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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chasing Trains (and a Sense of Belonging) with Son House, Charlie Patton, and the Country Blues

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 8:36 AM

Page 2 of 2

During our rides, my nine-year-old oscillates between mild interest and open ho-humness. "Who is this singing?" he asked from the backseat during our most recent train-chasing expedition.

"This is Skip James," I told him, pausing in between the first and last name to really emphasize the man's importance.

He snorted derisively. "Skip James sounds like a girl."

(Subtlety is not his strong suit. Then again, it wasn't James'.)

Re-Bop Records insists that even kids get the blues. I've witnessed a myriad of moments in which my children felt small and terrified, moments when what an adult considers inconsequential wrought catastrophe. One recent afternoon, I was late in picking up my 5-year-old from kindergarten. As I approached the schoolyard, I caught a glimpse of him standing alone, classmates scurrying past to waiting parents, his eyes frantically searching for me, his face a conflation of sadness and desperation. The image of him standing there poleaxed (you know, minus the Toy Story lunchbox and the apple tree crafted from construction paper) could have possibly been conjured out of thin air by a country blues song exploring themes of alienation, hopelessness, and hardship. Maybe his pose wasn't suggesting the blues, but at least an approximation of them.

And anyway, can individuals from my rather petted and feted corner of the world (read: white, middle class, the potential to drive just three minutes in any direction and hit a chain restaurant) take an analogous approach to listening to the country blues? I like to believe it's more about viewing these songs as beautifully worded auguries. "Blues made the terrors of the world easier to endure," Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, "but blues also made those terrors more real." Country blues lyrics can serve as big, yellow caution flags regarding life's more uncomfortable moments. Like when I watch a movie with my squeamish 12-year-old and must warn, "Here comes a blood part."

It's always cute to hear that adolescent attachment to home expressed in simple, declarative sentences. "I'm never leaving here," my 9-year-old often says. "I'm always going to live here." However, one day life's train will pull up to the depot and whisk him away -- whisk all my kids away, in fact. It's one train I won't be permitted to chase. Until then, we'll geek out together in our own unaccepted ways. Fire up the Skip James.

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Dad Rock is a column in which Ryan Foley attempts to look at pop music and pop culture from the precipice of middle age. If he ultimately leaps, it's because tiny hands ruined his Galaxie 500 vinyl. Accusations that he's raising five insufferable hipster children can be sent to mofrackie@gmail.com.

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Ryan Foley

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