Sunday, May 2, 2010

Man of Constant Sorrow

My life and times
Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

When he was on her NPR show promoting this book, I heard Diane Rehm ask Ralph Stanley if he thought of himself as a man of constant sorrow. His answer was that yes, he had sung the song of that title for many years and that he felt that the way he sang it communicated it's meaning very well. That is hardly the answer Diane was looking for and, after reading the book, I have concluded that while Dr. Stanley has had his share of heartache in his long life, that he has had his share of joy as well. But his use, for this book, of the song title so closely associated with the Cohen Brothers' Oh Brothr Where Art Thou, (not the song that Stanley sang in the movie) is entirely justified by long association. Anyway, it wouldn't work to title his autobiography Oh Death.

Man of Constant Sorrow is an autobiographic look at the Stanley Brothers, the Clinch Mountain Boys and old time mountain music from the inside. Dr. Stanley says a number of times that he does not consider what he calls "the Stanley sound" to be bluegrass. The music industry mostly disagrees with him, but that's OK.

Dr. Stanley's reminiscences have been compiled and organized by Eddie Dean, a music journalist associated with the Washington D.C. City Paper and co-author of another book Pure Country about country music performers coming through the outdoor music parks in Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 1950s and early 1960s. The book is written in the first person in the voice of Ralph Stanley and preserving the flavor of his rural southwestern Virginia speech.

You may have noticed that I refer to Ralph Stanley as "Dr.Stanley" in this posting. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1976. Dr. Stanley makes it perfectly clear that he is quite proud of his degree and that he likes people to address him that way. At the same time he makes it clear that he is just a country boy who has been fortunate enough to make his living playing music. Pride and modesty going hand in hand.

There are some stories in the book about others in the bluegrass and country music filed, especially Bill Monroe, whom both Ralph Stanley and his older brother Carter worked at times. There is a bit of grousing about some people in the field. John Duffy, of the Seldom Scene takes the worst licking. I understand that much material of this kind was left out of the manuscript at Eddie Dean's insistence. Without going into detail, I agree with Dr. Stanley's assessment of Tim McGraw and the contemporary stable of country music stars. It's well known to everyone over fifty than no good music has been recorded since 1969 or thereabouts.

Note: there is a companion post, with video, on my music blog, Clark's Picks.

This review is in:

This post is in the 44th
Book Review Blog Carnival

keywords: biography, memoir, music, bluegrass, Ralph Stanley


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