Watching Ken Burns’ “Country Music” Documentary on PBS, so far

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Courtesy photo/ The Carter Family

Mr. Burns’ new documentary, “Country Music,” has aired on PBS TV over the past three evenings, each installment running a full two hours. Five more installments are still to air. Last night’s (on Sept. 17th) dealt with a period up to the early 1950s, ending with the premature death of Hank Williams, at age 29, on January 1, 1953. I’m thoroughly taken in by the program so far. One of its little surprises for me has been the familiarity of many of the compositions the show recalls and celebrates. I didn’t expect that because I’m not what you’d call a true devotee of country music, although over the years I’ve certainly put in my time listening to, say, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton. Another surprise has been the poetry lodged in – like a secret in plain sight – the lyrics of many country songs.

My own modest familiarity with C&W music came down to me via two main routes. The first was my father. He used to love singing C&W favorites on the long weekend drives he’d take our family on. Incidentally, watching the Burns’ series has newly acquainted me with how many of my father’s favorites were Hank Williams’ songs. But he was an unlikely C&W fan. He said he’d learned to love C&W while test-flying Helldiver planes fresh from the production line during World War Two. Tests were flown out of Montreal but there was a C&W radio station in Virginia, he said, with a very powerful signal that could be used to zero the plane’s compass. Once locked in, he just let the music play on.

The other route was folk music – via, e.g., Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, and many more. It was of course one of the two legs (the other, rock-‘n-roll) upon which the tumultuous youth culture of the Sixties stood. If I’m not mistaken, my folk music interest began with the Kingston Trio in the 1950s. I also vividly remember wearing the grooves out on Joan Baez’s first album by the time I got to college in the early 1960s. Both, Baez and the Kingston Trio, incidentally, were from Palo Alto, where I went to high school – and Baez actually sang, as a student performer, at one of our high school assemblies.

This folk-and-C&W connection was brought home to me with particular force when the Burns’ documentary featured the song “Wildwood Flower,” sung by the original Carter Family – A.P., Sara, and Maybelle – and recorded in 1928. Baez had included her rendition of the song in her maiden 1960 album, and the contrast between the two versions was striking. The song’s poetic and sorrowful lyrics differed slightly, too. Baez’s began, “I will twine with my mingles of raven black hair”; the Carter Family’s, “Oh, I’ll twine with my mingles and waving black hair.” I did not learn until this morning, on the Web, that the song’s words dated all the way back to a poem written in 1860, although its meanings and even some of its vocabulary constitute longstanding mysteries.

Hank Williams’ granddaughter, Holly Williams, drew particular attention to the poetry in her grandfather’s songs’ words in a segment of last night’s program. “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/He sounds too blue to fly/The midnight train is whining low/I’m so lonesome I could cry,” began one of his best known hits. “There’s this stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking loneliness,” said granddaughter Williams, “but it’s simple enough English, but it’s just put together in these little, perfect little mazes of words that just cut right at your heart, you know?” Burns’ documentary is rich with old and warmly memorable selections from the C&W genre. Yet his treatment of these old standards serves to throw both their deeper histories and their textures of meaning into bolder relief. It’s that new “visibility,” if I may call it that, that sent me scurrying around the Web this morning looking for information on “Wildwood Flower.”

The academic study of history freed itself from an predominant preoccupation with kings, wars, and politics when the so-called Annales School in France, early in the 20th century, turned its attentions instead to the daily lives and cultures of ordinary people in the deep past. Ken Burns’ new documentary strikes me as an aural extension of that historiographic tradition – one particularly attuned, it might be said, to the sorrows that have especially (though not exclusively) haunted the lives of blue-collar, farming, and mining men and women in our American story.

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