On YouTube Clips of People Playing “Billy in the Lowground” and Turning Forty and Sadness by Ed Skoog
Some music is lonely. Solo voices, solo lead instruments are lonely. Trumpets push everyone away. Piano virtuosos are lonely figures. On television, singers are often isolated from the band that is backing them. What the lonely artist gives us is sympathy, a sense of other lonely people and how they survive. One can only bear so much of it, before reaching for some party music, or packing a tent and going to a festival.
For my fortieth birthday, I am returning to the bluegrass festival where I first learned to play the traditional repertoire with the shifting ensembles of jam sessions, gathered around charred campfires at noon and under streetlights at 3am, returning after a decade’s absence, my last long drive there from New Orleans, where I lived then, in the weird week after September 11, passed Wal-Mart parking lots in Texas and Oklahoma with marching bands and elaborate unfocused displays of grief and rage. I’ve bought my ticket, leaving Seattle, where I live now, at 8 am on September 11. I’ve bought a new case for my banjo so I can check it with the luggage rather than try to carry it on-board.
A few years ago, I tried to learn the fiddle, and traveled through airports carrying the instrument in its smart, civilized case, enjoying the approval of strangers rather than the suspicion and comedy that my banjo case usually engenders. Lately I have come to terms with myself as a needy character, driven and derided by vanity, with a history of “attention-seeking behavior.” Was I driven to the banjo because of its oddness rather than attracted to its intricate percussive rhythms and mysterious overtone? At seventeen, probably so. I stayed with it, however, because of seeing Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in Manhattan, Kansas after spending a long psychedelic day on the Konza prairie; because I sat in the front row; because/despite Monroe, the patriarch of the style, directly asked my girlfriend for a date right in front of me and was not joking; because I shivered to the frisson of the finest and most complex art I had ever experienced, full blast. I was annihilated.
Rural, archaic musics have been persistently popular, rediscovered by every generation and newly imagined. In thirty years of following music obsessively, I’ve seen the rise and fall of musicians and movements, revivals and retirement, promising debuts, slow disappearances. I have spent a lot of time in the country, in small towns of Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, California, Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, Alaska, Virginia, New York, Mississippi, and Alabama. I have only heard “rural music” and its fans in big cities and college towns. In the small towns, the soundtrack is more hip-hop than hillbilly, which is magnificent for them, but reminds me that folk, country, and bluegrass music are just a fantasy.
Music is fantasy. The more authentic I perceive a song to be, the more extreme the fantasy becomes upon reflection and investigation. Banjo twang is a signal of rural truth; hip-hop has its signals. New Orleans was the center of rap while I lived there, and I heard it everywhere. I was playing poker at four in the morning when news came over Q93 that Soulja Slim had died. We stopped playing for a few minutes. I lived for six years in the Hollygrove neighborhood of New Orleans, seven blocks away from Lil Wayne, the microphone controller who is “Hollygrove to the heart, Hollygrove from the start,” the same neighborhood that he names in “Zoo”: “Hollygrove ain’t no motherfucking Melrose/ Hollywood ain’t no motherfucking Hollygrove/ They could find your ass Monday in your Friday clothes.” Sure, it was a violent neighborhood, an ultraviolence that saved our hides, prompting us to leave New Orleans after a particularly awful weekend, two weeks before Hurricane Katrina. Afterward my neighbors said it was precisely those knuckleheads who dragged boats up and down the flooded streets in genuine, heartbreaking, courageous rescue, ferrying their fellow citizens to safety.
My writing-desk soundtrack since leaving has been a collection of New Orleans bounce from the 90s—DJ Jubilee, Hotboy Ronald, Katey Red, 5th Ward Weebie. Yet every Monday night I take my banjo over to Al’s Tavern for an informal jam session with a bunch of white people I don’t know very well and run through the bluegrass repertoire. The two musics don’t sound far different from bluegrass to me, overdriven, manic, repetitive, mad music rooted in complaint and pure expression of joy and body. The gulf between them is enormous and rigidly enforced. Bluegrass, bounce, skronk: these the adding machine part of my mind, riddled with dissonance, uneasiness, pain, with internal rules that seem at their extreme hokey, corny, Southern and they up my head with their driven stress.
Poetry is a fantasy, too. I am almost forty, don’t have a real job, no kids, my cat just died, the cat my wife acquired when we were in graduate school for writing, which was the first time she was in graduate school, and now she’s about to become a pharmacist, which is very sensible of her. Most of the writers I knew at twenty have given up. The most talented writers I’ve known have given up, and some are happy, some are miserable. The most valuable advice I heard in graduate school was from writers who lived in Missoula but were not on the faculty. “Be more vulnerable,” said one. Another: “Writers don’t fail, they give up. If you stick with it long enough, it works out. That might not happen until you’re forty, or sixty.” I published my first book of poems at thirty-seven, which seems old. Looking back I wouldn’t have liked my earlier work— imitative, uncertain, undecided, lazy, drunk and sanctimonious trials—to have been published, although I was very desperate to be published, a pathetic and unnecessary desperation that made me suspicious of my better tendencies, wary of really stretching out; a despair that made me turn against my mind, I think, for awhile. Only a fantasy as strong and true as music or poetry could be responsible for this state of affairs.
