John Berger wrote in The Sense of Sight, “Stories, poetry, music belong to time and play with it.” Real art, he goes on to say, functions as a sub-stream, or a current of timelessness that flows between the past and the present. There are very few moments or places in our modern lives where we feel a sense of timelessness, but country music, in offering us a reprieve from the relentless acceleration of modern life, provides us with several examples of Berger’s meaning here. Music, timelessness and phylogeny are very broad topics that are best covered elsewhere. This post simply points out a few examples of the continuity between recent alternative country compositions and older incarnations of country, and gospel music. These examples beckon us to listen to the prophesies of the past.
First let us consider a Hank Williams song: Kaw Liga, a capital folk song with compelling details (wooden Indians, coal black hair etc.) and an earnest message about fear, feelings and missed connection. Kaw Liga. What kind of Indian name would that be? Cherokee? Chock Taw? Technically it’s Creek, but it could also be considered a Hebrew psuedonymn. Williams phrased Kawaliga exactly as ‘Elijah’ is phrased in the gospel song ‘Elijah Rock’. Listen to Mahalia Jackson sing it: her “Eli—a–jah” is the exact same phrasing as Hank Williams’ “Kawwwww – Liga….” A devoted gospel singer, Williams would have known the phrase well and heard it many times.
Next let’s consider something that was borrowed from Hank Williams. Williams wrote in “My Heart Would Know” the refrain, “My lips could tell a lie but my heart would know.” Where have we heard that before? Another Williams, Lucinda Williams, borrowed it for her song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”: “Broken down shacks, engine parts / Could tell a lie but my heart would know”. Coincidence? Absolutely not. Williams (Lucinda) even references her collaborator in another line she sings about “Hank’s voice on the radio…” Roads, know and Radio are all part of the song’s relatively complex rhyme structure. Lucinda William’s father is a poet and she herself has a way with construction of verse.
How about the song “Take Your Guns to Town”, by Whiskey Town. Not to be confused with “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” by Johnny Cash, a song about a young man who is too naïve. He ignores a woman’s advice, can’t handle his liquor, doesn’t understand guns, and gets killed. The great thing about the Whiskey Town song is how well it echoes Cash’s tone: say, empathy for a certain alienation that may befall a young person. They have translated the song into modern experience.
To end on a brighter note, consider Patsy Cline’s version of “Faded Love”, a song originally written by Bob Wills, performed by Elvis and many others. Patsy Cline was about to fall asleep in the car on the way home from a gig in 1963, when her husband complained about Jackie DeShannon’s version which had just come on the radio. The Cline shot up and exclaimed that she could do the song without modulating. Her effort to preserve the tonal center blended the phrasing in such a way as to reference the hymn “Were you there, when they crucified my lord…” (here’s Johnny Cash doing it; apologies for the ecclesiastics). Cline’s arranger Bill McElheney obviously caught on. A string section comprised of 8 different violins opens “Faded Love” with the exact same melody as “Were you there….”. Now that’s some good old fashioned timelessness for you, just like on the root.
(I leave you with Wu Tang’s adoption or ‘sampling’ as they call it, of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park”)