Here’s a 1903 photo of the Current River in Carter County, Missouri.
On the left of this page is my “blogroll,” the list of blogs that I’ve found enjoyable, interesting, or worthy of a follow. You’ll see Joel Vance’s blog listed there, and I recommend you visit it.
His last post was November 20 of this year, not long ago, and it’s classic Vance. A consummate storyteller for many decades, Vance always put himself in the stories as the butt of the joke. His misadventures with a continuing cast of hunting dogs were a staple of his years with the Missouri Conservationist, the publication where I first read his work and for which he wrote during much of his career.
Sadly, I read in Brandon Butler’s column this morning that Joel Vance died Wednesday, at the age of 86.
Joel Vance didn’t just write funny stories. He also wrote about the joys of the Missouri outdoors and the threats to it. He wrote in a vivid, conversational style that let you know that you were getting the real Joel Vance, not some packaged PR, although of course the Conservationist is ultimately a PR publication. There was also a no-nonsense quality in his writing that let you know he was ready to call bullshit when he saw it, and I’m sure he saw plenty.
Brandon Butler remarks in his column that this quality of Vance’s writing inspired confidence in his readers and built a rapport with them that carried over into other areas. He specifically cites the passage of Missouri’s much-admired conservation sales tax, which drew on a reservoir of trust that the Conservation Department had built up over the years. I think there’s real merit in that observation, and it’s something that deserves more attention.
Why did people trust the Conservation Department enough to pass a dedicated sales tax? Lots of reasons, of course, but one is that the department, through people like Joel Vance, had been open and honest with the citizens of Missouri. They communicated effectively. As I used to say in my Principles of PR class back at Culver-Stockton, the first rule of good public relations is “Never lie.” And to expand further, “Never even allow youself to be suspected of lying. If something bad happens, deal with it head-on. You’ll suffer in the short term but build trust for the long term.”
Nowadays, we are living through one of the great health crises in our country’s history. We’ll top 300,000 deaths this week, maybe as early as tomorrow, and may potentially hit 400,000 by the time our new president is inaugurated. What would have our situation been like if our leaders at the federal and state level had followed Joel Vance’s example and addressed the situation plainly and honestly, without all the fudging, misdirection, and outright lying that we have seen over the past year? No one knows, but it’s plain to see that there is no reservoir of trust to draw on. Our governor and our president, and their myriads of enablers, have accustomed us to assume that the government is not being straight with us. It’s a sad state of affairs, and it will take a long time to reverse.
I imagine that eventually, Joel Vance’s blog will be deactivated. But for now, I’m leaving the link up at the side of my page, and I encourage you to read through his work. You may not always agree with what he says, but you’ll always know what he thinks and where he stands. And I guarantee that you’ll be entertained.
I’ve made my fondness for old hymns known before. I grew up with them, and even today an old hymn will get stuck in my head for days at a time.
Such is the case with “Come, Thou Fount,” one of the hymns that was an evergreen favorite in my childhood church, and one of those that has maintained a surprising popularity among contemporary pop Christian groups and singers, although as usual they can’t keep from tweaking it to make it more “modern,” adding choruses or smoothing out the lyrics to suit today’s sensibilities.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” to give its full title, was written in the mid-1700s by a 22-year-old English pastor and hymnodist named Robert Robinson. Like most hymns of the era, it came unattached to a particular tune. The tune we associate it with the most is an American tune of somewhat obscure origin called “Nettleton,” named after the Connecticut evangelist and composer Asahel Nettleton, who may or may not have written it. The tune has a kind of thumping, straightforward tread that is one reason it sticks in the mind so easily: de de BUMP BUMP, de de BUMP BUMP, and so forth.
But what draws me to “Come, Thou Fount” are its lyrics. They’re kind of a mishmash, really, but in such interesting ways. Take the first lines. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” This gives us a hint of what we’re in for. God is a fountain, and also a kind of cosmic piano tuner. The two images are intermingled through the verse. One might say Robinson is mixing his metaphors here, or that this tumbled mix is just what he’s aiming for, in the sense that God is too big to be contained in a single metaphorical framework.
