Author: Poling, Chuck

Dear Old Dixie

I had only recently started listening and playing bluegrass music when I headed off to college in Mississippi. That’s right – native San Franciscan, Ole Miss, class of 1981. It was quite an adventure all the way around and a big part of it was falling in with the local bluegrass and old-time music scene almost immediately after arriving.

My entré was provided by a grad student who taught English literature. He saw me dragging my guitar around campus one day, struck up a conversation with me about music, and invited me to stop by his office sometime and talk some more. I visited him the next day and he lent me a several albums to record on that primitive medium known as cassette tape. He also alerted me about a couple of upcoming bluegrass events. After recording and returning his albums, he lent me a few more – stuff like the Seldom Scene and Country Gazette, as well as early John Prine and Emmylou Harris.
I also met a fellow student who was learning banjo, and we started picking together a couple times a week. He loaned me a few albums, including the boomer-generation classics Old and In the Way and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Soon I was scrounging through record store cutout bins and truck stop cassette racks for any and all bluegrass I could lay my hands on.

There was no official campus organization, but there was definitely a core of bluegrass and old-time pickers who all knew each other and were eager to meet more people with whom they could jam. Oddly, very few were native Mississippians, or at least very few my age. Most of my classmates found it strange enough that I had come all the way from San Francisco to Ole Miss, but they found my developing taste for bluegrass and country music utterly befuddling.

“That’s what my grandpa listens to,” they’d groan when I cranked up the grass on the stereo. Maybe Grandpa’s onto something, I thought.

Most of my bluegrass buddies were from out-of-state (Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, New York) or, if they were Magnolia state natives, were grad students in their mid- to late-twenties. None of them seemed to care what anyone thought of them and their music. They just wanted to pick and pick some more, and I was thrilled to be invited to jam with them.

It was a revelation to me to see these guys just call out a song and a key and jump right into it, three-part harmony and all. I just settled into a corner with my guitar and tried to keep up with the chord changes. I can’t remember what song I sang when my turn came around, but I somehow managed not to embarrass myself. Or so I’d like to think.

As the evening wore on, someone produced a mason jar full of authentic moonshine and passed it around. Soon the tempos started picking up and the singing became increasingly boisterous. Each song we played lasted about ten minutes, between instrumental breaks and repeating verses and choruses. It was probably two or three in the morning and we were howling “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” when someone called the police about the noise. However, when the police actually arrived, we were playing a restrained version of “White Dove.”

The doorbell rang and our host, L.W. (I never did learn what his initials stood for) answered and found two of Oxford, Mississippi’s finest looking back at him. “You boys doing a little singing?” one of the officers asked. “Yes sir,” replied L.W., “just singing a few of the old songs. I’m sorry we caused you to come out here. We didn’t think anyone would mind a little Stanley Brothers.”

Keep in mind that noise complaints in a college town account for a large portion of police calls. And most noise complaints involved high-powered stereos blasting Led Zeppelin or REO Speedwagon at about 120 decibels. The officers seemed both annoyed and amused that they had been assigned to shut down a late-night gospel sing. Meanwhile, we were painfully aware that a certain “skunky” aroma commonly associated with shaggy college students lingered in the room.

“Well, it is kind of late,” said the cop, “but if you boys just keep down the volume you ought to be all right.”

“Well, thank you, sir. We appreciate that,” said L.W.

“One other thing,” said the cop. “I’m going to pretend I don’t smell that smell that I smell. You just make sure nobody else smells it, understand?”

“Yes sir, thank you sir, we’ll take care of that,” responded L.W.

“You boys are OK,” said the cop. “It’s a shame hardly anybody’s playing this music – it’s what I grew up listening to with my momma and daddy. Just seems young people aren’t interested in the old-timey stuff. Now you just mind your P’s and Q’s now and stay out of trouble and we’ll be fine.”

We all breathed a sigh of relief when they departed. Someone began slowly strumming a guitar and singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” We continued in a low-key fashion for a couple hours until the sun started to rise. We stumbled out onto the porch, exhausted but happy. With my last reserve of energy I kicked off one of the few songs I was confident leading – “I Saw the Light.” It started off tentatively, with one weary voice after another joining in, but by the time we got to the chorus, we were singing in full voice as we watch the sun move up into the Mississippi sky.

I caught a ride back to campus with a friend and we marveled at the experience we’d just been through – the music, the camaraderie and even the tacit understanding between the longhairs and the police that the common ground we shared through music transcended our differences. I was only beginning to learn the power of bluegrass.

Posted:  3/25/2013

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