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In my family, the kids cringe when it’s my turn, under any circumstance, to play music. Their earbuds go in immediately, but I find that, generally, music is an historic and unifying force. Much to the kids’ chagrin, my music playlists are diverse walks through the global songbook; a story, generally, of my life. When I was little there was always music around. My mother, who used to drift off to sleep with the sounds of Bach and Beethoven, had a large decorative stereo, wooden and woven, made to blend in with the furniture, like a Chippendale-inspired lowboy, on which my parents used to mute the sound of the television and listen to the broadcast of sporting events over the radio, back especially when it was posh to faithfully hear Cawood Ledford and, for all I know, cheer on Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant, before he departed to become Alabama’s legendary coach. When there were no sports – football and basketball, the back and forth of tennis, and everything in between – there was music. Different genres and flavors. I was exposed to them all, everything from the broad, sultry swell of the blues to the standards, from Aloha from Hawaii to Cole Porter, Rocky Mountain High to Noel Coward.
Much because of this, my music collection has grown exponentially. You can find just about anything in it, a testament to the cadence of my birthplace. Take a moment to notice. In the South, there’s music everywhere. It’s embedded in our souls. There’s real, breathing rhythm living here. It’s in every niche and cranny. It’s the birthplace of jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, and any and all conglomerates in between. There’s even melody in the way we speak. A slow, steady, easy lilt, stretching out vowels, like the winds whistling through pines and over rolling hills. It’s a place where melodic traditions melded for the first time; English and Scots-Irish traditions with African. Even the banjo – that oh so very bluegrass, Bill Monroe mastered instrument – is African in origin, brought to us by slaves, who undeniably left their mark with their own traditions. Even Kentucky’s state song was inspired by them: My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight. It’s not the oft-thought song of mountaineers in log cabins, but the bungalows of slave quarters. The Stephen Foster songbook, too, is a part of my exponential collection and consciousness, and America’s.
Though a Pennsylvanian, in many ways, Foster was haunted by Southern culture, writing many (controversial in the BLM era) plantation melodies, and, legend says, spent ample time in the homes and churches of the freed slaves, living in Pennsylvania, eventually touring the South and spending time with his relatives at their Kentucky plantation, Federal Hill. There, the story goes, he spent his days listening to the slaves, moving along the house and in the fields, significantly impacting the man known as the “Father of American music,” and through him and those who inspired him, the American songbook. Nor can we forget the gospel choirs that make us rise up and queue on Sunday mornings: the ingenuity of sacred harp and stirring Southern gospel, the sounds given to us by the Carter family, the Gaithers, Mahalia Jackson, and even Elvis Presley. Here, music is alive, on front porches and in front parlors, cell phones, creek beds, and car radios. It’s inspired by many and delivered to the masses, a lasting legacy of generations past.
When I was a small boy, suffering from respiratory issues and almost annual bronchitis, my grandmother would wrap me in blankets and sit outside with me, sometimes in the cold to open my lungs, and, as a means to comfort her sickly grandson, she would sing the poignant, Scottish ballad, “Danny Boy,” making that song a particular and sentimental favorite that possesses the power to brings her back to me. When my mother was small, her grandmother – my great-grandmother – used to sing to her a song from World War One, “K-K-K-Katy.” So, in 2022, the kids may cringe at the variety and plug their ears to historic melodies, rejecting any modern notion of Tiger Hunts in India with Leslie Sarony or Waltzing with Matilda, but I appreciate that they’re exposed to the culture of song – and one day, they will, too – and I like that there is an on-going tradition, and, for my mother and I, songs that tie us both to our grandmothers, forevermore.