Monday, September 26, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Friday, September 2, 2011
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Please keep your eyes peeled for this radio documentary by Jim Barnes about Betsy Rutherford Coffey.