Monday, September 26, 2011

Greenwood Sidey

Anna and I are working on a new crankie (what's a crankie? I'm glad you asked!), and unlike all our other crankies, this one does NOT have a happy ending. The song is Addie Graham's version of "The Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad #20), which she called "The Greenwood Sidey", and it is one DARK, DARK ballad.

Suffice to say it is about haunting and guilt and women's issues. It's new territory for us to explore horror in a crankie. The first one Anna made was about sorrow and war; the ones we've made together have been:
-A landscape/magic shadow for the banjo tune "The Lost Gander"
-A sewn one about the ballad of "Lord Bateman"--like any good comedy, it ends with a wedding.
-Another shadow-paper one about Kentucky fiddler Lella Todd
-And another sewn one (in the works right now) about the ballad "Riddles Wisely Expounded": a Virginia version called "The Devil's 9 Questions". Also somewhat of a comedy.

Also new territory, and this is really exciting, is that for the first time we are making a crankie that depends on drawing. There's going to be a lot of black & red ink, PLUS LINOCUTS. LINOLEUM BLOCK PRINTING!! It's one of my favorite media and I am really amped to be exploring it some more. And to explore it in such a huge way; Anna ordered six 18" x 24" blocks yesterday after we talked through our sketches and established a storyboard.

Addie Graham's version is fairly short. It's much less detailed and graphic than many versions. We're trying to work with this sense of mystery, and at the same time include some of the symbols and images that come with more fleshed-out versions. We have decided to actually show some things that aren't said.

This crankie is an important part of our upcoming show. We are delving deep into a women's voices-granny-kitchen music-quilts & aprons -kind of vibe. And as much as it's about family and comforting and passing on everyday art, it's still important that not everything is saccharine. Old-timey music is not all about being safe, prim, and proper. "Greenwood Sidey" is anything but.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Story of the Amazing Day, Part 2

After our glacial dip, it was time to saddle up again. "Please try to keep the horses together", John translated for us, "because the boy knows the dogs--but the dogs don't know you. We don't want anyone to be attacked." We were going down a slope to the shepherds' camp. Downhill is harder for horses than uphill, I learned. Also, since horses always want to follow their fellows, once one starts to sort of veer off and find its own path down, the rest will too. It was a halting progress, especially with such inexperienced riders as us.

But at last we approached the camp, riding together tight and close. We could hear the dogs barking, but some were hidden in the tall weeds. It was afternoon now, the sun was a little less bright but the grass seemed that much greener. Their living area was defined by a birch fence.

"It's best if you don't leave this area," John said; "if you have to pee, get an escort. It is better to moon a man and pee in peace than to be mauled by a vicious dog." These Caucasian shepherd dogs are really huge affairs with long fluffy white hair. They cut their ears and tails so that when the dogs battle bears and wolves they won't lose a lot of blood from tears. The menacewas a little assuaged by the presence of a truly adorable puppy.

It's a little difficult to describe where these shepherds live. I have been saying "camp", although I'm not really sure how continuously they live there. Certainly they do not "get out" much.

Not sure how to say this. But in the states, we just don't see--or maybe I should speak for myself--I just haven't seen this kind of living. When I think "poverty" I have kind of a vision of a smoky trailer with tires on the roof, crystal meth, babies drinking kool-aid, and a lot of sick dogs with weird-looking inflamed eyes, and maybe a moldy mattress out in a barn somewhere with a mountain of Natty Ice cans. That's my Southwest VA image.

What these Tushetian shepherds have could not be more different. I mean, that smoky trailer I'm talking about probably has a microwave, even a TV. I hesitate to call this Georgian version "poverty" in the same sense. These guys don't have: a roof, electricity, or running water, or a way to get around other than on horseback. The reason we were riding to see them was because there's no road. They didn't have their families there, so I guess it really is kind of a camp, just the men and the dogs and sheep and goats.


