Friday, February 8, 2008

The Art of Sound

by Pamela Duncan

I come from a family of great storytellers, people who love not only a good tale but also the cadence and beauty of language. Maybe that’s why music is also so important to us. Deep in our bones, in our very cells, is a passion for the art of sound.

Once upon a time, my Pawpaw Price picked a little banjo, and he loved to dance. My Nanny Price sang me to sleep at night with tragic ballads like “Poor Babes in the Woods.” Two of my uncles played in a rock band when they were younger. Mama sang constantly with Top 40 radio and Daddy was a huge country music fan. My brother and sister both learned to play the piano, and my brother also picks a little guitar.

My musical career is a history of quitting. In eighth grade, I joined the band and took up the clarinet because of a boy. For weeks I tortured my family with “25 or 6 to 4” and “Pomp and Circumstance.” I can’t remember which I got tired of first, the clarinet or the boy, but I quit band and passed the clarinet on to my brother. Not long after that, I decided to try guitar and loved it. I loved holding it. I looked good holding it. But I never actually learned to play it. Years later, I picked it up again when I discovered a love for bluegrass music. Three chords and many calluses later, I quit again when I discovered that playing well required more practice than I was willing to put in.

I love to sing, but any hope of a future singing career got nipped in the bud in 1971. I was lying on the floor of my grandparents’ house listening to The Carpenters through my uncle’s big white headphones, singing along with “Close to You,” when my Nanny Price walked by. She stopped, poked me with her toe, leaned over and said, “Who told you you could sing?”

But my lack of talent never diminished my passion for music. And because of that passion, and maybe because of my own failures as a musician, I revere people who can make music. It seems like the most wonderful kind of magic. Maybe that’s the real reason I was never that keen on learning to play myself. I don’t want to look behind the curtain and see the wizard. I love the magic too much.

Uncle Jim and Uncle Ronnie sit on the edge of the concrete front porch at Nanny and Pawpaw's house with guitars on their laps. They hold them awkwardly at first, the way you hold something when you're not quite sure what to do with it. They strum a little bit, laugh and joke with each other, act embarrassed about the whole thing. It's been a long time since they played, maybe six months or a year, whenever the family last got together for a holiday or a funeral.

In the 1960s they had a band called The Gators and came this close to making a record. There's a photograph of them dressed in ‘60s suits with string ties, wearing black Beatles wigs, holding their instruments and grinning like monkeys in Nanny and Pawpaw's living room. Their faces blaze with hope and youth and ignorance of the future. They look like they're about to set the world on fire.

When they start to play, it's like a slow thaw begins. First they sit all hunched over and tense, trying to make chords and strum a little, wringing their hands every little bit to shake off the pain of the strings against their tender fingers. Then they get a little looser and bend closer, looking into the guitars, looking for familiar sounds, for melodies that will lead them to songs.

Uncle Jim finds something first. His head snaps up as he grins and says, "Remember this'n, Ron-Dog?" And like magic they start playing together, just perfect. They play like they never quit, like that music has kept on inside them all these years, even while they were working and getting married and raising kids and forgetting.

As they play, their faces change, they become younger. Something melts and comes loose inside them and the music runs out their fingers into the strings and they're gone, into their own world where none of us can follow, couldn't even begin to try. It's like a wave of electricity between them, the music, and they ride it. Back and forth they trade off taking the lead, each knowing exactly what the other is fixing to do. They’re remembering who they are.

But after an hour their fingers get to hurting too bad, they can’t remember more than snippets of songs, their wives want to go home. They come back from that distant place where the music carried them. They set aside the guitars, stand, stretch, talk about cars and sports, carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. They forget.

I don’t forget. I don’t forget because I discovered my own way of participating in the family tradition. Writing is my music, my magic. When I write, I can listen to all our voices, all our stories, as well as new ones no one has ever heard before. As long as I can put words on paper, I'll always have music.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. Visit her website at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are modest, as usual. Anyone who's read your books know that your writing is music. On top of that, your Nana was wrong, you have a beautiful singing voice.
Nice post,
Lynn York