay Eddie) if those musicians were still at it over at that old devil of a red barn. “No,” he said. “Where is that music coming from then?” I said. Old Eddie (backed by Angelica) said “What music?” That angel music I said. Eddie just looked bemused as he revved that old truck engine up and we hit the road west.
Several years ago I was half-listening to some music, some background eerily haunting mountain music coming from a folk radio station when I had the strangest feeling that I had heard the tune before. I puzzled over it sporadically for a few days and then went to the local library to see if they had some mountain music CDs. They did and I began on that date a feverish acquaintance with this form of music that I have occasionally reviewed here, especially the various Carter Family combinations. I, however, never did find out the name of that song.
And in a sense it has not name. It was the music from that old mountain wind as it trailed down the hills and hollows that I heard that last night in Prestonsburg. See here is what you didn’t know as you read all this stuff, and I only half knew it back then. I had been in Kentucky before that trip down from Steubenville, Ohio with sweet Angelica. No, not the way you think. My parents, shortly after they were married and after my father got out of the service, took a trip back to his home in Hazard so his family could meet his bride, or maybe just so he could show her off. They stayed for some period of time, I am not sure exactly how long, but the long and short of it is, that I was conceived and was fussing around in my mother’s womb while they were there. So see, it was that old mountain wind calling me home, calling me to my father’s roots, calling me to my roots as I was aimlessly searching for that blue-pink great American West night. Double thanks, Angelica.