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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

For Chet

Somewhere in heaven there’s bound to be a corner where Chet Atkins holds court, folded over his guitar with a lover’s absorption–for, as his brother-in-law, the legendary mandolinist Jethro Burns once told him, Chet, when the angels hear you sing, they’ll FIND you a guitar–

Speaking for myself, I always loved Chet’s little rangeless voice and his humor, both on full display in his disarming rendition of Ray Stevens’ “Frog Kissin'”.

Chet was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, and from there, conquered the world of guitar. He once made a list of the most influential guitarists of all time for Irving Wallace in The Book of Lists; he placed Django Reinhardt at the top and himself, with commendable and characteristic modesty, in the middle of the pack.

Happy birthday, Chet. Damn, we miss you.

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RIP Slim Whitman

Singing along with Slim Whitman was always an exercise in humility for me. It took me years to figure that I could never hit those achingly sweet high notes because I’m an alto and he was Slim Whitman. By comparison, I sounded like Tennessee Ernie Ford–(okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little 😉 ).

Of all the songs he recorded, this is my favorite.

Godspeed, Slim.

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The songs say it all. . .

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The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.

But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North. . .

So opens that perennial Christmas classic “White Christmas”, written by Irving Berlin in 1942 and popularized by Bing Crosby in a film called Holiday Inn; years later, the song was revived in a film called White Christmas, in which it was performed as a memorable duet by Crosby and Rosemary Clooney.

For what it’s worth, though, white Christmases aren’t exactly the norm, even, apparently, “up North”. According to Peter Haining, the renowned British paranormal researcher and author, we owe dreams of a white Christmas to none other than our old friend Charles Dickens and his “Ghost of an Idea” A Christmas Carol, that imaginative tale of a miser’s reclamation in a snowy, foggy Victorian London.

In his preface to The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (1982), Haining comments: . . .according to Professor Hubert Lamb of the climactic research unit at East Anglia University, snowy Christmases are actually very infrequent. . .Professor Lamb found the explanation for the belief during research into past weather records, which showed that for the first eight years of Dickens’s life there was a white Christmas every year with either snow or white hoarfrost (page 9).

It so happens that Dickens, born in 1812, came along at the tag end of the most recent period some call a Little Ice Age, a period of centuries during which weather patterns mimicked the great freezes that, in past ages, lasted for millenia. The last such began circa the year 1400. It was particularly severe in the late sixteenth century, when, it’s recorded, England’s Queen Elizabeth I took daily walks, during several memorable winters, on a River Thames frozen nearly rock solid.

Another geological phenomenon was also in effect in Dickens’s early years; in 1815, a gigantic volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies spread so much dust and ash in the atmosphere that much of the Northern Hemisphere experienced massive crop failures and unusual winter conditions (with much of New England and Canada in particular reporting snow as late as June in the following year) that 1816 is still remembered as “the year without a summer”.

Even so, Haining’s Professor Lamb points out that Christmas weather tends more toward sunny days breaking up more severe weather patterns, not the romantic snowy ones best observed from indoors, by a roaring fire, with hot chocolate and cookies and a good book and. . .

Ahem. Pardon me. I come from an area where white Christmases are rare–our more recent, in 2010, came forty-two years after its predecessor–

but I’ll dream of one nonetheless.

Specially when my man Hampson sings about one. 😉

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somebody’s darlin’
Some mother’s pride
Who’s going to tell her
where her boy died. . .

Tennessee Wesleyan College, a small United Methodist school in Athens, turns up frequently in books about Tennessee hauntings and college ghosts thanks to a historically improbable tale about a daughter of the great Cherokee chief Attakullakulla, her British soldier husband, and two trees. There are statues of Nocatula and Conestoga, the doomed lovers, on campus, donated by alumni; such is the power of that story.

When I was a student there in the 1980s, though, another campus ghost story was passed around among us. That story dates to the Civil War, when what was then Athens Female Academy’s lone building–now called Old College–was used, during the Chattanooga campaign, as a hospital, successively by both Union and Confederate forces.

He was a southern soldier boy, they say, and young–barely seventeen. People grow up fast in wartime, and he was no exception: you could see in the old man’s eyes that looked out of his child’s face that he had seen and done more than any boy should have to see and do.

But he was a good soldier, who had the misfortune to be wounded and taken to the big building on the campus of the girls’ school. An amputation with gangrene following took his young life, there in an upper room near a window. Toward the end he was delirious, and like any child sick unto death and in a strange place, he bedeviled those around him calling weakly, Mama? Mama. . .

Then he was gone.

Eventually, the UMC made a college of the ladies’ academy. The old building was supplanted by newer ones, and stood empty for many years until finally it was refurbished and, for a time, housed a museum.

Still, there were stories: on some nights, especially in the fall of the year, students reported seeing an odd light in one particular window of Old College, and sometimes, a flash of a grayish color passing across it.

