Country musicians Charlie and Ira Louvin had fresh memories of World War II and the Korean conflict when they recorded “Weapon of Prayer” in 1962. But they probably wouldn’t have been surprised to hear it dusted off and played by members of the Triangle old-time group Big Medicine, following the events of Sept. 11. Only four days after the terrorist attacks, Big Medicine was scheduled to participate in the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival in Virginia. But keeping their date wasn’t an easy decision.
“I remember feeling very weird about it,” says Kenny Jackson, the group’s fiddler. “I thought, ‘Should we really be doing this? Is this the time to get up and play and have a good time?’ But once we got together with everybody, I found out it was the right thing to do.”
Big Medicine banjo player Joe Newberry remembers the weekend this way: “When we would sing songs, especially about loss, music did what it was supposed to do–help make sense of your world and help channel feelings. A sad song sometimes is a conduit to feeling true emotion. We were actually honored to go and play for folks, and it seemed like it was making a difference to people.”
But whatever difference the music is making, it seems to be decidedly apolitical. And that’s at odds with the well-chronicled folk music revival of the ’60s, whose participants were largely sincere, urban outsiders to the traditional music scene. They used their music as a springboard for sentiments of protest, drawing a clear line between anti-war peace activists and civil rights proponents and the establishment. But old-time music is a different animal, as musician and graphic artist David Lynch recently found out.
Lynch, who lives in Asheville, N. C., is the webmaster of the Old Time Music page (www.oldtimemusic.com), which features a directory of old-time players, news and events. It has a distinctly old-time mission, and that means setting boundaries: For example, Lynch decided not to allow links to bluegrass pages, preferring to keep the site focused on the old-time genre.
That is, until Sept. 11. That’s when he added a “Defense, Not Revenge” message to his Web site. It was an expression of Lynch’s unabashedly left-wing political views: “If one more innocent person dies in the name of the terrorist acts of 9-11,” he wrote, “then the lives lost here will be in vain.” To his site’s visitors, he declared, “If you’re holding a musical instrument, you can’t be holding a gun.” Reaction was swift.
“I had one guy from West Virginia read me the riot act,” Lynch recalls. “He said, ‘You folkies come here and use our traditional music as your sounding board for your damn leftist political views,’ and he really lit into me.” That’s when Lynch questioned his own decision to include the page on his Web site, particularly after he had adamantly limited its content to old-time music. “I realized it was a little hypocritical,” he admits. “And that’s when I toned down the original message.” He also moved it–adding it as a link to the “about me” section of the Web site, which contained his personal history.
But what about Lynch’s computer graphics company, which does layout and art for countless CDs–everything from country reissues to local releases by Triangle old-time musicians like Gail Gillespie? Does he think mixing music and politics will have an adverse effect?
“Part of me says maybe I should be quiet, because I might screw up my business,” Lynch admits. “But part of me is so outraged and frustrated that I can’t be quiet. I sort of vacillate between the two.”
Guitar, mandolin and banjo player Gillespie, who lives in Carrboro, suggests that old-time music has always managed to bring people together, regardless of their political stripes. “[Banjo player] Dwight Rogers and I play with a lot of people who have expanded our social horizons,” she says. “People that we might not have associated with otherwise.” And who, exactly, are those people? “People who have Bush-Cheney bumper stickers,” she says, laughing. “People who we consider our friends and who we actually play music with.”
Still, it can be an uneasy alliance. Old-time fiddler Lynch recalls holding music parties in his house where politics was being discussed in a back room; some musicians would enter, suss out the situation and turn tail. Gillespie solves the problem by simply not talking politics with her conservative musical friends.
“For me, the music is a way out of that, a world apart, where you can communicate with people you might not be able to communicate with in any other way,” she says.
It’s a feeling shared by others. “To me, the wonderful thing about the old-time music community is that it cuts across boundaries of politics, religion, economics, and culture to celebrate an American musical heritage,” says Kenny Jackson. “It’s a diverse crowd. The music brings folks together without requiring that they hold certain views, so in a sense it’s more powerfully healing than any overtly political music could hope to be.”
Sherry Boyd, an on-air personality who’s played traditional music on Mt. Airy’s WPAQ for 20 years, witnessed that healing power in the hours and days after Sept. 11. “I told [WPAQ founder] Ralph Epperson, ‘I’m just not going to play “Pretty Polly” this week–I just don’t feel right,’” she recalls. The station played “patriotic music” the rest of the week–“Weapon of Prayer” was “hymn of the day” on the National Day of Mourning–and she drew on songs of faith from Jim and Jesse, like “Big Hands.” Although the programming quickly returned to normal, she noticed an attitude change in the musicians who visited the station.
“One thing that I have sensed in conversation with people is how thankful they are,” she reports. “They’re thankful they have music. They’re thankful they have the talent. Thankful they have the opportunity and the ability to go out and play shows.”
Yet local shows performed to benefit victims of the tragedies, or those assisting in cleanup efforts, seem to be in short supply. An Oct. 13 benefit hosted by the Beaufort County Arts Council, featuring Molasses Creek and OcraFolk Opry, raised $2,280 for The New York Times‘ “9-11 Neediest Cases Fund.” But otherwise, response has been atypical for a community that frequently raises money for musicians’ medical needs and celebrates members’ weddings, births and other milestones.
“I expected the old-time community–and the bluegrass community–to get together and do something,” Boyd says, “and it’s kind of surprising that they haven’t.” She muses that well- publicized national relief efforts may have given the impression that enough was being done already. But the biggest reason may be the relative newness of the tragedies and the war. “There’s been so much happening so fast that people have a kind of wait-and-see attitude,” she says.
But the fact remains that for a musician, the best course of action may simply be continuing to play music.
“Music is for the up-building of people,” says Lynch, quoting Fiddler Marcus Martin on the Old Time Music Web site. “At this challenging period in our history, let’s remember to feed our hearts and ears with the music we love. Music can help us overcome our sadness and anger and remind us of the joys of the human spirit. As members of the old-time music community, let’s help each other by sharing lots of music during the difficult days ahead.”
Gillespie agrees: “If everybody were fiddlin’, maybe there wouldn’t be war.”