I know three people (and if I alone know three, there must be more of them out there) who think “This Land Is Your Land” is a country song—and one of the three sings it to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine.” Now, it’s a fact that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs once recorded “This Land Is Your Land”; and it’s true that the result was country music. But that says nothing about the song itself, because Flatt and Scruggs would have made “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” result in country music (“purtain up, light the lights . . .” Give it the high lonesome, boys).
This kind of self-expanding discussion can obsess country music fans. (“Okay,” they say to one another, “if you couldn’t have it all in one package, would you rather hear Tony Bennett singing ‘Cold Cold Heart’ or Willie Nelson singing ‘Stardust’?”) It can also bore the socks off of everyone else. So I guess it’s no surprise that my three friends, who are anything but obsessed about this subject, take a sweeping approach. They assume that any song with lyrics about highways and forests and golden valleys—or any melody that can be confused with “You Are My Sunshine”—just naturally has some connection someplace to the musical sensibilities of, say. Hank Williams. Talk about cultural illiteracy. The fact is, Hank Williams would not have written or sung “This Land Is Your Land,” because Hank Williams was busy doing what the creation of “Cold Cold Heart,” “Your Cheating Heart,” and “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” required: he was going all to hell over Miss Audrey.
I guess there is a certain logic behind the assumption that music that originated largely with and for people of the land must include celebrations of the land. But it really isn’t so, and the evidence that it isn’t extends far beyond the musical legacy of Hank Williams. If you leave out all the songs about the old homeplace (which are actually songs about Mama, which means their real subject is guilt) and forget the tributes to the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee, Carolina, and “Virginny” (which, past their titles, are usually guilt-ridden tributes to Mama), you are left with little in country music, except maybe a few cowboy songs, that even resembles a celebration of the land.
The Miss Audreys of the South aside, why this dearth of “land music”? Maybe it’s because people close to the land—farmers, migrants, miners—while historically given to songs about on-the-job misery, are no more inclined than dentists or shoe salesmen to musically immortalize their actual place of business. Maybe it’s because country music abandoned even the quasi-land subject matter—the home-Mama-Virginny stuff—after the northward migration of rural Southern populations following World War II. (How many country boys wanted to hear “Mother’s Not Dead, She’s Only Sleeping” in a Detroit tavern on a Friday night after a week on the assembly line at the local CM plant?) Or maybe it’s just because country music attaches itself securely only to very large or very narrow themes: human sorrows, remorse, and yearning; goodtiming, two-timing, and drinking.
The real references to the land in country music are to the land “on the other side”—the promised land, the celestial shore, glory land (the proper country pronunciation of which is glow-ry land, just as the proper pronunciation of on is own, and this is one of the reasons it’s such fun to listen to country gospel singers—they are always “heading own to glow-ry”).
My very first musical memory is of a song about this other land, the land of promise. My father had a recording of “Camping in Canaan’s Land” by Charlie Monroe, Bill’s brother. Long before I was old enough to understand that the song’s references were biblical, I had heard it countless times and had only two thoughts about it: I loved it, and it gave me the creeps. It is a gift to sound mystical while singing at breakneck speed, to set feet a-tapping while minds are seized by spectral human sounds and unearthly lyrical images. The Monroe brothers had that gift. On “Camping in Canaan’s Land,” old Charlie, just as fast as he could manage it, sang of traveling “far over hills and valleys and across the desert sands” to a place of “wondrous beauty grand.” That was about all I could understand, but it was enough to give me a most pleasant case of the shivers.
I’ve spent years trying to untangle all the words to “Camping in Canaan’s Land,” and have even gone so far as to apply my mind to a Ralph Stanley rendition of the song. That was an especially pointless exercise, because anyone familiar with bluegrass music knows that if you are trying to decipher one of the Monroe brothers you don’t turn to Ralph Stanley, who can sing faster (and slower) than any human being alive. This is what Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys have in common with heavy metal groups: when the uninitiated first hear the performance of either, they invariably blurt, “What on earth are they saying?
