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Tom Chaney: Catching a Ballad

Of Writers And Their Books: Catching a Ballad. Tom prescribes Sharyn McCrumb as the perfect antidote for any spring cleaning, yard work impulse which might threaten this season. This column first appeared 26 April 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Reading Jesus

By Tom Chaney

Catching a Ballad

Sharyn McCrumb has caught me up and fixed me to the topmost limbs of a chestnut tree long dead on the slopes of the eastern mountains. I don't know how to get a' loose.

I had read The Songcatcher and thought it a fine book, then the unabridged audio tape of the novel came through the store sometime back. I stuck it in the tape deck of my car and listened to it over the next couple of months whenever I went to the grocery store or the doctor or the bootlegger -- except if you got Ms McCrumb, you don't need a bootlegger.

Only seven cassettes were nowhere near long enough for such a tale.

A fascinating tale.

Folksinger Lark McCourry is flying home to North Carolina to the bedside of her dying father from whom she has always been estranged. Searching for a new song for her next album she is haunted by a tune, The Rowan Stave, which she half remembers from hiding on the darkened porch listening to her uncles in her childhood.

Her private plane crashes. The pilot is killed either by heart attack or in the crash, and she is trapped -- unhurt but unable to get out and hopelessly lost.

She is able to contact a 911 operator with her fading cell phone. The operator alerts searchers and begins to help Lark find the song.

The reader is taken back in McCourry family history to 1751 when her nine-year-old ancestor Malcolm McCourry is kidnapped from the island of Islay in Scotland and taken to sea.

The song follows him for ten years at sea and then to Morristown, New Jersey where he marries the daughter of a lawyer and enters that profession and raises a family. In 1790 he abandons them -- traveling the Wilderness Road into the mountains with his youngest daughter and her new husband when they decamp for western North Carolina.

He has The Rowan Stave when he takes a new wife and raises a second family in the wilderness. He sings the song to his grandson who grows up to fight in the Civil War.

That child has a nephew who sings it to tourists at the mountain resort owned by General Wilder in the 1880's.

One most interesting stage of The Rowan Stave's journey happens in that mountain resort. Young McCourry living in the vicinity delivers deer meat to Wilder's resort. The general befriends young McCourry and recounts his own unheard of behavior before the battle at Munfordville. Wilder sought out General Buckner, his opponent-to-be, to ask for help in his decision whether to fight or not. Buckner is astounded, but gives the young Wilder a tour of the Confederate emplacements. The young general treats with the older for an honorable disposition to avoid unnecessary loss of life.

Back, lost on the mountain, Lark sends her would-be songcatcher and rescuer finally to search out old Nora Bonesteel who has the sight, and is able to communicate with both the living and the dead.

Lark is rescued with the help of the searchers whose number includes the manager of The Cosmic Possum, a trail café, and the sight of Nora. Nora leads her to the song.

Sharyn McCrumb wrote the words to The Rowan Stave for the purposes of the novel and commissioned the tune from Shelley Stevens. In the audio book reading the song is performed on the mountain dulcimer, the tin whistle, guitar, and the bodhran.

Shortly after finishing The Songcatcher on tape, I picked up another of McCrumb's books, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. She is one of those, "y'all go on and eat, I'm busy reading," writers. Again, I was hooked.

I prescribe Sharyn McCrumb as the perfect antidote for any spring cleaning, yard work impulse which might threaten this season.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2014-04-27 04:02:16
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