W.Va. should be prominent in ‘Country Music’ series

February 6, 2019

Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Civil War set me on fire to know more about the history of the war and the people who were “actors” in the battles that threatened to destroy America.

Burns followed the Civil War series with a series on Vietnam. I watched it and learned more than I wanted to know about the war that was a serious mistake and about the men and women who fought in it and died. They are to be honored for fighting in this unnecessary war.

Now Burns has turned his attention to — of all things — country music. He is putting the finishing touches on “Country Music,” an eight-part, 16 1/2-hour series scheduled to premiere Sept. 15 on PBS.

How did Burns decide to go from something as serious as war to something that is seemingly as frilly as country music?

Country music is “as elemental,” as war, he told a reporter recently, “and in fact, there were more tears shed by warm bodies in the editing room for this than for ‘Vietnam.’”

Burns says the project promises to offer a deep exploration into the genre. He theorizes that through country music, we can get a better understanding of the American experience.

“All these elemental things — birth, death, falling in love, falling out of love, seeking redemption and erring and all the things human flesh is heir to — that’s the stuff country music is about,” said Burns, who collaborated on the project with writer-producer Dayton Duncan and producer Julie Dunfey.

If Burns did the series correctly (and I am sure he did), West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky will be featured mightily since, despite claims from Nashville and vicinity, country music got its start in the hills and hollows of Mountain Mama, and along U.S. 23 from Ashland, Kentucky, on south.

Country music came from the ballads and songs of our West Virginia ancestors, those who learned the songs from each other since there were no radios or record players to pass the music along.

I am fortunate to have known several “originals,” those who learned songs from the older ones and passed them along the way they learned them.

The late great Aunt Jennie Wilson of Crooked Creek in Logan County sang songs that were written and sung by those uninfluenced by radio or records.

She sang the following verse of one of those old songs written by a prisoner jailed on the banks of the Guyan River in the early 20th Century.

“Last night as I lay sleeping, I had a pleasant dream.

I dreamed I was back at Wharncliffe with all the boys again

With Bridgett Murphy on my knee and a bottle at my command.

But I broke up brokenhearted on the banks of the old Guyan.”

Aunt Jennie said it was written by her cousin, who was charged with murder. He sang it for the judge “and he come clear...”

That, my friends, is country music.

We call it folk music, but in fact it is the roots of modern country music.

Love is love. Hate its hate. Divorce is divorce. Longing is longing, and murder is murder. It was the same in the 19th Century as it is in the 21st Century.

We mountain folks have been making up and singing such country songs since our ancestors arrived here in the 18th Century and even before.

I certainly hope that Burns gives proper homage to West Virginia where the real roots of country music go deep in the soil and the culture.

And let’s hope that Burns’ approach to “Country Music” brings honor to West Virginia and the amazing history of country music that arose from U.S. 23.

Dave Peyton is on Facebook. His email address is davepeyton@comcast.net.

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