Anyway, it was stunningly beautiful up there at 10,000 feet, and you could actually look down across the mountains and see our little hotel/guesthouse amongst the pines. They sat us down at their long outdoor table and brought food; we supplied a large water-bottle full of a clear liquor called chacha (made the way grappa is made, from the skins and stems and pits of grapes), plus cows' horns for drinking toasts. They had us try their fine fine tomatoes, fresh tarragon (so strong it burned my mouth), bread of course, cucumbers of course, cheese of course, and the specialty: their own sour cream. It was truly heavenly, that stuff. "It has lots of things good for your skin", they told us. Partway through our meal they apologized and brought out plates for us to eat on. We hadn't noticed...or to be more specific, maybe I had sort of noticed the red dried gore lingering on the table from probable butchering, but why should that impact this princely feast? We were feeling high as kites, taking in the view, shoveling sour cream into our mouths, and toasting each other with strong drink.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Story of The Amazing Day, Part 1

Part 1

The way you get Georgian horses to Go is to say, "achoo!" No lie. And the way you get them to stop is to say, "drrrrrrrrr" rolling your 'r' sound. But the way our young guide said it was to stick his tongue way out of his mouth and kind of go "pbbbbbbbt". And that seemed to work just fine, because he effectively (mostly) stopped our horses from going any faster than a walk. The entire way. A couple of the feistier horses had some exciting breakaway moments, and since horses are SO herd animals, the others would get excited and start running too.*

We went up and up through a tiny village, across a river, past some stone towers, and onto steep narrow little paths up the slopes in the piney-woods. That part was astounding in many ways: the beauty of the forest; the steep drop to the sides; the incredible sense of height and space beyond the close green boughs; the exhilarating strength of the horses, the feeling of them pulling you up and up, sure-footed and muscular and carrying you. The pines turned to a few open meadows surrounded by gnarled old birches. The trees looked really fantastically hoary. I may as well admit it now: there were more than a few times that Georgia made me think of Middle-Earth. After crossing a stream, it really opened up. We were past the tree-line and surrounded by grass, and we could finally see just how high we really were. Green slopes all around, down and down. Far in the distance, dark rocky and snowy peaks. The sky was clear and blue. The sun was strong, strong, strong.

We reached this little glacial lake, and there we got off our horses. Our guides tried to stop the horses from sitting or rolling as often as possible. We didn't understand why until we pulled the totally smushed tomatoes out of the saddle-bags...
Long story short, a few of us mustered our gumption and stripped to underwear, hollered and ran and JUMPED into the green water. It was COLD, deep, and clear. A little water got in my mouth that tasted beautiful. It was a small lake--I easily swam across it floating on my back, feeling clean and glide-y and like Nessie or Excalibur could be lurking below. I was chilled for hours after putting my clothes on over my wet underwear, but it was worth it.

*On my first riding trip, on our way down the mountain, Shergil came thundering down on his horse looking like fricken Lawrence of Arabia/Marlboro Man/other awesome horseback-riding manly men I don't know about. My horse got in on the action and galloped all the way back to the village. Except for trying to hold my hat on with one hand and the reins in the other, it was a feeling not to be beat. How do cowboys keep their hats on?

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Great Day

Something wonderful happened to me last week. I took the afternoon off from working at summer camp, and I got in the car with my mom and dad, and we drove to Galax. That's usually wonderful enough. It's a pretty drive, and that town is riddled with good barbecue, music both live and historic, and the best Mexican restaurant within a fifty-mile radius.

But! That day was special. We were going to meet Jim Barnes, a music and radio enthusiast and very tall man. Most exciting, we were going to meet Betsy Rutherford's daughters.

We were all smiling so big to meet each other there, me looking for Betsy in the faces of these women, Jim Barnes so tall, us girls so short. Jim and the three of us--Mom, Dad, and me--talking about what an incredible singer Betsy was. My mother and father talking about listening to the musicians of our area, going to the fiddler’s convention in Galax in the seventies. My Dad took his Betsy Rutherford album back to college in Ann Arbor, Michigan; back to what I imagine as a small round table in a small dark college dorm room where he and his buddies had a continuous bridge game running. He played with the football guys, and the list of allowed LPs was a short one. Motown was unilaterally banned, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan allowed, and because of my Dad the southern boy those Michigan jocks over at the political school were listening to James Taylor and Betsy Rutherford too.

