Mark Sahlgren treated us to a wonderful concert on March 11, including a display of his collection of vintage Gibson guitars. Mark was joined by two beautiful singers: his Grassroots co-host Lorrain Caron, and his daughter Darcy Willis, of Cornfed Girls.
When we were planning Reading Together activities, we wanted to be sure that there was a concert of music with a Southern accent. One cannot form a complete picture of Rick Bragg’s rural South without a soundtrack. After all, there is a reason they call it country music.
The South’s relative isolation allowed cultural traditions of its settlers to remain alive. What did immigrants bring with them? Maybe a fiddle or guitar — or maybe only words and melodies remembered and rehearsed and handed down. That’s a challenge in any case, but for instrumental music, even more so. How did the fiddler avoid mixing up one waltz with another? The guitar accompanist likely learned chord changes without ever knowing what guitar tablature looked like. (There was little formal training except perhaps at the hand of the Baptist preacher’s wife who also taught piano lessons and made sure every girl learned how accompany hymns.)
And that guitar might have been a cheaply made instrument bought from a Sears Roebuck catalog, or Montgomery Ward. On such instruments, the strings were so far from the fretboard that the new musician had to endure a painful ordeal until thick callouses were developed on the fingertips. Most people hadn’t played finely made expensive instruments and thus no one knew it could be better. Life was hard. Why wouldn’t there be a trial to achieve moments of pleasure?
Many of the songs from the South are about hardship. You can’t think about hardships without also thinking about faith and religion. In Chapter 9 of All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg recalls the influence of religion and retells some of his churchgoing experiences. He titles that chapter On the Wings of a Great Speckled Bird. That line is from what may be one of the greatest songs of country music, “The Great Speckled Bird.”
What a beautiful thought I am thinking,
Concerning a great speckled bird.
Remember her name is recorded,
On the pages of God’s Holy Word.
The words of this gospel song are attributed to Rev Guy Smith. Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the song is about remaining righteous amidst the trials of life. The phrase “great speckled bird” comes from a Bible passage, Jer 12:8-9. (For more about the meaning of the song, here’s an interesting discussion.)
I know people have ridiculed country music because of its bounty of songs about hardship, particularly drinking and infidelity. I guess there’s a reason for the stereotypes. Likker, relationships and religion were not insignificant themes.
And that’s why “The Great Speckled Bird” is so emblematic of country music. The irony is that its melody is shared by a song from the 1920s, “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” The same melody was later used in the 1952 country hit “The Wild Side of Life,” sung by Hank Thompson (about a wife that strays) and the loud retort from Kitty Wells: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Mark Sahlgren's Gibson guitars