It’s very hard for people to admit that anything is sad. Maybe it’s an American or Midwestern thing. Simple and important, sadness is violently redirected. The past decade is a fantasy, now, like music and poetry. The sadness has been washed away in Old English-style warmongering, with the Department of Defense recently relabeling soldiers warfighters. A few weeks ago, a tornado destroyed a small town, Reading, Kansas, near my hometown of Topeka. It is sad. But the coverage from the Topeka Capital-Journal insists that it was not sad, it was an occasion for courage, a chance to reflect on traditions, an occasion for fundraisers with “attractions that included food, live music, games, a display of military vehicles and an evening fireworks show.” Sorrow can be reversed with consumer goods: “A Kansas Air National Guardsman whose home was destroyed by the May 21 Reading tornado will receive a free car Wednesday from a not-for-profit organization that provides free basic transportation to disadvantaged individuals and veterans. The group, Cars 4 Heroes…” Nothing is allowed to pierce our armor. It is as though our military heroes, a debased category in our imagination that extends to anyone in a uniform, will fight our sadness. We feel the sadness, feel great buckets of it pouring over us, but are not permitted to use the language of sadness. The last decade made me very sad. It made many people sad. It’s okay and enough to say it: sad. Sad. Old English has the word unrot for sad, the opposite of rot, “glad”, so “unglad,” while saed, ancestor of our modern sadness, merely meant “sated,” full, the heaviness of a good meal, that kind of weary pleasure.
“And I confess I find it hard/ speaking to people/ who are fond of outer space,” wrote the poet Stephen Dunn in “Turning Forty.” In the brief moment of reflection and confession that turning forty allows, I want to say something simple about sadness, without seeking the kind of attention that a silly hat or a faked broken arm elicits, the kind of attention that a song attracts, the kind that doesn’t ask for an answer. What I have to say about it I don’t know how to say in prose like this, but know how to approach in poetry, though I also know that poetry can’t quite name it either.
What happens in “Billy In the Lowground” comes closest to it. As you can hear and see in the videos, the song shifts from a major to a minor chord, in a song like “Billy in the Lowground,” which is an instrumental, can shift back and forth, G major to E minor, G to Em, establishing a pattern that pierces the heart, that says in the fantasy of music something akin to “I’m sad” or “They were sad” or “How sad,” and then in the chorus go from G to C, major and not minor, alluding to the promise of a fully harmonic resolution, not only to the notes but to the feeling the notes are pulling from the listener. The chorus backslides, gravity pulls it down to the minor. I don’t know who Billy is. I have seen enough of lowground not to wish anyone in it. It is my favorite instrumental to play because I learned a good break for it, a solo that uses a melodic method and spans the fretboard, allows for some improvisation, speeds up just enough to, when I play it right, catch the attention of someone in the crowd who had not perhaps been listening closely. I hunger for that moment of catching someone’s ear. I see what it does to the body. It is like hearing someone call for you with a forgotten name.
Remember how quiet underwater
easy and infinite either
when they are discovered
or when we touch the frozen
ground and think how deep
that coldness must go on
either until the center of the earth
which is hotter than anything
but is never a human heat
or if pierce globe and go on
I cannot abide it
a frozen pond
John Sassamon was Massachusett
attended Harvard in 1653
spoke the language of the invaders
the frozen pond he was thrown in
probably by Puritans though
three Pokanoket were convicted
and died four thousand in the tension
between those truths
remember how ice breaks either
cleanly if particularly
thick or jagged
the way day would fragment
if thin the thinness
either when weather
turn or after a long cold
how cold the past
either is or isn’t
I was only in Hadley for an afternoon
read poems at the American Legion Hall
there was a dj we had a fine pasta
I bought a Scotch and soda in the basement
the next day I drove to Worcester thinking
maybe Jill and I would move there
years passed I have not returned
but in the legend of the angel of Hadley
two jurors who sentenced beheading
for King Charles the First and fled
here when monarchy was restored
America really was part of England huh
I read Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet
feel only the recognition I glimmer
for strangers wandered into a reunion
made Hadley their secret home hidden
decades by the local minister
beheading was still popular in Hadley
the one that had been done
hiding in rural towns that part which
wanted it done and keeps keen
a thing like a sword
legend is certainly legend as the town
never was attacked in any war
legend which feeds the migrant hunger
for a long hidden word from home
that can both be silent and heard
not to be the invader not to be cruel
I’ve been having good dreams lately
have not left the cat food open on the floor
though I have not returned to Massachusetts
not even the American Legion Hall in Hadley
with many lovely friends around and cold windows
Ed Skoog is the author of Mister Skylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) and the forthcoming Rough Day. His poems have appeared in Paris Review, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, The New Republic and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle.
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