That doesn’t mean you can’t sing along with bluegrass if you want to. Just spot yourself own and glow-ry and take your best shot. Another song I heard over and over as a child was Flatt and Scruggs’ “I’ll Just Pretend,” which starts out, “You spurned the love I gave you, darlin’.” Until I was 12 years old I thought they were singing “You burned the goose I gave you, darlin’,” and the funny thing is, I was unfazed when I learned of my mistake. Whether they (and I) were singing of spurned love or burned geese, Flatt and Scruggs were aces with me. Many years later, there would be similar instances of misunderstanding when my children encountered bluegrass music. But unfortunately, the outcome would be much different.
Early on, one of my minor goals as a mother was to instill in my children a love of country music. Part of my motive was affection. There was pleasure, and more, to be had in the music, and I intended to give it to my children as a gift. I was also motivated by a particular kind of vanity. I wanted to be able to look up from my ironing and think: mine are the only kids in the neighborhood who know who Miss Audrey was. (No cultural illiterates in my house.)
Well, I tried, and my record is now a shaky one-for-two. My son likes some country music; my daughter loathes all of it. And neither of them gives a fig about Miss Audrey. I know now what I didn’t know then: force-feed kids too many Bill Monroe songs and country legend stories and there’s at least a 50 percent chance they’ll turn on you.
For a while, though, my results were spectacular. By the time she was two and a half, my daughter could sing most of Jimmie Rodgers’ repertoire, complete with yodels, and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a two-year-old sing “Train Whistle Blues.”
But things went downhill from there, and I knew I had lost her for good when she was about nine. She and her brother and I were riding in the car one day, and Ricky Skaggs’ “Don’t Get Above Your Raising,” an old bluegrass number, was playing on the radio. Before I realized what was happening, it was the spurned love / burned goose problem all over again. Based on Skaggs’ diction, my kids thought he was singing of dried fruit—raisins. When I explained what the song was about, my son laughed, but my daughter said, “That’s stupid. If he means ‘raising,’ he shouldn’t make people think he’s talking about raisins.” Like me as a child, my daughter hadn’t understood what she was hearing; unlike me, she did not find this situation intriguing. As far as she was concerned, country music was designed to make her seem dumb—and she wasn’t the least interested in seeming dumb. Case closed.
Looking back, I realize it wasn’t all my fault. The failure of my country music plan for my kids can be attributed in part to the simple fact that I was forced to work alone; that is, I got no help from my husband. When our children were small, my husband would jump up at the first sound of country music, then stomp his foot, hold his nose, and sing “twang-twangy-twangy” over and over again. I found this performance unimaginative in the extreme; however, it’s the kind of thing that is a surefire hit with kids, especially when their daddies do it. But when you once taught your children—as babies, in their cribs—all the words to “Waiting for a Train” (with yodels!), it can break your heart to hear them yelling, “Dad! Do your twangy stuff again!”
Today I am still trying to figure out the words to “Camping in Canaan’s Land.” My husband is still making his lame jokes (while secretly playing Patsy Cline tapes in his car, and I can’t figure out whether this makes him a hypocrite or a convert). My son listens to Randy Travis but “not to anything with ‘Boys’ in their name,” by which he means the great bluegrass bands—the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Blue Grass Boys, etc. Yes to Travis; no to Monroe; my son gets the general idea but misses the point. It’s like ordering a chili dog and saying, “Hold the chili.”
And my daughter? Well, she is nearly grown up and has a desire to see the world. And this brings up one of my favorite fantasies. My daughter is in Europe—Paris, maybe—and she is riding in an elevator, when suddenly she hears the sound of vaguely familiar music drifting through the headphones of a fellow passenger’s Walkman. And right there on that elevator, wearing Italian shoes and surrounded by Frenchmen, my daughter feels her eyes well up as her mind floods with the thought: my home, my mother, my . . . raisin’!
Is the song on the Walkman “This Land Is Your Land”? Get serious—the girl has been brought to tears. Far, far from suburban Cincinnati, far from the golden shopping malls and verdant Little League diamonds of home, my daughter is hearing the words of Jimmie Rodgers, the words she herself sang as a babe:
My pocketbook is empty
My heart is filled with pain
I’m a thousand miles away from home
Waiting for a train . . .
But the part that really gets to her is the yodel.
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