Considering their gruesome content, it’s amazing how murder ballads capture us. Most people find them fascinating. Remember what success I had with ‘Pretty Polly’ at the hungry i? Back in high school, when I had a hopeless crush on the yell leader, I played ‘Pretty Polly’ in a talent show, and afterward that yell leader was on his knees beside my chair, asking, wide-eyed, ‘What is this music? How do you find it?’ My crush incidentally evaporated in the face of this abject admiration.]

When I was fifteen, I’d learned one called ‘False Lambkin,’ in which a gory night of mayhem unfolds while the lord of the manor is away on business. I would sing this at any gathering where there were children, and they’d climb all over me and want to hear it again. When I got to the best verse, they would all sing along with great joy:

There’s blood in the kitchen

There’s blood in the hall

There’s blood in the parlor

Where the lady did fall.

Har, hardy har!

All this is just digression, a preamble to a thing I do actually have to talk about. Those who just want a merry romp through the early folk days might want to skip this chapter about June 7, 1964…….

I need to bring up the death of my son, Christopher, which happened one afternoon during a Scragg Family rehearsal. It wasn’t a murder—though that matter is still cloudy—and there was no blood; it was a drowning. There was no one to blame, no lawsuit to be brought, no eye for an eye. What could a person do? Nothing. Accept.

Accept that this staunch, sturdy, curly-headed, argumentative little Scorpio fellow who had traveled all across the country singing ‘Limbo Rock’, who had waited loyally while I wandered in a haze, who knew all my songs and plucked so carefully at the guitar strings, attended the Grand Ol’ Opry, slept under the stars and got puffed up like a balloon from mosquito bites, was now this cold, smooth, peaceful, dead thing across my lap. His hair was still damp; his skin was marble.

I could write a whole book about the death of a child, but not this book. I said I would only write about things pertinent to guitars, guitar playing, and maybe singing. So, is this tragedy really pertinent?

I’m a folksinger, for God’s sake. I’m doing songs that come out of the real life people live. In fact I’ve already made a nuisance of myself through arguing publicly that folk music has virtually nothing to do with how well a person can handle a banjo, a guitar, a mandolin or a set of vocal chords; it has to do with rather lowly people expressing their feelings about their life in the only ways that are available to them.

And now I myself was lowly. Because death lays you low. For a brief time (don’t worry, this wisdom doesn’t last) you realize that you know nothing, are nothing, control nothing. You are dust.

I also realized I had nothing out of my own experience, or my family’s, or my community’s, that I could turn to, to make sense out of this senseless thing. I’d known almost no one who died. We had no religion. I didn’t know what to think or even how I was supposed to feel.

So I sang ‘Knoxville Girl.’ Whenever I was left alone, which didn’t happen much, I’d grab my new Martin–always standing ready in D tuning these days–and I’d sing ‘Knoxville Girl.’ Using finger picks. My arrangement was hideous, from the clanking of the picks to the shrillness of the vocal, and I haven’t ever played it for anyone. [The version I do now, and that rarely, is just dreary.]

The song itself, though, is hideous even by normal murder ballad standards. In it, a smug and self-serving young man of means tells how his parents bought him a mill, how he fell in ‘love’ with a local girl (probably one of his underpaid employees), how he lied about marrying her, lured her out of the house, screwed her, bashed her face in with a fence pole, finished her off while ignoring her cries for mercy, ripped a strip off her dress to make a rope, dragged her to the river with it, pushed her in and watched her float on down, and then asks his mom to bring him a handkerchief to bind his aching head because he had a really rough night. And plus, of course, now he’s about to be hung, which actually is pitiable for anyone. Between the earth and sky.

I was driven to sing it. I couldn’t not. It might be that I just needed something worse than the actual event that had cannon-balled into my own life. I may have found it helpful to fit chaos into the fairly rigid structure of a song. But I can tell you the song was a medicine. I sang from a new place. The song sank talons right down into my diaphragm, and when they pulled out again, they were dripping. Dripping with the very stuff of lowliness.

