Author: Zuniga, Nancy

Writing True Songs

Today's column from Nancy Zuniga
Thursday, March 6, 2008

A few weeks ago, Henry and I were watching a History Channel special on the building of the Fontana Dam in North Carolina. At the start of World War II, the increased need for electricity to power aluminum plants to build airplanes led the Tennessee Valley Authority to undertake the project. With the power of eminent domain, the TVA displaced thousands of families who had inhabited the region for generations. Their land was bought up for $37 an acre, and their homes were soon obliterated under tons of water, never to be seen again. Railroad lines were inundated, and access to family burial plots ceased to exist.

As heartbreaking photographs flashed across the television screen of somber-faced mountain folks with all of their worldly possessions piled atop their ancient vehicles, preparing to leave a land that had been homesteaded by their grandparents, I turned to my husband and said, “That’s a subject for a bluegrass song.” Henry replied, “Why don’t you write it?”

I thought about this. Having been born and raised in a large city to middle-class parents, who am I to write a song about an episode that took place in Appalachia nearly seventy years ago?

Bill Monroe used to describe his bluegrass compositions as “True songs”, culled from his own memories of rural life in Kentucky. Bill really did push a plow behind a mule; He really did have an Uncle Pen who played the fiddle. Could I possibly write a song about a true event without sounding disingenuous, if neither I nor my ancestors had ever experienced anything even remotely similar?

Then I thought about Gillian Welch. I felt blown away the first time I listened to the haunting lyrics of Gillian’s song “Annabelle”:

"Leased twenty acress and one jenny mule
From the Alabama Trust
For half of the cotton and a third of the corn
We get a handful of dust."

The “Alabama Trust”? Even the smallest nuance in her choice of words (e.g. “churchyard” instead of “graveyard”) gave the song a sense of realism, of someone who had actually lived the experiences described in the song. But a look at Gillian's bio tells me that she was born in Manhattan in the mid-1960s and raised in Los Angeles! How in the heck did she write a song which conveyed in such a compelling way the weariness and hardscrabble life of an Alabama dirt farmer? Similar realism comes across in “One More Dollar” and “Tear My Stillhouse Down”. Surely, songs such as these don’t just come about from watching documentaries on the History Channel. Some years back, I was in a jam when I wondered aloud at Gillian’s uncanny talent, and someone replied, “She channels!” That may be as plausible an explanation as any, as in her songs, Gillian Welch seems to connect with old souls from another time and place.

Whether or not I am up to the task of writing a song about the families displaced by the building of the Fontana Dam and doing justice to their heartbreaking story remains to be seen. I do know that every one of us who participates in jams will at one time or another sing about a cabin, a coal mine, or some other slice of rural Americana which we may not have actually experienced first-hand. The heartfelt emotion in many bluegrass songs gives expression to feelings held by nearly everyone, regardless of their background or life’s experiences. Most everyone feels, at one time or another, some angst at the memory of one’s childhood home, loved ones who have passed on, and times past never to be relived again. These emotions are universal, which may explain in part why the raw and gritty lyrics of many bluegrass songs resonate with people from urban as well as rural backgrounds. And it may also explain why people from all walks of life may feel compelled to write what Bill Monroe called "true" songs. The lyrics may not always come from one's own experience, but they can still ring true, if they come from the heart.
Posted:  3/8/2008

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