MICHAEL H. PRICE: The folklore-into-fiction cycle persists
Continued from last week…
An Arlington, Texas-based songwriting and guitar-building partner of mine named Greg Jackson tells of the time when, as a schoolboy intent upon advancing his family’s music-making traditions, he brought home a just-learned story-song called “Five Nights Drunk” and demonstrated it to his folk-singing father as a fresh revelation. Manny Jackson listened long enough for the verses to open the floodgates of memory, then burst out laughing: “Why, I learned that song back when I was just a boy, and it was old even then! Here: Let me show you how it really goes!”
I suspect that that communal dream-stream, rippling with the waves and the undertow of ancient Ideas That Wouldn’t, and Will Not, Stay Dead (like the Man Who Wouldn’t Stay Dead of my Grandmother Lillian’s cycle of folk-tales) is the truer basis of the fabled Unbroken Circle of Southern non-sectarian gospel-singing tradition. Our shared notions and perceptions bind our generations, one to another – more so, even, than blood kinship – if only we will bother to heed the interests in common and build upon them. The past is ever-present.
Greg Jackson and I, both natives of the Texas Panhandle with immigrant and native-tribal ancestral ties to Kansas and Oklahoma and points eastward, have enjoyed the good fortune to be involved since around 1980 with a music-making and storytelling ensemble called the Salt Lick Foundation. East Texan by origin but long based in Dallas and Fort Worth, Salt Lick is ostensibly a bluegrass band that nonetheless reserves the right to indulge in blues and honky-tonk forms, with the occasional forays into rock ’n’ roll, Latinate and Cajun idioms, and free-form jazz.
An immersion in folklore is a foregone conclusion with Salt Lick – from fiddler Earnie Taft’s (above) devotion to Irish traditionalism, to bassist Ron Green’s eerie ability to channel the presence of some 19th-century circuit-riding revivalist preacher. We deepened the connections in a stroke when we teamed in 1984 with the Wimberley-based novelist and playwright Elithe Hamilton Kirkland (1907–1992) to develop a musical stage revue called Precious Memories.
And our production of Precious Memories seems to have begun taking shape – unbeknownst to any of us, as if Ecclesiastically fated – as early as the late 1970s, when Salt Lick’s Louis “Buddy” Hale and D. Lee Thomas, Jr., composed a song called “It’ll All Even Out.” They had found the inspiration in a recurring motif in Mrs. Kirkland’s epic historical-and-folkloric novel, Love Is a Wild Assault, dating from 1959. Or perhaps the beginnings lie earlier yet: That same novel had been an influential favorite within my household during my childhood, ’way out on the opposite end of the state from Lee and Buddy’s territory.
Whatever the genesis or its indistinct dating, it all boils down to a much later declaration from Mrs. Kirkland: “Yes, history seeds and breeds in many strange ways and places.”
A more readily traced origin lies in the 1982 recording of “It’ll All Even Out,” as part of Salt Lick’s second record album, Daynce of the Peckerwoods. Lee Thomas told me about the foundations of the tune, with its longing attitude of hope and reconciliation, and I turned straightaway to that old-favorite Kirkland novel from which, as Lee had said, “we ‘stole’ some of her words.”
Then in 1984, while I was managing the Features Department of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, books-page editor Larry Swindell filed a column announcing the resurgence of Elithe Kirkland as a published novelist, with two significant reprints and an entirely new book forthcoming. She would be visiting our town soon on behalf of the publisher. I telephoned Lee Thomas with this bit of news, and we arranged for various members of Salt Lick to attend one of Mrs. Kirkland’s book-signing appearances.
At age 77, Mrs. Kirkland thus found herself confronted without forewarning with a small mob of saloon-hardened musicians half her age and less, all eager to meet the Southern lady whose storytelling had triggered one of their band’s more effective songs. We visited at length with her about shared interests in Texas’ folklore, music, and prehistory and early-day history, and we left with her a copy of the record album.
There followed a vigorous correspondence. Mrs. Kirkland had some new and rediscovered “myth-maker stories,” as she called them, that wanted telling, and she hoped to see their development into a stage-play.
We decided to build the project around an old-time gospel-styled song called “Precious Memories.” The tune, forlorn but hopeful in its concern with the ever-present past, had figured early on in Mrs. Kirkland’s career, when she had worked as a publicist and producer with the Stamps All-Star Gospel Quartet at KRLD–Radio in Dallas. This selection would give rise to a re-enactment of a Stamps Quartet broadcast from 1937.