Parking has always been a problem on campus (some things don’t change), and one young female day student, in the fall of 1980, had the misfortune, one morning, to have to park at the Methodist church on the corner next to campus. Although spaces cleared out later in the day, she was so busy she completely forgot to move her car to a closer lot.

She had a night class, and by the time class was dismissed, it was full dark, and cold, and windy, and she had to walk alone clear across campus to her car in the church lot.

As she made her way through the dim light cast by streetlamps, she heard something that was affirmatively not one of her fellow students, most of whom were already in their cars and gone. She stopped and listened.

It sounded like a boy’s voice–a young boy’s voice, barely past the breaking onset of manhood.

Mama? . . .Mama. . .

She looked up toward Old College. In an upper room, there was a light where no light should be, and a figure in Confederate gray silhouetted against it.

Mama?

She had never heard anything so pitiful in her life.

Then light and figure were gone, and the chilly wind carried off one last call: Mammmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. . .

She nearly broke her neck getting to her car, and didn’t sleep a wink that night, haunted by what she had seen and heard.

She didn’t confide in anyone for several days, but she finally went to an English professor, a lovely lady who had been at the college longer than any other instructor and knew its history and secrets like no other, and told her strange story.

Yes, the professor told her; there had long been tales of the ghost of a young Confederate soldier who looked out a window on an upper floor of Old College. But this was the first time, she added, that anyone had heard him calling for his mother.

I envy you, she added. I’ve been here many a dark night in the fall of the year, but I’ve never seen him.

The story goes that the coed transferred to another school after fall quarter that year. She would rather not have heard the dying boy’s calls, and didn’t want to risk hearing them again.

somebody’s darlin’
some mother’s son
who’s going to tell her
that her boy is gone?

Don’t go searching for me in 1980s online yearbooks or whatnot; I hadn’t yet adopted my pen name, and in any case, my career at TWC was not an especially distinguished one. And no, I wasn’t the girl who heard the young boy calling for his mother; the only night classes I ever had were in spring quarter, in daylight savings time, so I likely would never have encountered him. I have friends who did, though, and they told me this story.

Musicologists will recognize the song from which this post takes its name: “Somebody’s Darling”, a lachrymose piece written apparently c. 1864 with lyrics by Marie Ravenal de la Coste and music by John Hill Hewitt (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). In Ken Burns’ companion volume to his series The Civil War, it’s said that some soldiers would, with nervous bravado, point to corpses by the wayside and say that’s Somebody’s Darlin’ back there. . . And, if I remember right, in Gone with the Wind a distraught India Wilkes, mourning for one of the Tarleton twins, begs Scarlett O’Hara not to sing it.

For the story of Nocatula and Conestoga and the two trees, the best sources are Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey (1977) and Daniel W. Barefoot’s Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities (2004).

As for the story of Somebody’s Darlin’, other than a post written some years ago by a friend of mine on the defunct Blogstream, I don’t think I’ve run across it anywhere else.

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Not well today, hence a repeat. This one I just made up a couple years ago.

Now there were two things everybody knew about Jarvis Talbott. The first one was, he was a mean, raving drunk. When the fit was on him, he’d get likkered up and start fights with circle saws if that was all that was nearby to fight. More than once he beat men to a pulp, and walked right up the the penitentiary doors facing what should have been murder charges, but—since the Devil looks out for his own—his victims always recovered, and out of fear refused to prosecute.

The other thing about Jarvis Talbott was that he’d been brought up by two very pious parents who taught him that the fiddle—the sweetest singer, in a good musician’s hands, of all stringed instruments—was the Devil’s own temptation. Fiddle music, especially the old tunes that tempted a body first to tap their toes and then—God help us—to get up and dance, was evil, they told him.

Jarvis didn’t take their admonitions about the evils of wine and strong drink to heart, but he did hate fiddle music with a passion. That made his choice, when the time came, of a bride all the more curious. Sallie was a pretty girl from the red mud knobs, small and spunky, and she came from a family of fiddlers. Of them all she was the best. In her hands, a fiddle sang like a nightingale, a waterfall, wind in a pine thicket. Sallie heard tunes in her head that nobody had taught her; she just played them.

But she only played them when her husband wasn’t around. He hadn’t made her get rid of her fiddle—for a wonder—but he had told her about the devil that sang in his ears when she played. He had threatened to smash the fiddle to toothpicks if he ever caught her playing.

Jarvis, thanks to his drinking, wasn’t very “work brickle” as the old people in the knobs say. He would rather drink than work on his little farm, and he spent a lot of time away from home, drinking himself senseless and fighting. It was left up to Sallie to keep things going the best she could. She canned vegetables from her tiny garden, she dried fruit from her apple trees, she raised pigs for meat, she kept a milk cow, she hauled wheat to the grist mill, she kept bees, and, in the evenings, when her work was done, she’d sit on her little front porch, or in winter by the kitchen stove, and play her fiddle. Some nights she’d play until she got sleepy; other nights, when, though she was tired beyond mortal endurance, she couldn’t sleep, she’d play all night. She’d play slow tunes, and sad tunes, and old ballads, but her favorites were happy little dance tunes, many of them of her own composition.

