I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
My doctor suggested I write this story down, due to the recent sleeplessness that started when a package from a stranger arrived at my house: a box of twenty-five wax phonograph cylinders, with David’s and my names written on the labels of each, sent from Maine. A letter taped to one of the cylinders read, “I found these in our attic years ago. I saw you on television. Figured these must be yours.” Of the three books I’ve written on American folk music—with moderate success and thus the recent television interview—I’ve never written about that summer with David. So, here we are.Complete story available online at The Common
You’ll find few surprises or plot twists here: everything you expect to happen, happens. No narrative tricks or structural quirks, either. Yet, when I was done, I found that, rather than knocking my socks off, this story had grown into me and found a warm, gentle place in my heart.
But first, let’s do some vocabulary so we’re all on the same page (don’t worry, there won’t be a test). When people who aren’t musicians hear the words “folk music” they might think of Bob Dylan or whoever the popular present-day singer-songwriter is. The folk music in the story is a little different: much older, often by centuries, existing in many versions, passed down through generations rather than written on music paper. There is indeed a field of ethnomusicology, and it does involve visiting diverse places and recording songs that might otherwise be lost. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection (you can order a download of some selections for $10) as do many universities. I can’t find either of the songs featured in the story, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there somewhere.
Another term that came to mind while I was reading this story is ekphrasis.
An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.
I would call this story ekphrastic, though there are obvious deviations from the strict definition. Of course, it isn’t a poem. And we’re not dealing with visual art, but music. The story itself doesn’t focus on description, though there are a couple of detailed passages. Two songs are described in some detail, and there’s a lovely description of the genre of folk music itself that I think fits the bill:
I liked the songs, but didn’t love them, not like David loved them. I don’t know exactly where the passion came from—he didn’t grow up with the songs, not like me and my brother…. now, at seventy-two, I know that most things we love are seeded before we’re ten. When I asked what he liked about the songs, the ballads especially, he said—I remember his words exactly—that they were the most warm-blooded pieces of music he knew. I see what he means, that the songs are filled with the voices of thousands who’ve sung and changed them, and that they are always stories of people’s lives. Not like the baroque music I began to love at the Conservatory, sharp and abstract and ornate like a coldly glittering piece of perfect jewelry. The folk songs had soft underbellies, could put a lump in your throat just by the melody. Emotion in song; nothing fancy.
And that is what really strikes me as ekphrastic about this story: it embodies the qualities of folk music. As I said above, it’s a low-key story without surprises. That’s folk music: because it was written and rewritten by ordinary people, the melodies and chords are fairly predictable, and the lyrics describe their lives. Some folk songs are lullabies, some are sociohistorical tales such as protest songs (I did a post on “The Gray Goose” several years ago) and some, as in this story, are love songs. Or, rather, thwarted-love songs. This is where the story excels: it is the prose equivalent of a folk song, in tempo, in tone, and in plot.
The structure is as familiar as the chord progression of “Down in the Valley”: an envelope story. Lionel, a retired musician, receives a box of wax recording cylinders left in a Maine attic back in 1917. He and a friend, David, had recorded them that summer, and fallen in love. They went back to their lives in the fall, planning to make another tour the following year, but never saw each other again. Here the story of that summer is inserted. Then we return to the present of the story, as Lionel listens to the cylinders.
David and Lionel experience something beyond friendship. I balk at calling this queer lit, however. As difficult as it might be in this era, let’s get our attention off the genitals and lift our sights higher to see this as a love story with all the yearning, joy, pain, and regret that love entails, no matter who is involved:
I didn’t experience the guilt that some men at my time would have. I just loved David, and I didn’t think much beyond that. My error was that I thought David was the first of many. That I’d tasted love. I was eager for my future. How could I have known that all the rest—Alex, William, Vincent, Clarissa, Sam, Sarah, and most recently George—were only rivulets after the first brief deluge.
Love is love. And first love, lost, has a bittersweetness that’s familiar to all who experience it.
Since the story is online, I won’t go into details of plot. The first song described in the story does that pretty well, come to think of it:
It’s an old English ballad from, I’ve since researched, the Lake District, that tells the story of two lovers lost in the woods on a January night, having run from their homes to meet by an oak tree to then elope. A blizzard comes, and they can’t find each other. In the chorus they call each other’s names, but the wind shakes the trees so loudly that they can’t even hear their own voices—so they die alone, huddled under separate trees: “Over snow’d floor two tracks did mark / One going west, the other east / Two still figures at trees’ roots / On a dead winter’s night, they never meet.”
Several plot elements pull together the overall story: fluffy white seedpods that appear in the opening and closing sentences, mimicking the snow of the song; a cantankerous woodsman who refuses all requests to share his songs, the reason becoming apparent when he accedes to their request for water; secrets revealed past the point of meaning. Even the more factual elements work towards unity, as when Lionel remembers that Edison had not really thought of his invention as a musical medium, but as more of a general audio record:
Ever practical and visionary, Edison offered the following possible future uses for the phonograph in North American Review in June 1878:
1. Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer.
2. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part.
3. The teaching of elocution.
4. Reproduction of music.
5. The “Family Record”–a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons.
6. Music-boxes and toys.
7. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc.
8. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing.
9. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory.
10. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication.
The family record. Preserved for family, however briefly that family might have existed. Family, with all its misunderstandings, secrets, and bonds that last beyond a lifetime.
But in spite of all those plot elements, it’s a story that lives on tone, that sings in a particular key. I’m sure my fondness for it has something to do with the use of folk music as an element, and with a Maine setting, but I think it’s more than that. It’s always good to remember your heart has a warm, gentle place, especially now, when there’s so little warmth and gentleness around.