Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Poem by Shelby Stephenson

From Country

You can look back at the resume of western swing and remember
McAuliffe, Leon. How I love to sing and live amid reminiscences!
At our son Jacob’s wedding at Warren Wilson College, I met
Billy Edd Wheeler. He wrote “Jackson,”
which Johnny Cash and June Carter recorded:
Billy Edd tells the story how that song came out of
his seeing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Wheeler also wrote “The Reverend Mister Black,”
“Coward of the Country,” and hundreds
more, including “Ode to the Little Brown
Shack Out Back,” prompting Nin and me to restore
our two-holer: you can’t tell by odor
the quiet moments in a place like that: my
brother Paul read his love letters there: you
can’t tell the depth of the well by the length
of the handle on the pump either: Louis Prima!
Keely Smith! Josh White carried his folk songs
everywhere: FDR asked him to perform
at the White House. Songs of the people! I
imagine White singing “Boll Weevil,” “Frankie
and Johnny,” “Trouble in Mind,” and another
I learned from him, “Foggy, Foggy Dew,” plus
one more − “He Never Said a Mumbling Word”: March
’63 through December ’64, I worked for
A.T. & T. Long Lines, White Plains, New York, travelling
the northeast, buying land for microwave towers
and easements for underground cables and
I bought a small portable phonograph
to carry from motel to hotel in
my car, that black blob of a Plymouth Fury, whose
rear fenders swooped up and out like a caution: I
played Josh White on that phonograph, my
1960 Austin-Healey Sprite, the last of the
Bug-eyes, at home: I enrolled as a special
student in English, University
of Pittsburgh, January, 1965, to see
if I could get back that old feeling I had
for words − poems, songs, stories: I knew
the first night in a room I rented from
Mrs. Charles Caldwell, Regent Square, Swissvale, that
I would stay in school: I called my mother
and she announced she was pulling onions
out of the backyard when she’d drive the
Sprite for groceries; she said, “Son, your
Daddy says you don’t get in this thing, you
put it on”: Mama, I think of you when
I hear Josh White sing, “Were You There
When They Crucified My Lord”: remember, O
Bede, when dusk burns and my children’s
children flutter somewhere in memory
like a bird trying to fly through one window
and out the other − remember Who knows
what musical jam might field the singer’s
eyes − Walt, Emily, the Beowulf 
poet, Ammons, Roethke, Robert Lowell, Thomas Wolfe,
O Lost − one life, fat or slim, whittled-down
and left alone like Slim Whitman to sing
“Indian Love Call,” the song my brother Paul
sang at many weddings when I was starting
to remember, looking back to understand
How our school principal, Mr. N.G. Woodlief
could say often of Paul − He’s good at
dramatics − Paul, Rube Priest of our gigs: “You
just blow me away,” he’d say, raking his hand
through no-hair on his bald head or, to repeat, looking
at Nin, sizing me up: “Linda, do you ever wake up
grumpy?” Linda: “No, I just let him sleep”: I
don’t think we sow what we reap or sharpen what
we hoe, do you? Why, for instance, befuddles me, these
people have not been selected for the Country
Music Hall of Fame? I mention George Hamilton IV
again: Slim Whitman? Wynn Stewart! Hamilton and Whitman
spend a lot of time performing in England. Why
not adorn the walls of the hall with these
names: Jean Shepard (whoopee, inducted 2011),
Johnny Wright, Jeannie Sealy, Jimmy Capps,
Jimmy Martin, Bashful Brother Oswald,
Leon Rhodes, Hal Rugg, and more − more. Where’s
the reef which boulders the decisions to include
the side-pickers and players, pianists like
Hargus “Pig” Robbins, for example − fiddlers
like Tommy Jackson, Gordon Terry, Johnny Gimble,
Wade Ray, Paul Warren, Kenny Baker, Benny Martin,
Jason Carter, Ramona Jones, Elana James. Whitman’s
a Floridian, born Otis Dewey Whitman, Jr. My
Whitman’s Samplers melt away in the cupboard! Whitman
sweltered regularly on the Louisiana Hayride, raking up
bales of hits over the years: “Secret Love,” “The Bandera Waltz,”
“Love Song of the Waterfall,” lyrics which seem
made for Yodeler Slim: he was a good baseball
player, too, like Bill Monroe, Charley Pride, Jim Reeves,
Roy Acuff: there’s a small book which could
go on a table in a small hotel or bed-and-breakfast: “Ball
Players Who Keep Their Pitch While Pulling Up
Their Overalls to See Stars”: Slim sang one called
“Rainbows Are Back in Style”: my style’s to push
the W’s to roar after the Z’s tirement to a
heedless estate: I’ll say, “Think I’ll go fishing, it’s
my lazy day”: The Wilburn Family came along
that way − Teddy and Doyle − what a family − picking
and singing on street corners, discovered by
Roy Acuff, arriving on the Opry in ’61. As
duet-singers go, T & D Wilburn go pretty far
into any roll call: Karl and Harty, Bailes Brothers,
Bailey Brothers, Johnson Brothers, Louvins, Jim and
Jesse, the Malpass Brothers, Ted Jones and his
dad, Ronnie: some Ted and Doyle Wilburn
hits: “Trouble’s Back in Town,” “Roll Muddy River,”
“Someone Before Me,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Cry, Cry Darling.”
Wilburns: Teddy and Doyle, Geraldine, Leslie, and Lester.
D.K. Wilgus loved to conjure hillbilly music way back
there, when lyrics came from the mouths of the
people and legends were real as bats, mockingbirds, and
mouth-harps: Wilgus belonged to the American
Folklore Society when folklore was cool: I
belong to several societies, myself: Scottish
Society of North Carolina: there’s a little
scotch in me; North Caroliniana Society: my
friend H.G. Jones pretty much started it and
keeps it going: Nin’s mother was a Blue
Stocking: I’d get a hole in my sock and turn
that heel-hole part up on my foot; I never
belonged to the Holey Sock Society: my feet
would get rusty and hard: I took a weekly bath in
a washtub set in the middle of the pantry floor
next to Mama’s Home Comfort Range, dancing
with woodsmoke and wonder, while pigs-feet
steamed in vinegar and the reservoir heated
the little room. Every stove-eye gleamed red. When
I was fourteen that world ended except in my
mind. That was’52. My father had thirty-five
dogs and not a one named Blue: he praised his
“blue-speckled bitches” that ran the gray or red. As
a folklorist D. K. Wilgus swelt the land: he took
hillbilly music seriously: as the little boy Buster Brown
might say from his shoe, “Check him out, his name
is in the card catalogue and, of course, on-line, too”: I’ll
give the next entry to Hank Williams, since he’s the
crux of my love of poetry and music: he was
alive at the start of ’52, the year my life stopped
twice: left The Plankhouse and Hank died to take
on “phantom power”: I never understood that, how
microphones work: Hank didn’t have to worry about
such: fifty-eight years ago, January 1, 1953, I heard
on the radio that “Hank Williams is dead”: I was
standing under the walnut tree in the barnyard, as I’ve
said before, a Tree in Memory and
no longer out there, surrounding my childhood’s
ignorance in figures − low-flying mockingbirds, waves
of stories wafting, turning up their edges in verses, songs.

Shelby Stephenson's Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Prize for Poetry, Allen Grossman, judge.

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