She said, "There's not much hope for a red dirt girl
Somewhere out there is a great big world
That's where I'm bound
And the stars might fall on Alabama
But one of these days I'm going to swing my hammer down
Away from this red dirt town
I'm going to make a joyful sound"
My brother reminded me yesterday of the birthday of a mutual friend that was coming up. It was his friend really, because he is my big brother and the friend was in his class, but I got to share him from time to time.
He passed away twelve years ago.
He was a musician. And music talks to me about him, from time to time. In the song “Good ol’ Boys Like Me,” (written by Bob McDill) there is a couplet: “When I was in school I ran with a kid down the street / But I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed.” Emmylou Harris’s song “Red Dirt Girl” expands on a similar situation with a finer focus.
Neither of these discuss my friend's situation exactly, but in the realm of poetry they are about him. That is very fitting because it is in that realm that his story belongs.
He was cursed with being an artist, a musician. He was cursed in being in a place just a little too far for him to connect with a community where some people would have been able to understand him.
He was like a butterfly being born in a jar when there was no one around to take the lid off.
Artists are the ones who truly come closest to being prophets in the Old Testament sense. Prophets are people who are tuned into a radio station no one else can hear. It is often speaking a language they cannot quite understand, but they do their best to translate.
Some of them are able to do this in a way they are able to connect with those of us who do not bear this curse. To the luckiest ones, this provides a balm.
Many — most? — are not lucky.
The signal keeps coming in and no one listens.
Some of them are raving lunatics; they turn their frustration outward, and it eats up their connection with society.
Some of them, however, turn it inward. They protect those around them as much as they can, but it still comes at a cost. It doesn’t eat up their connection with society; it eats up themselves. Saying “their selves” is more accurate, but not good grammar.
Artists brighten our existence with beauty in music, painting, poetry, and literature. They also make our existence more meaningful by portraying our pain — with their pain.
“Red Dirt Girl” and “Good Ol’ Boys Like Me” ease my pain. Did they ease Emmylou’s and Bob McDill’s? What about Lillian and the boy down the street?
My soul medicine was bought at a price: “One thing they don't tell you about the blues when you got em / You keep on fallin’ cause there ain't no bottom / There ain't no end. / At least not for Lillian.”
I am crying as I write this. You need to know that. I’m not crying for my brother’s friend — for my friend. I am crying for us. We lose too many of these folks way too early. They have to suffer too much.
But now the suffering is over.
We miss you.
Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.