Old Man Sings the Blues
Darling Corey’s everything you want in a folk song: an interesting story, a sing-along chorus and a moral. Like Sophocles or Faulkner, the disaster is coming, irrespective of all efforts. Our shortcomings will be our ruin. But in the meantime, let’s wallow in the tale and enjoy the folly.
It’s an old traditional song whose versions are varied, with Charlie Louvin even singing vastly different verses live from those recorded on the album. But it’s the 81 year-old Louvin’s 2008 album version that slays me.
The structure: it’s a story within a story, unfolding a fractured chronology that defies the typical linear folk tale.
The first and last verse reveal the narrative:
Wake up wake up darling Corey
What makes you sleep so sound
The revenue officers are coming
They’re gonna tear your still house down
Wake up wake up Darlin Corey
And go get me my gun
I ain’t no man for fightin’
But I’ll die before I run
At this point, the feds are on the doorstep, our protagonist has chosen to stand his ground, and it’s clear that the mythical siren, Darling Corey, is the reason he’s stuck with the Hobson’s choice of death or jail.
The center of the song tells of how we got there. “The last time [he] seen Darling Corey/She was sitting on the banks of the see,” with two alluring signs of trouble: a banjo and a gun.
And it doesn’t take long to have him wishing that that encounter never was:
Go away go away darling Corey
Quit hanging around my bed
Your liquor has ruined my body
Pretty women have gone to my head
This verse raises the question of who or what Darling Corey really is. On the face of it, of course, it’s a woman. But this verse makes it difficult to read it as other than an inner demon. Darling Corey is what he can’t shake. Could be the liquor. Could be the groupies. Could be grief.
For Charlie, the inner demon would not be unfamiliar. His brother, and long time musical partner, Ira, was a notorious and violent drunk who lived through 4 gun shots to the chest by his 3rd wife only to die comically in a drunk driving accident for which he was not at fault (excluding Karma).
The chorus: A much needed charge as the narrator tries to “dig a hole in the meadow and lay darling Corey down.” It’s hard to understand how we can get to a point where the line “Dig a hole, dig a hole in the meadow” delivers relief from the song’s darkness, but humans are strange creatures.
Second to last verse: our afflicted anti-hero is tantalizingly, if temporarily, free now that “they’re preaching darling Corey’s funeral.” But as we return to the present narrative, she’s predictably still there, haunting him.
What I love about folk songs are the lack of rules. Change a verse. Change a chorus. Change the names around. Imbue it with new meanings. Make it yours. And that’s what Charlie Louvin does best.