Friday, January 8, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 8

An important place can become its own universe in an American folk song. The Cumberland Gap was a pass through the Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. It became a key passage for early American pioneers heading west. In "Cumberland Gap," the site is where the American imagination wanders, where the action happens. The chorus merely places the place: "Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Gap, way down yonder in the Cumberland Gap." The verses mostly revolve around domestic trivia: "Me an' my wife and my wife's pap/ We all live down in Cumberland Gap"; "Old Aunt Dinah if you don't keer/ Leave my little jug a-settin' right hyer"; "I've got a woman in Cumberland Gap/ She's got a boy that calls me pap." None of this has anything specifically to do with the Cumberland Gap, but the place has such historical gravity that it pulls the mundane into it. It becomes a meeting ground for whole lineages, their stock stories and shared sentiments. Cumberland Gap is a Mecca for the common man and he doesn't know why. After hearing so much about the place, he journeys long and arrives, then he can't quite remember why he came. ("I know something was way down yonder in Cumberland Gap, I just can't recall what.") So he fills the place with the things that are important to him: his wife, his wife's pap, his Aunt Dinah, his illegitimate son. Of course, there are plenty of historical reasons why the Cumberland Gap is an important place, but in the world of this song, it doesn't matter. 

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