Bluegrass songs often seem to lie in a realm of nostalgic haze, the memories of days gone by. Somehow we yearn for a day somewhere in the past where things were better, life was simpler, people treated each other with respect and dignity. How often have I heard a comment like, “We were poor, but we didn’t know it, because we had each other and our music”? We forget the hard times, the careworn days, the sweat and toil. Meanwhile, today’s way of living — a presidential campaign waged between two questionable candidates, a continuing struggle between Western progress and a Middle Eastern sect’s desire to stamp out modern heresies, changes in climate, and new bugs emerging to resist drugs we once believed would stamp out diseases — challenges all of us must face in a modern world as filled with threat as it ever has ever been. Many of us would prefer to retreat to Larry’s Country Diner and Hee Haw in endless reruns than to face the challenges of today’s world.
David Peterson Sings “1946” – Video
David Peterson’s song “1946,” popular in bluegrass after the 2001 release of Peterson’s first album of the same name, glorifies the days at the end of the Second World War and the homecoming of the veterans who fought that war. Peterson sings that “the baby boomers were blooming, and the buck stopped with old Harry Truman,” conveniently forgetting that 1945-1946 was a period of serious economic recession and that millions of women who had gone to work in the factories of the day, learning new skills and gaining new freedoms, were forced back into the kitchen by the return of their often damaged husbands. Furthermore, the Academy Award winning movie The Best Years of Our Lives was a dark, somewhat foreboding movie detailing the difficulty of the G.I.’s return to peace and the problems that lay ahead. The term “post traumatic stress disorder” was not to be invented until 1980.
Larry Sparks “Tennessee 1949” – Video
One of Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Larry Sparks’ most beloved songs is Tennessee 1949, in which Sparks pulls all the nostalgic arrows in our quiver of memories. In this song, a verse eagerly invites us into our own past. The lyrics read:
I wonder what became of Katheryn Ackers
The girl who broke my heart at seventeen
I barely can remember what she looks like
Thirty years ago she was my dream
Who among us doesn’t have a memory of a Katheryn Ackers, or her male equivalent, in our memory banks? How could this wonderful song fail to connect those who hear it with their own youth? And yet the song ends on a dark note, as the singer can’t fully connect with his deepest yearnings as he searches for memories in his past.
The Seldom Scene “California Cotton Fields” – Video
Merle Haggard’s memorable song California Cottonfields may capture as effectively as any other evocation of the often fruitless journey of the Okies to the wealth and warmth of California during the Great Depression and later, as they sought to escape the Dust Bowl and reach the dream of the golden land to the west. Set in 1943, a little late for the real migration so poignantly depicted in John Steinback’s Grapes of Wrath, the song nevertheless captures the desperation and failure of so many making that journey. In this version, Lou Reid is singing the lead, with one of the fine Seldom Scene lineups, including T. Michael Coleman on bass, with original members Ben Eldridge, John Duffey, and Mike Auldridge. Recorded in 1988 at Grass Valley in California, this is a fine performance of this song by a fabled bluegrass band.
Bluegrass is at its best and its worst in evoking the past or expressing concern about the world’s current directions. It can be deeply pessimistic and joyfully optimistic. It captures loss and hope. The power of song to evoke emotion, to draw from our deepest memories, fears, and hopes, makes the songs we hear and sing both powerfully regenerative and dangerously destructive. In a period of deep questioning of our own, the country’s, and, yes, the world’s directions and choices, we can look forward with dread or hope. One thing is certain: We aren’t going back. Thus, each of us must draw on nostalgia without retreating into it. In finding the best that lies within us and our world, perhaps we can still find ways to maintain our values and move forward. Bluegrass, like all music, can be a part of that movement.
Let’s return then to Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys playing his song “Uncle Pen” at the Grand Old Opry in 1965, the year he appeared at both the Newport Folk Festival and the first multiday bluegrass festival ever held, on Cantrell’s horse farm the near Fincastle, Virginia, and listen for the call of old Uncle Pen’s fiddle bringing joy and the urge to dance to everyone.