My most recent post, in which I sought to explain my Southern heritage, neglected music, as a loyal reader and old friend pointed out. Actually, he said that "I forgot Elvis."
"Southern Bookman's" primary subject is literature, but music, especially Southern music, has played a major role in my life, and deeply influences my consciousness.
Elvis was one of my earliest musical icons. When Elvis first arrived on the national scene, I won a kindergarten talent contest by impersonating him. My mother drew sideburns with mascara, and I used an old tennis racket for my guitar as I tried to shake my hips and pelvis the way Elvis did as "Hound Dog" or "All Shook Up" spun on a record player.
"The King" didn't write many songs; yet his ability to give new life to old songs like Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" shows that he was a major musicologist. His voice, with major contributions from colleagues like Scotty Moore, brought a fresh new sound that shook the world. Elvis represents a Southern archetype, an adventuresome, reckless youth who leaves the country for the city, yet never loses his love for speed, danger and fun. He's also generous, fun-loving, kind, and soulful. The archtype returns often in Southern writing.
After Elvis, I discovered his progenitors, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers, the singing brakeman. Both were known for their songwriting as well as their performing. They took the South's oral tradition, covering story-telling as well as song, and spread it through the culture. Elvis' new sound didn't rise from a void; to me, Hank Williams' "Move It on Over" is the prototypical rock and roll song, with a beat that echoes in Bill Haley and the Comets and Buddy Holley and the Crickets. And Rogers, with his blue yodels, provided a twangy, r and b model.
They are closely allied to Southern black bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightning Hopkins. They too drew on the South's oral traditions to write haunting songs in which lyric and melody join to make an aesthetically powerful whole. While Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers' words might show a bit more sophistication, the black bluesmen's music is more complicated and virtuosic. The white and black traditions are different streams, yet intertwin. Hank Williams was tutored by the black street musician Tee-tot, and one of the greatest white guitarists, Mother Maybelle Carter, also received lessons from a black player. Jimmie Rogers welcomed Louis Armstrong on his recordings. The blues, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues and bluegrass come from the same rural culture, cross-pollinated by big-city influences.
The categories don't matter in the long run. Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis,Mose Allison and countless others have inspired and entertained me. Southern music is the mother source, the oceanic stream, of Southern literature.