Thursday, June third, 2010
In the spring Jack Bondurant saw Bertha Minnix playing the mandolin for the first time at a corn shucking at the Mitchell place in Snow Creek. She held her head cocked low, eyes concentrating on the frets of her mandolin, made in the old teardrop style, the rounded bell of the instrument like a wooden scoop nestled against her narrow waist, the tight lace Dunkard bonnet on her crown and the long black dress to the wrist and ankle.... Jack watched Bertha Minnix's fingers ply the strings, the fret hand moving in quick jumps, her plucking a blur of twitching knuckle strokes, working through "Billy in the New Ground" while people slapped their hands in time....
John loaned me Matt Bondurant's excellent novel about his ancestors in Virginia's Franklin County, The Wettest County in the World as Sherwood Anderson called it, and I'm drinking it in -- mixes very nice with the bottle of bourbon John gave me for my birthday. One thing that's really striking me is the quantity and variety of music in the story, and how strongly it affects my reading and the images of the story in my head. The musical styles represented -- old-time, gospel, popular music from the 30's -- are pretty firmly part of my personal soundtrack.
Bertha Minnix set her mouth again, cradling the mandolin to her belly, picking out the chords for "Old Dan Tucker," and the younger men and women standing there swayed and sang along.
Get out'a th' way for old Dan Tucker
He's too late t' get his supper
Supper is over an' breakfast fry'n
Old Dan Tucker stand'n there cry'n
Washed his face in the fry'n pan
Combed his head on a wagon wheel
An' died with a toothache in his heel
Here are Clarke Buehling and the Skirtlifters performing "Old Dan Tucker" at the Beavers Bend Folk Festival last fall:
Saturday, June 5th, 2010
As Jack stood there the sounds began to separate in his mind; he felt that he could pick out and listen to each individual mote of sound -- the voices calling out a cadence, the whining violin, the creaking floorboards -- he was able to listen to each thing individually and it seemed to him that this was the second time he had heard such a thing, the first coming at the Dunkard Love Feast. Jack felt that what he was experiencing was somehow part of something hidden, the spare realm of musicians; is this what Bertha heard when she played her mandolin? Rather than a catalog of sounds it sounded to him like the very construction of music, a powerful and beautiful feeling, like manipulating the basic elements of the world.
It is becoming clear in the second half of The Wettest County in the World, that the music in the story is not just there for mood and setting; that it influences the course of events and Jack's perception of the events in some mystical, hard-to-understand way. I wonder if this is going to be clarified at all -- especially Jack's auditory hallucinations at the Dunkard Love Feast seem too important and too specific to go unexplained.
(Chapter 20, at Little Bean Deshazo's wake)
Sunday, June 6th, 2010
It wasn't for nothing, Bertha said. Like the hymns of the next world.
The Wettest County in the World is a hugely disturbing book, one that will affect all of your thoughts when you are reading it -- the extremely bleak, violent worldview of the Bondurant brothers gave me pause, made it difficult to think about anything else. But mixed in with that you have some deeply affecting moments of beauty like this one.
She looked back at Forrest, lying straight out like a dead man, then fixed Jack with her eyes.
In heaven, she says, the afterlife, they'll be singing about this world. That's what my grandfather says. All the stories, all of our lives, will be sung like hymns. That's how we'll remember them. That's why it all means something. The problem is that we have to live in this world first, we have to bear it.
The radio tune wavered in the light wind and for a moment became clear and Jack found it. Bertha played it often at home on the banjolin, singing softly to his son, her voice as true as Sarah Carter's:
Jack's relationship with music is almost the central humanizing feature of the book, the thing that lets me relate to him as a human rather than a monster. (For Forrest, it is probably the figures that his grandfather carved, comparatively weak tea...)
The storms are on the ocean
The heavens may cease to be.
This world may lose its motion, love
If I prove false to thee
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Check out Ellen's writing at Patch.com.