And here, there was the story of Mrs. Kirkland’s encounter with a mournful armadillo. And there, her portrait-in-words of the harsh life of the Hill Country’s society of cedar choppers, to say nothing of their wives and their dogs. She chronicled the tensions that had existed between Texas’ farmers and the migrant society of hoboes. She summoned the spirit of Old Rip, the resurrected horned lizard of 19th-century Eastland County. And she related some imagined vignettes of prehistoric Texas; the longings of a lonely bachelor in the backwoods; the role of the barroom pianist in the rip-snorting heyday of the Fort Worth Stockyards; and the oil-boom upheavals that had transformed much of Texas into an eruption of black gold and red lights.
The concept soon manifested a broad and episodic range of extremes – piety and rambunctiousness, gaiety and sorrow, homely ordinariness and wild eccentricity. We set out to create melodic settings for Mrs. Kirkland’s outpourings of verse, augmenting Salt Lick with a companion harmonizing ensemble, the Dixie Dewdrops.
Precious Memories was shaping up as no ordinary project, nor even a conventionally dramatized effort. It found a precedent of sorts in the New York production of A Lie of the Mind (1986), which had united North Carolina’s music-making Red Clay Ramblers with the playwright Sam Shepard. Such efforts, in turn, foreshadowed the music-as-narrative contributions of Fort Worth’s Henry “T–Bone” Burnett to the Coen Bros.’ Hollywood production of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), a combination of high-lonesome bluegrass and Appalachian songs with Homer’s The Odyssey.
Precious Memories was in full rehearsal by the fall-into-winter of 1986. We opened in January of 1987, with Mrs. Kirkland portraying herself as narrator. Her 80th birthday had arrived six days before the début.
“I don’t think there’s anything more exciting in the forms of cultural arts than the melding and the mixing,” Mrs. Kirkland told the audience.
“I’m making a début tonight,” she continued, “as an octogenarian … Everybody thinks that, if you have lived this long and you still have your wits about you, then you must know something about everything.
“And in a measure, you do. But then, you realize that life holds so many mysteries that there’s never any end to seeking and exploring.”
True to her words, the completion of Precious Memories only recharged Mrs. Kirkland’s supply of imaginative wit in reconciling folk-tales with prose-fiction and dramatic contrivances. As late as 1991–1992, Mrs. Kirkland and I were batting ideas back-and-forth. Our Salt Lick outfit has pondered a revival of Precious Memories, but the prevailing impression is that a Precious Memories without Elithe Kirkland could only prove wanting. Or does she remain present, after all, like those storytelling grandmothers of mine [see our two prior installments], in her remembered tales and verses?
I know that Mrs. Kirkland’s participatory influence, closely following Precious Memories, helped to establish the tone and texture of a comic book series called The Prowler, in collaboration with Timothy Truman and John K. Snyder III. I overruled Mrs. Kirkland’s objections to our postmodern-pulp concept of a big-city vigilante antihero at large during the Second World War, armed and dangerous to the criminal underworld and the Nazi-sympathizer element. But I heeded well Mrs. Kirkland’s insistence that I must seek to understand the mixed blessing that vigilante peacekeeping activities had represented to Texas’ lawless regions of the 19th-into-20th centuries. (The Prowler yarns of the 1980s have been remastered for ComicMix, with a generation-later sequel in preparation.)
The Salt Lick Foundation has carried on, meanwhile, in various configurations and splinter-factions. Greg Jackson’s ballads album Faraway Friends of Mine (1989), Lee Thomas’ banjo-tune collection Rock Salt (2003), and Greg’s and my Mortal Coils (2006) concept-album, with its emphasis upon the history and mythology of Texas’ cruel Plains region – all descend in a straightforward trajectory from Precious Memories.
And Mrs. Kirkland’s professional gumption in seeing to it that her tales should be written down and commercially exploited – as opposed to entrusting their preservation to oral hand-me-down customs – has balanced out my lapse of having transcribed only some of my own family’s traditional stories.
I suspect that either or both of my grandmothers, and Robert Bloch, and maybe even Aesop and Shakespeare and Mark Twain would approve of the yarn-spinning accomplishments of this immediate and unbroken circle. Not to assume too much, y’know.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price’s Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books is available from Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com. Fishhead will debut on ComicMix Monday, October 8.