Oral tradition epiphanies like that are hundreds of years in the making. In his projects with rural Alabama schoolchildren, Minneapolis-based musician Larry Long speeds things up considerably. "In one week we move a hundred years through the folk process," he says on the phone from Tuscaloosa. Long travels from town to town like the troubadours who've always scattered songs like seeds. Unlike them, he's funded by a program called Pacers, a cooperative of small country schools. In each community, an older local person visits the classroom to tell his or her life story on Monday, Long and the students write a song together based heavily on direct quotes from the speaker throughout the week, and by Friday night they're performing (and recording) in front of the town. The album Here I Stand: Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song preserves some of these songs and stories, most of which are centered around the theme of work, and hard work at that.
The album's first voice belongs to Arthur Slater of Coffeeville, describing the first radio to come to town, and how he and his friends ran like mad to hear a Joe Louis fight. He says it was fun, even though Louis knocked out his opponent in four seconds flat. The song that Long and the Coffeeville students perform after his story traces Slater's life in a piece called "My Charge to Keep," referring to a farm kid's responsibility, as well as segregated schools (and how good it makes Slater feel now to see kids of different colors playing baseball together at his old divided school).
Long notes that people such as the coal miner, housewife, and store owner who speak to these classes "are just not validated well within an economically based culture. When you listen to Arthur Slater, he really counts his blessings in a unique way. He stayed in Coffeeville. He didn't move to Chicago or Detroit, he chose to stay in the home where he was raised. You're not really hearing him complain."
An elder, Long says, "is somebody who doesn't whine, somebody who carries their story with dignity and truthfulness. ... When an elder speaks, it's really sacred. It's a time when the stories get passed from one generation to the next. This is not about romancing the past at all. It's to celebrate the living." I haven't heard such earnest, heartfelt appreciation in so long; such serious devotion completely disarms me. At least in relation to this project, Larry Long is a man devoid of any sense of irony, which is so outside my present sarcastic urban frame of reference I'm surprised his words register at all. This is exactly the sort of guitar player you want your children to write songs about the elderly with.
"Folk" isn't a word Long throws around lightly. He's a believer, intent on warning against the perils of a certain kind of hero worship. He's as big a Woody Guthrie fan as anybody, in that he organized the first hometown tribute to Guthrie in Okemah, Okla. But he doesn't bide with the "real big myth in American culture" in the way that Guthrie gets "promoted as the Lone Ranger. It's not true and it's also not healthy for young people to think that way." Instead, Long esteems collective effort: "The way things work is in collaboration with other people." He estimates that between the children and community people, about a thousand people had something to do with what's heard: "That's what's exciting about this project."
I think a person needs a myth or two to make it through the day. But as I look back on my own elementary education -- basically one long awards ceremony for Gregor Mendel and George Washington -- it seems like a week's worth of Long's brand of participatory, respectful social realism would be inspiring in ways that discovering genetic codes or crossing the Delaware is not. And sometimes, even for children, inspiration is as hard to find as that fox my grandmother used to sing about.
By Sarah Vowell
Here I Stand: Elders' Wisdom, Children's Song by Larry Long with the Youth and Elders of Rural Alabama is available from Smithsonian Folkways.