Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 16

The 'Hard Times and the Hillbilly' section of Southern Mountains and Backwoods reads like a Merle Travis songbook. Travis was a Kentucky coal-miner's son who hit it big in the late '40s with recordings of traditional and original mining ballads. His intricate finger-picking style, now known as "Travis-picking," influenced generations of folk guitar slingers. Travis inspired me to swap the flat-pick for the thumb-pick and my furious strumming for speedy finger-work. His "Nine Pound Hammer" was the first song I learned to finger-pick, my gateway into the world of bluegrass and folk music. I first heard Travis on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The long-haired cosmic cowboys assembled all of the greats--Travis, the Carter family, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson--and made a triple album of classic bluegrass songs. It rotated steadily on my family's record-player growing up, ushering me into the world of hillbilly and folk music.

"Dark as a Dungeon" is a well-known, somber miner's ballad. I love the image that Travis returns to several times--man's blood and body filling with the coal that he mines: "It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,/ till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal"; "I hope when I'm dead and the ages shall roll,/ my body will blacken and turn into coal." It's a powerful symbol of man's tendency to let his work consume him, physically and psychologically. It's also a dark reminder of the tragic toll coal mining took on worker's bodies, communities, and local landscapes.

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