The Power of Story—in Song
My previous blog, titled The Power of Story came from an idea from reading John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. He wrote about storytellers and their importance to some semblance of well being in the California camps and the gatherings during the depression, drought, and dust bowls— the “dirty thirties.” He wrote: “And it came about in the camps that the storyteller grew into being, so that the people gathered in the low firelight to hear the gifted ones and the people listened, and their faces were quiet with listening”. Oh, and there was music.
I will share a bit of my own story relative to those times. I was born early in the depression in a small South Dakota town. My favorite story was my Mom telling me that she put a damp sheet over my crib “to keep me cool and dust free.” We were neither rich nor poor, but always had enough to meet our needs. Ken Burn’s Country Music, an eight episode series is appearing on PBS. Watching took me back to movies with Gene Autry riding Champion and Roy Rogers riding Trigger and singing cowboy songs. My friends and I rode along. I was called Merle, and later, when Merle Haggard emerged, I was pleased. I played some piano and sang in the choir. End of story.
As the first Country Music episodes unfolded, I learned Jimmie Rodgers was the father of country music early in the 20th century. It was apparent from the beginning that the early country music songs were stories set to music. Many storytellers and stories had strings attached—guitars, banjos, mandolins and fiddles. There was literally a string quartet, along with the harmonica. If none of those—there was whistling. All had a great advantage over the piano—portability. I contend that we all have strings within us, between heart and head. Sometimes, Zing! goes the strings of our hearts. They can be plucked at will and maybe just to assist in singing along.
My dad wired homes and sold radios. It was a good connection. Radios were foundational in providing information and entertainment and critical to the growth of country music. We had a radio and listened to the Grand Old Opry on Saturday night. Saturday night was always a special night for country music fans. Many songs were written about singing and dancing with the devil on Saturday night and seeking salvation on Sunday morning.
Gospel music was transformative for those seeking the sustainability of faith. It also sold records.
Alcohol and other drugs often inspired or conspired to produce lyrics, whether about them, because of them, or in spite of them. The words were glad, sad, or mad, and always had a touch of loneliness. Alcohol also played a role in social enjoyment. Beer was a favorite lubricant for loosening up at the local honkytonk. Escape could be found in bars, booze, beer, and bands. I repeat the words of Steinbeck, “and the people listened, and their faces were quiet with listening.” In the quiet of their minds, people gave attention to the lyrics and found they related to shared lived experiences. It was personal and there was rhyme and reason. I have said that nothing is so bad it couldn’t be verse. Early in recovery and on troublesome days, I wrote in rhyme. My piece on shame and guilt began, “The pain of shame stays mainly in the brain, but, even though I know that, it still hurts me in my gut.” Perhaps I was a poet and didn’t know it and maybe I should have tried to find melodies. Incidentally I once visited backstage at Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry where there were lots of melodies, but they were all taken.
As the episodes unfolded, there were tales of the raw results and heartbreak of addiction. In stories told, for a few writers, pills provided the ups and alcohol the downs. Both fueled lyrics. Roger Miller’s “Dang Me” was fun and frantic. Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” was written from personal experience. There were lots of words to be sorted through, set to music, sang, and played with hopes for a hit.
I began to listen and look for stories of recovery. Hank Williams didn’t find recovery and died young, but his songs live on. Johnny Cash found it and went on to regain health, wealth and fame. Help and hope was always available to those in need if sought. There were, no doubt, many stories of recovery in the music business in the early days, but not many notable songs about recovery and redemption Burns says about country music, “it is dealing with the fundamental questions of the human project of love and loss.“ Gospel music provides hope and joy and Country is about love and loss and is often sad and lonely. One line in a song said, “I’m so lonesome, I could die.” Fortunately, there was some respite when the silliness of Hee Haw came to television and provided humor, hokum and hooey.
In one episode I noted that the female singers began to push back from the portrayal of their role in song. They made statements in the lyrics about alcohol and its affect on family and relationships. Loretta Lynn sang, “Don’t come home a-drinkin’ (with lovin’ on your mind).” The controversial song, “The Pill”, was about the advent of women’s reproductive choices. Incidentally, these came out the same year as NOW, the National Organization for Women, was formed. There prevailed a sense that husbands got to go about drinking and carousing while the wife stayed home with lots of his kids and was regularly knocked up and barefoot. “Harper Valley PTA” was a statement about expected conformity. In song, there also began to be recognition that the personal and family chaos and agonies of misuse and abuse of alcohol and other drugs destroyed health and happiness. Alcohol is out to kill, but first it wants to get you alone. Remember the line, “I feel so lonesome, I could die.”
Fast forward: In this year’s Recovery Month, I appreciate that the stigma that has historically surrounded addiction continues to crumble and the condition is being recognized as substance use disorder. In events and rallies across the country, more and more recording artists are feeling free to convey their experience with addiction and recovery, and their stories inspire others. It is happening through the reach of social media, documentaries, and streaming the reality (and blessings) of recovery. We saw examples of that on the Washington Mall at the UNITE to Face Addiction Rally in 2015 when several famous musicians performed. It makes you want to break out in song. Stand up, Stand out, Sing out, and be Proud about it. Yee-haw and Howdy!