The second verse relies on what to most people today is a very obscure Biblical reference: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, here by Thy great help I’ve come.” But believers in Robinson’s time would have recognized the reference as coming from 1 Samuel, in a verse in which Samuel erects a monument stone at the site of a victory over the Philistines. Samuel calls it “Stone of Help,” or Eben-Ezer in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and the word came to signify a place of victory by divine intervention. The legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta takes its name from this passage, as do thousands of other “Ebenezer” churches around the country. So the hymn is a victory paean.
But no, it’s not, for a couple of verses later come an amazing set of lines. “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” The grace of God is phrased in terms of debt and imprisonment, which in 18th-century England would have been painfully familiar. For Robinson, who was disinherited at age five with ten shillings and sixpence, debt and imprisonment would have been a present concern. And then the desperate plea: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s easy to imagine the 22-year-old writer, engaged in his own struggles, pouring out this cry. The whole hymn is a tumbling-out of varied figures of speech, tones, and images, following on each other and sometimes weaving together. No wonder people have felt the urge to clean it up a bit for the audiences of their day!
But I like the tangled, almost synesthetic quality of “Come, Thou Fount.” As the tune goes marching along in steady pace, the lyrics are bouncing all over the place. It’s a mixed-up flow of thoughts for mixed-up minds, and I like it just like that.
One of my favorite stories comes from my mother, who was visiting a nursing home one day when she happened to overhear a resident being comforted by his pastor. The resident was an old farmer, whose infirmities and age had consigned him to the home, and he was bemoaning his fate and wishing he could end it all. The pastor assured him that the simple fact he was alive meant that his purpose in life was not over, and that God still had something He wanted him to do.
The old coot considered this for a moment. “Well, I ain’t a-gonna do it,” he said.
Every time I think of this story I am reminded of Mary Calhoun’s marvelous 1972 children’s book Three Kinds of Stubborn, in which three stubborn Missourians get into a family dispute that keeps worsening because of their refusal to abandon their eccentric positions. The book is a gentle lesson in bending, in recognizing that none of us has a corner on truth, and in the wisdom of listening to others.
Stubbornness is a version of pride, an insistence that my opinion is superior to all others and that nobody has a right to tell me what to do. And pride, convention tells us, is a sin. In some ways, this stance is connected to the rural tradition of individualism and self-reliance, which I ordinarily think of as a virtue; but there are times when individualism and self-reliance become a hindrance rather than a help.
This is such a time, as I watch with dismay my fellow-citizens behave with deliberate and truculent ignorance toward those who need their help and who are trying to help them. The COVID pandemic requires concerted, collective action, with everyone pitching in to slow the spread of the virus by following a few simple health measures, and a coordinated government effort to enforce those health measures and to trace the contacts of those who come down with the illness. Instead, we see widespread refusal to wear masks, regular occurences of spreader events that pass the virus among groups, and a deliberately feeble government response in the name of “freedom” that allows cases to skyrocket.
My morning newspaper reports 105 people in the hospital with COVID today, a new record for the county, including 29 in intensive care and 16 on ventilators. The twist in this report is that only 20 out of the 105 are from Boone County, where I live. The other 85 are from outstate, from rural counties that don’t have the hospital capacity to treat them, or possibly don’t have a hospital at all. If “out of sight, out of mind” is true, then I would imagine that some inhabitants of these rural counties might not have a clear idea of just how widespread and dangerous this epidemic is, since the patients are whisked away to a distant hospital and their local government officials appear to be taking great pains to keep them in the dark. The state government’s COVID dashboard remains consistently behind the true numbers; if you want an accurate picture of the extent of COVID in Missouri, I recommend that you follow Matthew Holloway on Facebook. He’s a private citizen who, along with a number of helpers, has made it his personal mission to comb through local health department reports, media reports, and other public sources to come up with an accurate day-to-day account of the virus in Missouri.
