Yearly Top 10, and Turning Back from the Dragon
BY PAUL HARVEY
The Chicago-based public radio show Sound Opinions is excellent. Having heard it only once, how do I know? They picked my favorite CD of the year for their top recording on the obligatory year-end top 10 list: Mavis Staples, We’ll Never Turn Back. Although clearly based in some appropriately righteous fury stemming from the moral disasters uncovered by Katrina (“I heard all the lies/you politicians said," from the great original song "My Own Eyes"), the CD features music which recaptures the spirit of the freedom songs, without simply reproducing them museum-style. Mavis always can be counted on to serve up good soul food, with a significant assist here from Ry Cooder and others. It also makes the perfect antidote to aural Christmas-kitsch that assaults the ears 24/7 this time of year.
While listening to the program, I was reading a paper by a student in History 300, Southern History, Civil War through Civil Rights class this semester, about “the 3 Hanks” – Hank Williams Sr., Jr., and Hank III. The theological tension between the program and the paper struck me: the gritty hope conveyed in Staples’s well-worn voice, a kind of theology crossing Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, and Cornel West on the one side; and the “hard religion” of the white southern working-class tradition on the other. Both draw the listener, speaking to the contrariness of the human soul. The three Hanks each battled the country music industry, contentious personal relationships with women, catastrophic accidents and illnesses, and (of course) alcohol and drugs. The lure of self-destruction was always there. The lure of watching/listening to self-destruction is always there, as well (see Evil Knievel, below on our blog!).
The student’s paper describes music that speaks mostly of fatalism and darkness, just occasionally broken into by moments of seeing the light. This comes across especially in Hank Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” his country classic brilliant in its ironic, sneering salute to the burdens of the past, a poor man’s irony of southern history.
Lordy, I have loved some ladies/and I have loved Jim Beam/and they both tried to kill me/in 1973/when that doctor asked me/Son how did you get in this condition/I said hey sawbones I'm just carryin on/an old family tradition.
The student’s concluding paragraph (reprinted below with a few identifying details changed) left me strangely uplifted, helped along by Mavis Staples’ righteously warm fury coming through the speakers at the same time:
"Now that I have left the cold [hometown] winter and am at home in the warm Colorado Springs winter, I look back at the time I spent in [hometown] when I first found Hank III on the jukebox. My life, just like each of the three Hanks' at times, was a little out of control. The music scene in [town] is small, but extremely diverse, and the town itself is the sometime home of many musicians. I managed a restaurant and bar in an old theatre . . . where all three Hanks had at some time played. I worked hundred plus hour weeks, so I was no slacker, but for some reason the music business, or maybe just the pressure that the business puts on musicians, brings with it a darker side. There were many others who did not work at all and partied more, but I was there just the same. You don't know you are chasing the dragon until it becomes something you have to catch. Something inside of me has always kept me from going too far, maybe because I have always had to work hard to live, but the lure of utter destruction is always there, just behind the dragon. Life is hard. Sometimes the only way to deal with it is to write about it. The 3 Hanks each know both.
The lure of cynicism is there as well. Mavis knows this, and overcomes it in her music, in her case by meeting fire with fire. On this Friday, this student turned me away from looking behind that dragon.