A quick review of I Hear a Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir
For good and ill, I am principally and by choice — if not conscious choice — a confessional essayist. Blame it on De Quincy or Hunter S. or Wendell Barry (to whom I come late, and not often enough). Blame it on new journalism. Blame it on ego. Or don’t.
At hand is I Hear a Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir, which proves a slim volume by Gene Lowinger, a New Jersey lad of Jewish extraction who played fiddle with Bill Monroe in 1965-66, published last year by the University of Illinois Press. The text runs 70-odd pages, plus two folios of photographs taken by the author. The type is a trifle small for a man with my eyesight, but I still managed to read most of this volume during the commercial breaks of a University of Kentucky basketball game, the kind of multitasking long years of bachelorhood made possible, though it was seen as an odd way to watch the game to my Kentucky-bred in-laws and my wife. Twelve years in, I still require further study.
That I chose to read it in this fashion will tell you something of the book.
The brief story, in brief: Lowinger takes up bass, then banjo, during the heat of the folk rebellion. Too many adept banjo players stroll Washington Square, so he takes up the fiddle. Less competition. More girls, though he mentions that only in passing. Forms a group, goes to bluegrass festivals. Meets people. Plays a lot. Gets hired by Bill Monroe, at a time Monroe was churning through band members, the same rough era Del McCoury and J.D. Crowe passed through the Blue Grass Boys.
Culture shock and the ordeal of hard work and being a travelling musician sets in. Road food (ah, the Guess Who!). Lowinger decides, still in his early 20s, that the thing he wants to do is become a concert violinist. This is not done, and yet he does it.
There is an accident. A dancer falls into the pit at a casual gig, falls atop Mr. Lowinger, which ends not in matrimony or some other droll thing but in instead takes the form of a long bout with injury and substance abuse and such. Unable to play, Lowinger retrains himself again, becomes a systems analyst at a major bank. Bank consolidation happens, he takes the buy-out and remakes himself as a documentary photographer, in which guise he returns to the world of bluegrass (and classical fiddling), regains entree as a former Blue Grass Boy, takes up the fiddle again, photographs Monroe in his last few years.
It’s a good story, but Mr. Lowinger is not a gifted storyteller. Or he’s a man with heirs and regrets that he does not wish to air.
The trick — and the following analogy is just a guess — with writing a memoir that is worth reading is much the same trick that comes of playing music worth listening to: You have to give up some part of yourself. Mr. Lowinger gives up very little, and so despite the varied opportunities to spin a good yarn, we get pretty much just the facts. It is, perhaps, telling that Mr. Lowinger admits to having written only one song during his career.
The real disappointment, however, is the photographs. They are displayed as is the habit with traditional academic presses, in separate folios (though not even on better paper), as joyless “illustrations.” They’re not integrated, they’re not well-printed, and they are so small as to be hardly representative of what a good portfolio might suggest. After some years of looking at photos, I’m not sure even whether these are good, and I lay that to the design, not to the work. (The work may not be good, but it’s being killed by the layout.)
(A bit of my own ego interjects: One of the things I wanted to accomplish with the three No Depression bookazines the University of Texas Press was kind enough to indulge us by printing (which are still available for sale on this very site, an act of kindness I highly recommend you indulge in)…one of the things I wished to do was to suggest a more designerly, magazine-like approach to the intersection of words and images on the bound page. Given another 32 pages of paper, the type of this Memoir could have been made a little easier to read, and the photographs could have been displayed nearer to the relevant text (they’re keyed by numbers, instead). And the book could have swung, instead of sitting still and behaving just like every other dull book seeking tenure, which this one clearly is not. But I digress into things which matter mostly only to me.)
It is the details which matter, whether it be the details of the diners in which he ate, the venues at which they played, the way Monroe looked or smelt or felt (save for the crook of his mandolin in the fiddlers’ back, prodding)…or how banking was in the ’80s, or anything. Details. Truths, something given up, something learned outside a 12-step program. Something.
Mr. Lowinger has had an interesting life. He has made and remade much of himself, and had I a hat to wear I would take it off to him for his constant and difficult reinventions. I wish he had made (or been made to make) a more interesting book telling the tale of it. Ah, well. UK has begun another game, and so…
[Amended to correct Mr. Lowinger’s first name, which somehow I typed wrong last night.]