It shouldn’t be this way. We shouldn’t have to argue with our fellow-citizens over simple health measures. We shouldn’t have to rely on motivated citizens to give us accurate statistics. Sometimes “I ain’t a-gonna to do it” is an admirable expression of defiance to the ruffian gods. Sometimes it’s just an obstinate refusal to acknowledge the obvious.
In 2016, I was honored to be asked to give the keynote at the annual Ozarks Studies Conference in West Plains. The theme of the conference that year was “The Lure of the Ozarks,” so I decided to play on that theme for my talk. My title was “The Lure of the Ozarks: What’s the Bait and Who’s the Fish?”
The good folks at Elder Mountain took my talk, tweaked it a little, and published it in their most recent issue. As editor Phil Howerton aptly describes the issue, it’s a whopper . . . a double issue of 290 pages.
I’m reprinting a passage from near the opening of my talk below. Literary journals need all the help they can get, so if you’d like to read the whole thing, I encourage you to take a look at the issue’s impressive table of contents here and then use the purchase link here. You won’t regret it!
To speak of the lure of the Ozarks, appropriately enough, is to use the language of the fisherman, and prompts the metaphorical question of who is the fisher and who is the caught. Nowadays our talk about the lure of the Ozarks typically involves tourism, and rightly so, as it has become a mainstay of the Ozarks economy. Certainly tourism is a pretty benign sort of catchery . . . I suppose we could extend the metaphor and call tourism the “catch and release” version of the Ozarks’ lure.
But from the earliest times, people have come to the Ozarks to take away something more tangible. From Pierre Renaud down to the Doe Run Lead Company, the Ozarks have been a source of minerals and ore. The Missouri Lumber and Mining Company and its fellow timber harvesting enterprises did the same thing from the 1880s through the early twentieth century. In a general way, I think you’d have to describe the Ozarks as a kind of internal colony of the United States, a place from which to extract value at the lowest possible cost while returning as little as possible. As David Benac observes in his book Conflict in the Ozarks, a significant component of the Ozarks timber boom consisted of companies seeking to “tame” their workers, to bring them into compliance with the needs of an industrial-age enterprise concerning punctuality, sobriety, and adherence to the concept of “working hours” instead of living their lives by the clock of the seasons. What drew these entrepreneurs and companies to the Ozarks was what they could extract from it, and that’s a facet of this landscape that will never go away. I recall during the years of my childhood that every town in the area had its factory – shoe factories, shirt factories, hat factories, that sort of thing – each one staffed mainly by women paid on a piecework basis, overseen by men. It wasn’t until the advent of the global marketplace that these companies discovered they could find workers elsewhere who were even more impoverished and who had even fewer options than the Ozarkers, and relocated their factories elsewhere. For an industry that needed unskilled workers to perform repetitious tasks, the Ozarks must have seemed like a little slice of heaven for a time.
And then there’s escape, that time-honored lure of the Ozarks. Dad Howitt, the Shepherd of the Hills, came to the Ozarks to escape the noise of the city and the memories of his past, and ever since then one of the dominant themes of Ozarks culture has been that of the mountains as a place of refuge. Trappist monks came here, and the Harmonial Vegetarian Society, and so did Bonnie and Clyde. The hollows overflow with people who have come to the Ozarks for one sort of escape or another, whether it’s from the traffic jams of the city or the long arm of the law. My own experience with these transplants has been overwhelmingly positive. People drawn to the Ozarks from elsewhere bring energy, new ideas, and often a fresh infusion of money to communities that need all three. Unfortunately, the Ozarks’ mind-our-own-business reputation also draws the occasional Frazier Glenn Miller among the retired ad executives seeking a quiet place to meditate beside a stream.
