05 September 2004

Naipaul's Nashville: Music

Naipaul interviews Nashville songwriter Bob McDill.
No amount of questioning, no amount of explaining, even from someone as willing to talk as Bob McDill was, could take one to the magic: the calling up and recognition of impulses that on the surface were simple, but which, put together with music, made rich with a chorus, seemed to catch undefined places in the heart and memory.

Mama said, don't go near that river.
Don't go hangin' round ole Catfish John.
But come the mornin' I'd always be there
Walkin' in his footsteps in the sweet delta dawn.

Almost nothing at first. But then the images and the associations come: Mama, river, catfish, footsteps, delta, dawn.

Bob McDill said he had had to learn the subculture. But the Southern images and words of his best songs are far from the stylized motifs of a good deal of country music. And though he makes much of writing in an office in a matter-of-fact, day-to-day way--and perhaps because he talks in a matter-of-fact way, since the mystery cannot be described--it is probably true that, when moved, he writes with that most private part of the self with which Proust said serious writers write.

He says that his best song is "Good Ole Boys like Me."

When I was a kid Uncle Remus he put me to bed,
With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.
Then Daddy came in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.
And he talked about honor and things I should know.
Then he staggered a little as he went out the door....
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be.
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?

Every detail there was considered. His aim, he said, was to get as much of the South as he could in a few lines. And the song has become very famous; many people I spoke to referred to it; the mood of the song spoke for them. A "good ole boy" ... was a redneck; but it was also a more general word for an old Southerner, someone made by the old ways. The song might seem ironical, then celebratory. But below that it is an elegy for the South, old history and myth, old community, old faith.
SOURCE: A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1989), pp. 247-248.

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