365 DotU, Day 105 Has No Twang Cred

I actually like quite a lot of old-school bluegrass music, and I find the people who do the style well as impressive as hell. There’s something personal and engaging and authentic about the music, and its best performers are powerful.

One of my favorites is the late Hazel Dickens, who just passed away last year. She had the classic, ideal mountain/bluegrass voice, all twangy and pure and high and lonesome (the only language anyone ever uses to describe it properly), and she had the life to go with the hard-luck songs she sang. She fought for miners, she sang for women, and she was just plain cool. I get chills sometimes, listening to how she twangs on up to those notes, with that velvet-nap catch in her voice that’s sad and angry and powerful all at once. This is not a voice that autotune can touch, because what it sings is real, and the voice is as real as the song.

I can’t do it. I haven’t lived the life, I don’t have the regional accent, and I just haven’t got the voice for her music. In my voice, her songs become something else, because I can’t sing like that. No chills from my way. I can do pretty, but I can’t do that ressentiment-as-redemptive thing that hers is built to do. There’s too much privilege and softness in me, too much mannered “correctness,” to capture what she just…sings.

Example: Today, I tried an a capella stunner from her 1973 record with Alice Gerrard, Hazel and Alice, a tune called “Pretty Bird.” (written earlier, I think — 60s — but the version I have is from Hazel and Alice).

I was humbled by the effort.

I also struggled (as I often do when I try to sing without accompaniment) to let the song breathe. The original isn’t much slower than my version, but Dickens lets the air into her singing — she lets the pauses and silences happen, and she lets the sounds linger. I have a hard time letting a phrase just sit like it should (an art Dickens mastered long before I was born) — it’s a personality flaw, I think. I can’t let sentences sit when I talk, either. :)

About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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