portion of the artwork for Shelby Stephenson's poetry

Sing Out
Shelby Stephenson

I turn to Goldie Hill, Karnes County, Texas.
Goldie Hill joined the Opry in ’53, when I was

a freshman in high school. Doesn’t the ring of her
name resound? Carl Smith married first June Carter who

later married Johnny Cash; Carl and Goldie married and
mostly quit performing in public, for the most part, raising

children and quarter-horses and cows and dogs
on a 500-acre ranch in Franklin, Tennessee. The Hillbilly

Cat stopped driving a truck about that time and
left Tupelo: he had moments I cannot see or tell, fame and

fortune finally seeming to turn his life wrongsideout, day
to night, until Graceland became too much of what

Elvis Presley thought he probably wanted; his gift was a simple
given: raw talent: still he could not get through

life alone: neither could Roscoe Holcomb. Isn’t
Daisy, Kentucky, wholesome-sounding?

Daisy, Daisy, I’m half-crazy over you—yodel-layeo, olayeo,
olayee
: southern mountain music he played on anything he

could—mouth-harp, guitar, banjo: he sang his songs at square
dances, parlor parties, after-parties: I’m sure he was

sensational; yet the world’s Estate at Large did not
know his name. Unless you read Sing Out! in the early ’60s

you would not be aware of Roscoe Holcomb, his presence in
Kentucky—churches, coal mines, porches—folklorists had a

field-day: in the middle ’60s, when he got to Berkeley,
Cornell, or Brandeis, why, he was a one-man festival of

American folk and country music: like Homer and Jethro,
Holcomb felt the poetry making: Homer (Henry Haynes)

and Jethro (Kenneth Burns) made themselves over for
commercial success. Was Big Bill Broonzy really

Big Bill Broonzy? Contradiction: those who
know better know better: Homer was a virtuoso on

rhythm guitar; Jethro, as well, mandolin: you might have
seen their corny commercials for Kellogg’s cereal during the early

days of TV: born in Knoxville, they “worked” the Renfro Valley
Barn Dance, Mt. Vernon, Kentucky, and the National Barn Dance,

Chicago: first time I ever heard the word “parody” I was
listening to them at their peak, hilariously presenting best-sellers

of country, western, and pop songs: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”
“That Hound Dog in the Window,” “Let Me Go, Lover”:

substitute “blubber”: the mandolinist and guitarist made their
money being funny, playing on the side at sessions for

singers and players who wanted foundations under their own
makeovers, hoping the base would shine through the words and

music: if I ever needed to lean into the Wurlitzer, I need to
now, for I’m separate from the swirl of juke-boxes in grills and

honky-tonks. I mailed out manuscripts yesterday: the day before
I helped Carpenter Ashley and his helper—Robbie: Robbie

looks like an alligator-hunter, blonde ringlets, stocky like a
trunk, a rollicking smile, and plum boisterous all over: he

could be a pirate without trying to play Johnny Depp: my
sister, Rose, used to call our backhouse the “johnny”: her

first name’s “Maytle”—for our mother: I just heard a
mockingbird whirr, I mean, wings—a beautiful sound:

forecast of rain? A prayer? All ten inches so far—
hooray—for the B-Dry people’s work: I’m sitting under

Derek’s Awning—ready to be found among the
floundering droplets preceding a tropical storm coming

off the coast: pelts sound good, though Nin’s not
impressed, for she stays inside and paces, standing at

the 2x3-inch yellow post-it, poised to write “broccoli,”
breaking her stance to open the fridge door, there

staring in long pauses before she resumes her stand at the
maple table’s corner, my poem now outside any inside

“feel,” though it’s getting there, down on its knees
already, breaking out in prayer for John Lee Hooker,

Lightning Hopkins, Johnny Horton, Vaughn Horton,
Son House, and Cisco Houston: these H’s hang over me more

than I can stand up on end and run through: Hooker
comes out of the Clarksdale, Mississippi,

area, singing and rocking his life away, looking for a
sunny day, walking in Jerusalem just like