I ran across a chapter of this book in The Literature of the Ozarks, a book that I have written about before. I’d heard of Katie Estill, but somehow had overlooked her novels. So I went out and found myself a copy.
I started reading it a couple of days ago, and it’s a marvel. It begins (or very nearly so) with a murder, but it’s not a mystery, nor is it what one would call a “thriller,” although it does have plenty of police procedure in it. It also has some adult passages with adults doing, well, what adults do. So it’s not exactly a “romance,” either, although there’s love in it, of the most aching and true sort.
It’s set in a county that feels a lot like Oregon County, Missouri, with a river that runs through it (in the novel, it’s the Seven Point, not the Eleven Point as in the real-life county, but let’s not quibble over the number of points). And it has a triumvirate of main characters, three women, all of whom suffer and struggle in the course of the book, and who don’t particularly get along, and who discover that they have common aims and needs despite that. One is a deputy sheriff; one is a woman who has recently returned to the county after a time away; and one is a newer arrival. The murder connects them, divides them, and connects them again.
It’s a beautiful book that defies categorization, and it contains some lovely passages of description of the Ozarks landscape, of the interior thinking of its main characters, and of the mental and emotional negotiations they go through to achieve some answers and some peace. It was published in 2007, but the characters’ travails are as relevant today as they were then. You may have to hunt for a copy, as I suspect it’s gone out of print; but it’s worth the search.
On Facebook, I’ve been following the progress of Thomas Peters’ book on radio station KWTO and the Ozark Jubilee with great interest. It’s going to be a great addition to the Ozarks history bookshelf! He’s been posting some of the photos he’s collected for the book, and this morning he posted this beauty:
That’s an 18-year-old Les Paul on the right, performing with his friend Sunny Joe Wolverton on KWTO as the Ozark Apple Knockers. A far cry from the urbane, sophisticated jazz pioneer he later became, the occupant of more halls of fame than one would care to count. Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Paul it was playing hillbilly music under the stage name “Rhubarb Red.”
When I saw this picture, for some reason I thought of a movie I had recently rewatched, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) opens the movie in full cowboy-movie garb, singing “Cool Water” as he rides through Monument Valley. Of course, the joke (or part of the joke) is that “Cool Water” is not a historic cowboy song at all, but a pop hit of the 1940s.
What follows is a series of ghastly/comic episodes that both play on Western-story stereotypes and embrace them, just as the “hillbilly” image both mocks, uses, and embraces that stereotype as well.
We make art where we find it, with the materials at hand. Sometimes those materials include simplified versions of ourselves, and then we must decide whether to challenge the stereotype or play with it. I think either decision can work, as long as the stereotype is approached with conscious intent. It’s when stereotypes are presented unconsciously and uncritically that they harm. The rural rustic, the hayseed, has been with us since Greek comedy, and we will probably never get rid of it. So we might as well play with that image as we move toward the larger points we are trying to make in our literary and creative work.
What truly prompted me toward these thoughts, though, was the news that the former Dogpatch USA property had been bought by Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops fame. I’ve never met Johnny, although some friends of mine know him and speak very highly of him. While Bass Pro is the business that made him a billionaire, it’s the other Morris properties that play the Ozark stereotypes: Big Cedar Lodge, Top of the Rock golf course, and Dogwood Canyon (which is owned by a linked foundation). These properties present a sanitized, tidied-up version of the mythic Ozarks that people just love and are willing to pay handsomely to experience; a single-day admission to Dogwood Canyon will set you back $20, and it’s another $32 to ride the tram. Assuming you brought your own bicycle or are up for the walk, you can see a mill, an Indian burial cave, a wilderness chapel, some waterfalls, a trapper’s cabin, and other sites, all skillfully manufactured and manicured to achieve a perfect match of product and expectation.
This is progress, I suppose. The old Dogpatch attraction played on an earlier generation of stereotypes, barefoot hillbillies and moonshine stills. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it under its new owner. I’m guessing it won’t stray far from the formula that has made the other attractions so popular.