Betsy Rutherford Coffey (1944-1991) was born in Galax, VA and raised in Baltimore, MD. If you remember my post about Fields Ward (specifically his singing of the ballad "Earl Brand", she was his cousin. There were several great mountain musicians hanging in Baltimore at the same time--Ola Belle Reed was one.
There is Betsy in the photo below--the younger, wistful-looking woman. In the foreground is Stella Kimball, who Betsy played music with.

I've said a few times that she was one of the finest voices in traditional music. A great bio on Facebook here:

I got the chance to say to her daughters, “So many places I go to sing, I talk about your mother.” To tell them how their mother shaped my life by the power of her songs and the way she sang them. When I was a teenager, looking for new songs to sing at the Fiddler's Convention, my Dad played his old LP for me. I remember I liked Joan Baez at the time, I liked James Taylor, and I liked Irish music, and the Beatles. Betsy Rutherford's voice rolled. She had a deep and sweet voice, that could sigh, too. She could rock you--not in a Joan Jett way, but rock your soul. There was so much conviction and passion and reality in the sound. I had read a novel called "Belle Prater's Boy", that featured the song "Tramp On The Street". I thought it sounded sappy; but when she sang it, it was full of this truth.

She sang "Rain and Snow":

I saw her coming down the stairs

Combing back her long yellow hair

And her cheeks were as red as a rose.

I understood so fully, so powerfully, this devastating destructive beauty. I knew what that verse meant.

Lacy said, “Mom was a storyteller, first and foremost.”

Then Heather would pop out with something like, “Ernest Stoneman couldn’t drive!”

We visited the house, met the dogs. In a little wood-paneled room, a mini-archive in Galax, sat DJ John Coffey, who took requests and spun us 78s that made us want to shake a foot. Heather threw back her head and said, "Harvey and Copeland!" and out it came. For many years John made "Christmas albums": exhaustively notated 25-track compilations of traditional music from his vast collection, just for enjoying and giving to the family at Christmastime. My dad got all twilight zone when he saw the stained-glass bathroom door that John put in 20 years ago; Dad just put our stained-glass bathroom door in place a couple months back.

(Betsy Rutherford Coffey, John Coffey.)

Gazing around at the neat stacks of records, drawers full of CDs and tapes, it was obvious--Mr. Coffey is a brilliant scholar. He wrote liner notes for Betsy’s album, before they were married.

Such a big part of this music--and this music is old-time, Appalachian, ballads, folk (it's a dirty word to some, but not to me)--is about legacy. It's about "more than just notes". It's about family and community and history.

Heather talked about being a tiny girl, sitting under the oak tree in the backyard, listening to Betsy and Fields making music together. The two daughters talked about how much they miss that voice, and the wonderful music made around the home. "I wish we'd had a tape recorder then," they said. "That album is such a small part of what Mom sang."

It touched my heart. Heather and Lacy would say, “I just loved to hear Mom sing.” “We always knew she was amazing.” They talked about Fields Ward. Both John and Betsy wrote poems about him. The music of this family has touched me so, that to meet those close to her is a huge gift. We share something that is theirs to share, not mine; but the amazing thing about art is that we both understand. We all understand it. I feel so grateful for that.

Thanks to Jim Barnes and the magic of Youtube, you now have the opportunity to hear her incredible treatment of songs like The West Virginia Mine Disaster and Faded Coat of Blue.

Please keep your eyes peeled for this radio documentary by Jim Barnes about Betsy Rutherford Coffey.

(Heather's hands, The Faded Coat of Blue--blanket made by Betsy Rutherford Coffey.)

(Mom, Dad, Me, Heather, Lacy)

(Me, Lacy; old-timey!)

All photos were taken by me, sometimes of photos belonging to the Coffey family. Please don't reproduce without permission.