John, rocking, rocking, rocking on the waves, walking
my baby back home
, rolling in my old rocking chair, waddling

clods, rooking with John Lee Hooker: let Big Bill Broonzy and
Sonny Boy Williamson and Mississippi John Hurt

bruise colors until black and blue light a path from a
shack out of Leon County, Texas, to the world; let

Lightning strike his notes and smoke that guitar around
one more time like a lover tiptoeing to his lover’s window

just to see how sweet she snores—yeah—and may the
history of blues deliver halls to dance in and let the

scouts in the South bring that talent to Century 21, that Old
Depression Roll Blues increasing in tempo for Bluesville,

USA, for the Road Myself, for the Smoketown Lightning Hopkins
greases, oh, until Johnny Horton, Tyler, Texas,

reaches out from his grave, gets into his wrecked-car
Death made, turns the radio on and

hears his own self sing “Battle of New Orleans” and
“Johnny Reb”; frame Vaughn Horton, from round

Broad Top, Pennsylvania; hear a song he wrote I
appreciate, because I drove that road in my

work for A.T.& T. Long Lines: one fellow
from Glen Dale, West Virginia, along the

Ohio River, near Wheeling, I called on, after I
ran over his daughter’s dog, after I asked him

if I could buy some land for a microwave station—
this fellow asked me if I worked for a company like Tetley Tea,

saying he’d heard of it, that it was on the New York Stock Exchange,
and I said, yes, yes, looking straight ahead for the world’s

wide-open eye to take me in, put me on Route 17, from
Newburgh to Wheeling, Number 22, around Bird-in-Hand

and Intercourse and Lancaster and Reading
(Wallace Stevens’s home town) and Valley Forge,

Allentown (stayed in the Red Room of the Holiday Inn there),
Kutztown, Bethlehem, Easton, Donegal, Pittsburgh, Stroudsburg,

Ambridge, the state parks, especially Kettle Creek, not too far
from Sligo and Clarion where I went Saturday evenings to read

beautiful books which brought me into the riches
life turned me to and away from the road of martinis

and expense accounts and long-distance telephone calls—
and to Nin who’s thirty days into Depression again, the fall

air here under and around Derek’s Awning: the mockingbird
trills Vaughn Horton’s “Mockingbird Hill”: out of the quince

across the grass races Little Jimmy Dickens, dressed in a pink
suit. He looks like a Pepto-Bismol bottle, singing V. Horton’s

“Hillbilly Fever.” “You can bet your bottom dollar when that
record starts to spin, you’ll hear a fiddle and a guitar with a

honky-tonking sound—it’s hillbilly fever and it’s spreading
all around,” while Son House does his country blues,

real as I felt yesterday, standing at G. McLeod Bryan’s
graveside, New Bethel Baptist Church, Garner, the

longleafpine on his casket a smell I could stand, unlike the
cut flowers I associate with sitting up with The Dying: Mac Bryan

knew Justice and Humanity as Friends who accompanied him
back to his childhood, where he was born, to that church his

father donated bricks to build when Mac was a boy and the
mockingbird sang and the garden grew green butterbeans and

okra and Middle Creek’s water brimmed with fish I’m sure he
caught and strung, as I did, on a sycamore twig, while the jay

picked the leaves for acorns and the thrasher danced in the sun a
story of rapture, idling, leaning into concert, no doubt about

that, into immersions broad and shaking me and you to
see our independence, feel it, every one of us,

daring to reassure each sculpted territory that every song
written starts with one sound at a time, your work

and mine necessity’s wampum, the coming symphony.


Shelby Stephenson’s Comments

This poem is Chapter 30 of a longer work called Country. I write, especially in Country, to find out what I don’t know. A word or image might lead the way, here, the music I grew up with and heard around the house I was born in, a three-room plankhouse my wife, Nin, and I restored after we moved back to Paul’s Hill, the place of my birth. I did not think or plan or try to write a memoir or a poem or prose or whatever the writing is: I just wanted to see what I could see as it came to me. The whole thing is 52 chapters, arranged loosely from A to Z.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 41 | Summer 2013