Last Sunday I sat on the church porch, smoked my pipe and listened as some of our musicians played their guitars and mandolins. One of the songs we sang was “Paradise,” my favorite Bluegrass ballad. It’s a song about a town in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky that disappeared because of rapacious strip mining.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
While I’ve sung that song before, this time I noticed something I’d missed – it’s a conversation between a father and his son. And their words are a recollection of something their family endured and did not want to forget. .
And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Sitting there in a cloud of blue smoke, watching the men and boys strum and pluck, while tapping their toes, and nodding their heads, I began thinking about how important memories are, and it occurred to me that our children are ossuaries of local memory. They are the curators of our culture, remembers, charged with preserving our shared history.
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
And I began ruminating on how it’s possible fur us to live on through our children long after we are dead, and that the poet-priest John Donne was right when he wrote those lines – “The Church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and engrafted into the body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author and is one volume. No man is an island. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
That means we are connected to the past and the future, to our ancestors, and to our children, and to our children’s children, whom we may never see. And the fullness of life can only be found in the succession of generations, within a community that’s shared a lived history. But how is that done?
About that time a four year old boy was overcome by the music and began to dance. He entered the circle and the men smiled. Pleased, I pulled on my pipe and clapped. And while watching him do his jig it occurred to me that our musicians must record our story. Our poets must record our journey. Our painters, and artists, and photographers must capture our history. Hollywood and the government will write our stories, if we let them. But if we do what’s always been done, our children will have a story to live – a story they didn’t write, but a story that was given to them by their ancestors. Then we will be able to take our place in that ossuary, and live on through them.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
Doug Sangster lives with his wife in Houston Texas.