Marion Whitley: All hail country music (and bless you, Ken Burns)




I am besotted these days with the voices of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and dear Patsy Cline, resurrected by Ken Burns' Country Music documentary playing on Public Television for the last two weeks. What hats! When their voices were etched in my soul there were no accompanying visuals. I knew them only by the sounds, rhythms, and moods that emerged from radios and juke boxes in and around town, but seeing them now, on Ryman Auditorium's stage (thank you Public Television) the Opry is "a whole other thing," with the makings for a 'lump in the throat and a tear in the eye! There were 'cowboys with guitars', or 'field hands with fiddles', bringing back songs with stories so sad you leaned heavy on the shoulder of the boy that brought you to the dance. Except, that is, for "Keep on the sunny side of life."


Ken Burns suggests, and sets out to show how Country Music is more than just theme music of Southern US, more than just America's music, but that with the coming of radio and the recording industry, Country spread way out. That explained how the French waiter in my neighborhood restaurant knew Hank Williams, the Monroe Boys, and Patsy! He could recite all verses of Wabash Cannon Ball and to prove it, whisper-sang them to me in Greenacre Park one Sunday morning. How could he possibly know?


To his knowledge of radio and the recording industry, add ocean travel. His father, see, had been a sailor aboard the Liberte, so when the great ship had docked in New York Harbor, he'd stroll over to Port Authority Bus Station, then as now, a Mecca for souvenirs of New York and America. There he'd pick up the latest country hits for his young son whose collection of "small records" (45s) was making him the envy of his school fellows back home in Nice.



Further proof? There was the summer I determined to master more of the French language than I was getting in one class a week at the Y, and enrolled in a month-long course in Avignon to "live the language through intensive immersion." Part of immersion was living on an ancient street in two floors of a 16th century house with stairs so steep you pulled yourself up with a rope secured to the wall with iron rings.


Along with French vocabulary and grammar, I was soaking up antiquity of that third floor room that supplied all my needs but one, sleep. For that I crept to the fourth floor and a mattress beneath a slanting roof I could touch with my toes.


In my class of ten was a lady from Norway who already spoke her native Norwegian plus German, French and English as fluent as mine. She'd driven from Norway to 'brush-up' her French. (Know this: Multi-linguists intimidate me as do folks who take off and tootle around in foreign lands on their own.)


That said, after that first week of immersion, hearing, speaking no word of my native English, I was exhausted, body and soul and leaning toward a wall calendar promising me two days of English-Only privacy. I was stunned, conflicted then, when Gerta, there for a "brush-up," invited me to spend the coming Saturday exploring the South of France, in her car.


No, Merci, I must sleep! I must study!


Mais oui! We speak only French, the whole day. Eat only from French menu in Roman ruins, see wild horses in Camargue. Speak French, seulement! The vision of my mattress under my toe-touch roof began to fade. Blame the horses! I'd seen their pictures in my text book, but in the flesh? Cavorting in the marshes, unbridled, untamed? But what of my precious privacy? I'd be locked, yeah seat-belted into a social situation with this highly accomplished lady from Norway who, I felt sure, knew nothing of intimidation -- geographic or linguistic!


And so it was with fingers crossed, I fastened that seat belt as Gerta got us on the road to Arles with the confidence of a world traveler. I held my French-English dictionary in my lap for confidence and tried to relax with many an Ah oui, tres bien, fantastique ... determined to maintain the "French Only Pact" to the letter.


Arles was picturesque beside the Rhone, wide and serene. We ordered lunch from a non-tourist menu and ate among ruins of a Roman amphitheater. I photographed a cat sleeping on a windowsill beside a pot of African violets, then drifted, "ah oui, tres bon"-ing over the picturesque countryside that was "to write home about." Finally, as in a dream, two white stallions came cavorting near the road snorting at Gerta's car. I snapped one photo then held my breath till they tossed their manes and galloped off into the marshes and the pages of my memory.


Then, alas! The "French Only Pact" was dashed! Gerta thought it wise to stop for petrol at a roadside place just ahead. I couldn't object -- her car, her decision -- and I admit liking the look of the place as she pulled to a stop ... in the deafening roar of motorcycles! Four! Bikers! They knew the place, and in the time it takes to say "Howdeee" they'd shoved coins into slots and the twang of Country fiddles erupted into that Saturday night in a roadside joint with a juke box and a petrol pump.


Not from the famous Ryman stage, mind you, but made possible by the recording industry, four bikers and two foreign ladies from Avignon were set tapping, clapping and singing right along with Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, Chris Kristofferson and Ernest Tubb. When Gerta had danced with all four bikers, we called it a night and headed again to Avignon, "Keeping on the Sunny Side of Liiiife." (Granted, we'd have sounded a whole lot better with some instrumental back up!)


So, letters home closed with something like this ... "There's this lady in my class who speaks Norwegian, "brushed-up" French, German and English, but by doggies, she sings and dances Country! Eat your heart out Emmylou!"





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