The Ken Burns documentary about country music is akin to realizing early on in an unforgettable movie that you are immersed into something special — you don’t want it to end.
There is heart-warming sustenance in this moving work. Fulfillment. Serenity and peacefulness, a reminder that troubled lives can be soothed by music. Music doesn’t cure problems, but helps one cope. It can become balm for the soul.
“Swing low, sweet chariot. Comin’ for to carry me home.” The Negro spirituals of yesteryear told us that when you are down and out, even in bondage, you find an escape through music and that in the end a higher authority will make things right for everybody.
“I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
“A band of angels comin’ after me.”
As I thought of the words to that compelling spiritual, I went to the Internet and found a site, which allowed me to listen to Johnny Cash sing, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
A great number of artists have sung that song, but, aside from those humble voices who harmonized in the cotton fields of those tormented times of slavery and segregation, no performer had greater feeling for the words to that song than Johnny Cash. A son of the South, who knew the dark side of a life accompanied by drug abuse and frequent emotional downturns, Cash could identify with the plight of the downtrodden.
A rural life before television became commonplace allowed for concerts on a two-row John Deere tractor out where the audience was made up of birds and a few lowly livestock. I never had any notion that there might be a dream-come-true appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. I sang to amuse myself and to try to allay the offensive boredom.
When I day dreamed, I conjured up images of sitting in the Red Sox dugout with Ted Williams. But I was always singing country music. It was what I knew and what I enjoyed.
Listening to the Opry on Saturday night was the only outlet for entertainment. There was no money to go to the Dixie Theater in town. Good music was confined to an occasional soloist or quartet at church and the Opry on Saturday night. Only a privileged few had car radios. No cars came with a radio being standard issue at the time. If you wanted a car radio, that was extra. Few farm families could afford a car radio. Juke boxes in town at the two local restaurants allowed for three country music numbers for a quarter but quarters were hard to come by.
Trips to Nashville and a night at the Grand Ole Opry became an enriching highlight. Introductions to some of the stars would bring about the realization that most country music personalities were as down home as the Martha White flour which spread the country music word on WSM.
So much of country music reflected the hard life that was the staple of rural America. Folks down on the farm were empathetic when Kenny Rogers sang, “Why did you leave me Lucille?” The hard life was so burdensome that a troubled woman is willing to turn her back on her family for a night out on the town. We could relate to the pathos of the lyrics.
Lovesick blues have been a staple of country music forever. Sad songs have reminded us of the hard life of the hard times that were so prevalent during and after the Depression.
When it was too hot to sleep, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson went out on the roof of a two-story hotel in Commerce, and wrote a hit song, “City Lights,” that is as lasting as haywire. Such scenes are the essence of country music.
Some artists make us cry and some make us laugh: Roger Miller sang, “You can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” and the “Man in Black,” Johnny Cash, regaled us with, “A boy named Sue.” Sometimes the song titles are as much fun as the lyrics. I remember a friend who started a country song, but never finished it: “My wife ran off with my best friend and I miss him.”