I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new book coming out this fall! Unlike my earlier books, this one is a collection of short stories. The title is Scattered Lights….that’s a line from one of the stories, and (in my mind) an appropriate metaphor for the people in the stories, and the stories themselves: a collection of things that may seem random at first, but which are deeply and firmly connected, if only we take the time to look. Release date is projected for November.
I’ve started a Scattered Lights page on my website and will be placing news about the book on it, for the most part, although I’ll put headlines here occasionally, too. The publisher is Cornerpost Press, a new venture out of West Plains, and they have been absolutely magical to work with! I think this new book will look great.
And for those of you who only know me through my novels, I think the stories will provide a different look. They’re not set in historical times, but in the contemporary setting.
“On Limits and Localism” is the title of an excellent, thoughtful article by Lindi Phillips that recently came out on the Arkansas Strong website. It talks about farming in the Ozarks, and how the old traditions of small, diversified farming gave way to the standardized monoculture of national agriculture. And then it connects the weaknesses of that system to the issues of the current pandemic. It is well worth the read!
Find it here. “On Limits and Localism.”
Independence Day approaches, so it’s time to think about patriotic songs again. In the past, I’ve written about “America, the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and others. So it’s definitely time for an update.
I wrote earlier that I preferred “America, the Beautiful” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem, partly because of its singability and partly because of its tone. It’s a celebration of America in all its variety and thus appropriate for all times, while “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a battle song, more suitable for wartime spirit-rousing than for reflection on our blessings. (In a future post I’ll write about America’s other great battle song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). In our current turmoil over public symbolism, Francis Scott Key’s checkered history as a slaveowner who also criticized slavery has made him a problematic figure, similar to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and a great number of important historic figures whose past deserves re-examination. I doubt if “The Star-Spangled Banner” will ever lose its place at ball games and public events, though, now that it’s ingrained in people’s minds, so I’ll let that debate pass.
A friend of mine used to say, only half-joking, that Paul Simon’s “American Tune” should be our national anthem, as it reflected the American spirit nowadays a lot better than the songs from the 19th Century do. I’d like to think a little about “American Tune,” because it confronts us with the question of what a patriotic song is, and what it isn’t.
“American Tune” was written in 1972 and released in 1973, and Simon told an interviewer that it was written in response to the re-election of Richard Nixon. The tune was taken from Bach’s setting of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” from the St. Matthew Passion, a melody that has been used for other songs over the years, notably “Because All Men Are Brothers,” which was on an early album by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics are, in my opinion, among Simon’s best. They combine his penchant for surreal imagery with direct and emotional statements, and they convey a sense of weariness combined with resolution that we can all appreciate.
The song begins with a sense of defeat: souls battered, dreams shattered, friends ill at ease. But that sense is tempered by reassurance: “It’s all right,” the chorus reassures us, although just what “all right” means is rather subdued. It’s all right because we lived so well so long, and it’s all right because you can’t be forever blessed: not exactly words to march into battle with. The song’s most memorable moment, the one that everyone remembers, comes in the bridge section. The speaker has had a dream. I dreamed I was dying, he says, but this dream is all right, for his soul looks down and smiles reassuringly. Then I dreamed I was flying, and this time when he looks up, he sees “The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea.” Liberty itself has fled the scene.
The final verse sums it up:
We come on a ship they call the Mayflower
We come on a ship that sails the moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune.
Is it a patriotic song? Of course it is. It expresses deep feelings of loving concern about the country, at a time when “love it or leave it” was a popular slogan. As we reflect on our history today, with renewed examination of our under-told stories, our under-examined monuments, and the challenges posed by our historic symbols and slogans, we owe it to ourselves that patriotism doesn’t rule out criticism and love of country mustn’t blind us in those moments when the Statue of Liberty appears to have sailed away.