“The past is never dead. It is not even past.” -- William Faulkner
Happenings in the present often summons into consciousness for people, places, even streams of cultural history, from the past. Certain songs, the changing seasons, special places, all these and more instantly trigger my personal past. As the classic “Stardust” goes “... and I am once again with you and each kiss an inspiration.”
There are also events of broad — even national scope — that remind many people of their legacy. The Ken Burns documentary, “Country Music,” on Public Broadcasting is a monumental example. Past to present, it brings to light an ongoing stream of musical blending and innovation, an authentic historical saga with extreme poverty, isolation and prejudice along with people who struggled with their circumstances and created a phenomenon: country music.
The history is recalled, enough itself to make the program worth seeing. However, it is the people who made the music that enliven and enlighten the story. Against the framework of historical circumstances in their time, they come alive. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Appalachian isolation: these sent their impoverished children into the world. Some were crushed, but some struggled and turned struggles into songs in the way of ancestors from Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the slave culture of the South. While they knew how to sing, some failed at living with success. Burns tells their stories, warts and all, but never scolds.
There are eight parts to the documentary, each two hours long. I watched them all, sometimes twice: remembering, often applauding and sometimes shedding tears. I remembered my grandparents singing some of the same songs as those recorded by Sarah Carter in the 1920s and was reminded that we were kindred people. Granddaddy Williams faithfully tuned his radio to a weekly broadcast from the Renfroe Valley in Kentucky to hear mountain music that sounded like the Carter Family and like what he had heard all his life.
The almost ethereal, almost haunting quality of the female singers’ voices is old, adopted from the ballads of their British homelands. This music connects us with our deep past. So does the banjo pictured on ancient walls of the pyramids and recreated by African slaves from goat-hide covered gourds and catgut strings. Instruments and songs changed in time, reflecting changing life circumstances. Having lived so long — 85th birthday coming up — I have been blessed to sample this moving stream of music and deeply enjoy most but not all of it. Indeed, I like varied musical genres from classical to a country quartet singing, “It Is Well with My Soul” a capella, but not every offering in any genre. Still, any female singer with that lilting, ethereal voice gets me every time.
I was not raised full-bore country. Daddy was a fan of New Orleans music and blues and Mother liked popular music. Both sang at their work. A prized possession was the big battery-powered radio, which brought in music to please both of them. WWL in New Orleans provided its own special music and live “big band” music. Back then, another favorite station, WSB Atlanta, devoted air time to country music. We listened to all of it. Later I visited other family members who were Grand Ole Opry fans. Blues blended with Hillbilly country along the creative stream and all of these were a part of my life for as long as I can remember, maybe longer.
Clearly, the country music documentary drew me back into a circle with my wife, father, mother and precious others with whom I can no longer sing along as we tapped our feet. But, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” was sung several times by several singers in the documentary, a touch of comfort and hope. Moreover, I treasure it as a spectacular definition and celebration of us all as a people. No doubt it will come around again and I recommend it to everyone.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.