It was on one of those nights, when she couldn’t sleep, that Jarvis came home and caught her playing, there by the stove.

Jarvis was, as usual, drunk, and mean with it. He didn’t say a word; he shambled over to Sallie, snatched the fiddle out of her hands, broke it and the bow across his knee, and then shoved the fragments into the stove to burn.

Sallie screamed at him, “You bastard—”

And he turned on her. As he had done to so many men in his drunken rages, he beat her unmercifully. Sallie was strong and muscular from her farm labors, but she stood no chance against the mountainous fists of her husband. She fought back until her strength gave out. And still he beat her.

She was mortally injured, and she knew it. Just before he landed the punch to her face that killed her, she looked at him, and said through the blood coming from her mouth, “You haven’t heard the last of me. This I swear, on my burnt fiddle.”

Her last breath whistled from her.

Jarvis abruptly sobered up. He knew that this time there was no way out of a murder charge. But he tried.

He buried her just beyond the garden plot, in the edge of the woods. He babbled a prayer over the grave, and hoped fervently that she would rest in peace.

As he turned to walk away, he heard fiddle music, coming from the front porch.

It couldn’t be.

But it was. It was not one of the pretty lilting tunes his parents had called the Devil’s temptation, either. This music was dark and angry and evil. But in a minute or two, it faded away.

In the days that followed, he cleaned the bloody kitchen as best he could, and he tried, in a desultory way, to take up Sallie’s farm chores. Mostly he brooded over her final words. But as time went on, and he didn’t hear the music again, he began to breathe easier. He even began going to his favorite watering holes, but he never stayed long, and he didn’t drink as much as before. And if anybody asked about Sallie, he’d say she was doing well, and leave it at that.

Then came a night when, feeling as if Sallie’s final curse had been ineffective, he got roaring drunk, just like the old days, and started a fight.

He was just about to take his opponent down with one last blow when, out of nowhere, a fiddle began to play—wild, angry, evil music.

Jarvis froze in place.

“What’s that?” one of his drinking buddies asked. “Ain’t no fiddle here.”

Jarvis blustered, “Ain’t nothin’. You just imaginin’ things.”

As if to spite him, the music became thunderously loud.

Jarvis led the charge out the front door.

Thereafter, every time he got drunk and started a fight, that ugly, wicked music would come from nowhere.

Finally, one night, someone shouted at him as they ran from the raging fiddle, “That’s Sallie! WHAT DID YOU DO TO SALLIE?”

That was when Jarvis’s bravado finally gave way, and he confessed he had killed his wife.

He did go to the penitentiary that time, but he didn’t last long. He was found dead one morning on his bunk with his hands over his ears, as if he were trying to shut out some sound.

He was buried in the prison grounds under a tombstone that bears no name, only a number. Some of the few who attended his burial swore that, as the last clods of dirt covered his plain coffin, they heard fiddle music that seemed to come from nowhere.

It was, they said, the prettiest, happiest little dance tune they’d ever heard.

There are stories from all over about ghostly fiddlers. This one was inspired by two such: one from Nancy Roberts’s 1978 book GHOSTS OF THE SOUTHERN MOUNTAINS AND APPALACHIA, the other a story from Lewes, Delaware, which appears in the 1994 edition of Dennis William Hauck’s THE NATIONAL DIRECTORY OF HAUNTED PLACES–but inspiration is as far as it goes. 🙂

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moonlight is funereal
over a cemetery;
no mourning black,

breaking hearts with its sighs in passing,
but mere dim threat,
pale green in the misty air.

out of the verdance
shadows rise, slow and sullen
as piano notes

tolling the arrival of Death.
He does not come in monk’s guise,
sickle and bones aglint

with sinister implication.
No; this night he comes unhooded,
tuxedoed; caped and elegant

as a phantom from an opera box
called away by exigency
before the fat lady sang.

Doffing his top hat,
he sketches an ironic bow
to his guests,

wan and watchful
dressed in rags of their funeral best.
Gloating

he commands them.
I will lead. You will follow.
Come walk with me.

Drear march! one foot
of clacking bones
before the other

they process;
empty sockets gather in the moonlight
and blaze all the colors

of an otherworldly rainbow,
frightening animals on the hunt
and the casual passerby

who runs to safety on his side of the veil
blathering of ghost lights in the graveyard
fireflies in colors the world has never seen

What is the point, pray tell,
of stalking the holy hours
until the sun touches a match to the eastern sky

and the processing dead lie down thankfully
and Death himself, in a fit of terror,
runs, a craven chased by laughing light.

Poem copyright 2012 by Faire Lewis.

Although I call it “Dead March” this poem was inspired by Frederic Chopin’s Funeral March in B-flat minor, here played by Artur Rubenstein.

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