In consolation, I could now definitely be ‘no Joan Baez.’ My song was not theoretically sad; it wasn’t romantically sad; it wasn’t wistfully sad. It was really, honestly sad. I was starting to resemble those women I’d seen in the yards of little Kentucky houses—gray-faced, gaunt, lowly women worn to the calcium-deprived bones from disappointment and sorrow. And I was glad of it. I bared my teeth and sang the song. Over and over and over.

 Then too, ‘Knoxville Girl’ is a flogging, flagellating song, and there was my own guilt to be assuaged. There was that fun rehearsal, full of puns, musical jokes and camaraderie, while Christopher was off drowning under waterlogged leaves, and maybe the person who should have been watching him actually should have been, but that didn’t let me off any hooks. In a way, I was also the murderer of the Knoxville girl. I was even the rapist who raped me—oh, I didn’t tell you about the guy with a straight-razor who broke into my room at the Cozee Court Motel just after I last saw Clarence, did I? La la la, what a silly oversight. Anyway, I did say my life was going from disaster to disaster, and I mean it really was. So, once again, now, with raised whip—“My parents raised me tenderly, providing for me well. They brought me down to Knoxville town………”

 Whenever I wasn’t singing ‘Knoxville Girl,’ it was because some kind person or other was with me. Many people stepped forth for this job. I needed to be hugged and cooked for and told that little dead boys turned into soil that made the trees and flowers grow so it was okay because it was Nature’s way. (Wow, I feel so much better hearing that.) Peter, bless him, offered to let me drive his brand new Volkswagen bus, but I couldn’t concentrate long enough to get it out of the driveway.

 In a death, you’d expect the dead person to be the star of the show. And in a way, that’s true; the reminiscences and eulogies are ostensibly for the one who died. In reality they are about the one who died. They are no use to the deceased, who no longer has use for anything, who has no future life, who is done. So the spotlight falls next on the person nearest to the deceased—me in this case.

 It was a bittersweet, unwanted kind of stardom. And like any stardom it required certain social skills, which I had to learn on the spot. A noblesse oblige. People are sad and frightened, they don’t know what to say, they feel terribly inadequate, so your immediate job is to help them however you can, comfort them, reassure them that their condolences are satisfactory ones.

 Then, too, you are standing on an isolated patch of ground that’s kind of like an electrified grid with an electric fence around it. People try to reach you, to be close, but they are afraid of that electric barrier. Certainly I feel this way when it is my turn to try to comfort a grieving person—as if their grief might jump onto me if I get too close, and I don’t really want it.

 Enter Gene McGeorge. He was actually the first person to step forth, but his was a different kind of step. He stepped right through the fence, stood there on the grid with me day after day and accepted–shared–whatever I was feeling, without fear or embarrassment. He seemed to be the only human being around who knew anything about death, and he knew a lot about it. When I asked him, after a couple of weeks, how long he thought it might be before the pain went away, he said it wasn’t going to go away. He said it would grow into me and be a part of me.

 It did. And that probably is why I am such a really good singer—which I am. What I mean to tell you right now, though, is that all through the middle of this confusion, Gene and I were falling in love. I think that happens a lot, between bereaved and consoler. Often such loves don’t last beyond that critical period. Ours did.

 A few days after the death, the Scragg Family did a ‘Goodbye, Christopher’ concert. I couldn’t imagine having the energy or heart to perform. But it turned out to be easy, refreshing, curative, and in fact a hell of a party. (I did not sing ‘Knoxville Girl,’ of course.) By this time, we were a three-piece—Peter, Gene and me. Regrouped, refocused, not nearly as hilarious. Music itself became the core of the group. We had all grown up quite a bit, even Gene, who was 12 years my senior.

 We didn’t get a lot more serious, though. Luckily there is always another song to be played, more fun to be had, another glass to be drunk. As I’m about to describe.


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Traveling musician

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