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Songs rising from a well of pain

Greil Marcus is the author of "The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes."

When June Carter Cash died May 15 at 73, obituaries appeared in every major publication in the United States. Her tale was told: wife of Johnny Cash; daughter of the guitarist and singer Mother Maybelle Carter, of the legendary Carter Family of the Virginia mountains -- who, from 1927, the year of their first recordings, would define country music, and American music, for the nation and then the world.

But while June Carter Cash’s and Johnny Cash’s own spiritually uplifting autobiographies were noted, as was Mark Zwonitzer’s 2002 “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music,” I saw no mention of a book that, far more than any work of nonfiction, goes to the heart of the world so many others have so determinedly written around: Lee Smith’s 1992 novel, “The Devil’s Dream.”

Was that because Smith -- author most recently of the 2003 novel “The Last Girls” but also of “Saving Grace” (1995), “Fair and Tender Ladies” (1988), “Oral History” (1983) and “Black Mountain Breakdown” (1980) -- is from the Virginia mountains herself, lives in North Carolina, sets her books in the South and is thus dismissed as a regional novelist and ignored elsewhere, unlike those novelists who, though their literary terrain may be restricted to certain neighborhoods of Manhattan, are taken to speak for the country at large? Or is it because “The Devil’s Dream,” whose Bailey family is clearly inspired by the Carter Family, is no country roman a clef but a story that burns off piety and uplift not to reveal any real person’s story but to find the story American music really tells -- tells, that is, less because of its singers, composers and players than in spite of them?

“The Devil’s Dream” still lacks readers conversant with the country music story, those conversant with literary fiction and those who want nothing more from a book than to fall into it as if it were itself a dream, but the book’s reach has only grown since it first appeared. In 1992, the six generations of Baileys who march through Smith’s pages seemed almost too much to take in; today the book feels too short. If in 1992 Smith seemed to be telling the musical secrets the Nashville machine was created to keep hidden, now one is most of all aware of what secrets Smith chose not to tell.

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“The Devil’s Dream” is a family saga pulled back and forth between the poles of two truths, both proved again and again by the tales between Smith’s covers. The first, ruling truth is that music made for any reason but to glorify God really is the devil’s music. The second truth, which again and again steals the ruler’s scepter and flings it over a mountainside, is that there is more life to be found in profane music than in anything else on the very Earth God made.

Smith doesn’t hedge her bets: The family legend that opens “The Devil’s Dream” is both country life and biblical allegory. In the 1830s, in the Virginia mountains, Moses Bailey marries Kate Malone. Moses is a seeker after God’s true path, but Kate loves the fiddle: “the voice,” Moses says, “of the devil laughing.” He forbids her to play it, and his children too. Moses is insane, but not so that anyone would stop him: In the mountains, no one expects anyone to be like everybody else.

Moses leaves home to earn money; he’ll be gone a week, he tells his wife. But he is traveling by river, his raft crashes and he walks home. He hears Kate and his children singing and playing, and he falls on them like a fire, beating his wife and his sons, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and his daughter, Mary, “until” -- as an old man, the first of Smith’s many narrators, remembers -- “the children run off in the woods to get away from him. At the last, he throwed hisself down on the floor and cried like a baby the rest of the whole night long.” But there’s no escape from what Moses has done. He has laid a curse on his own family. Jeremiah is dead that day. Moses dies not long after. Kate goes mad.

In a manner so naturalistic that even the names of her characters seem to be completely their own -- with the details of everyday life at first concealing the drama that is building in the story, and then throwing that drama into Gothic relief -- Smith has had the people in her story reenact another play. A Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets (his faith), saw the Golden Calf (the fiddle), broke the tablets and the pagan idol (beat his family and smashed the fiddle). Though the story continues down for 15 decades, until it survives only as one of an old woman’s “old crazy stories,” in a way the tale stops right there. There is no redemption, no renewal. There is only what the Puritan poet Edward Taylor called “a loose desire” and the fear of it: the pursuit of Moses’ curse or the doomed attempt to escape it. Insanity, murder, suicide and music -- a glimpse, in the playing or the hearing, of the beauty of the world -- will follow the Baileys’ descendants all their lives.

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It’s a doubled curse, moving through “The Devil’s Dream” in the shape of two songs: “Black Jack Davey,” the ballad of a dark stranger who steals a young woman from her husband and baby, offering nothing but the certainty of ruin in exchange for the promise of ecstasy; and “The Cuckoo,” a set of blank allegories that describes the simple fact that no man or woman can be at home in the world. These songs were sung in the British Isles long before travelers brought them to the Southern highlands; here, the songs have been sung from before the founding of the United States to the present day.

There is the Carter Family itself, with their direct “Black Jack David,” from 1940, sung as if nothing could be more obvious than a woman leaving the warm sleep of her husband’s bed for the promise of sex on the ground, or Bob Dylan’s “Black Jack Davey” from 1992, sung with cunning more than anything else. Sung by a man or a woman, it has always been a woman’s song, driven by her wishes. The woman is human in the song; the man is a specter, the imp of the woman’s own perversity that she herself conjures up.

“The Cuckoo” is often known as “Jack of Diamonds.” The allusion to the Jack in “Black Jack Davey” suggests that “The Cuckoo” and “Black Jack Davey” were twins separated at birth, the one calling out to the other -- but they are not the same song.

“The Cuckoo” is not a ballad; it is a set of seemingly random verses that conventionally begins by invoking a bird that “warbles as she flies” -- or “wobbles.” In many variants the cuckoo is linked to the founding of the country, to “The Fourth Day of July,” the first day of the year the cuckoo sings. The singer testifies that he has gambled all over the world and lays his money down one more time. Solely through differences between one singer’s tone and another’s, the cuckoo is described as innocent (“She sips from pretty flowers / To make her voice clear,” the Charlatans sang in a jangly version of “Jack of Diamonds” in San Francisco in 1965, beginning the song as a dance in a saloon and ending it in a single room in a heartbreak hotel, the vamping of the piano and the guitar fading as the vocalist recites the words as if delivering a speech in the mirror) or, as the band Kaleidoscope rendered “Cuckoo” in almost the same words in Los Angeles in 1969 (“She just sucks from / Pretty flowers / Just to keep her voice / Clear”), as a demon, as death on wings.

Despite Janis Joplin’s astonishing dive into “Coo Coo” with Big Brother and the Holding Company in San Francisco in 1966 -- there is a wildness in Joplin’s voice that takes the song away from the body of myth it gathers around itself and places the source of the music directly in her own body, her own life, so that it becomes less a play of cryptic symbols than a blues, with Joplin leading up to every “I” in the lyric with a wail so lost and terrified you can feel her falling into the void that has suddenly opened up in the music -- “The Cuckoo” has always been a man’s song, about a man’s adventures and failures, his fleeting triumphs and his ineradicable worthlessness, his fantasies of ruling the world and his self-loathing over his inability to master even himself.

The songs pull the men and women of “The Devil’s Dream” through the novel, across its more than 150 years, because Lee Smith reverses their poles of gravity: that is, she reverses their sex. “The Cuckoo” becomes the woman’s story, suffused not with uncertain bravado, as in North Carolinan Clarence Ashley’s definitive male versions from 1929 and the early 1960s, but with glee and sorrow. The bird is always “she” in the song, but as an object of a man’s desire; now it is what the woman wants, and fears, that drives the song. In “The Devil’s Dream,” only women sing “The Cuckoo.” Nonnie Bailey, wife of Moses and Kate Bailey’s surviving son, Ezekiel, sings the song to her children “as she’d sung when her daddy put her up on the counter as a little girl, all those years ago, her high, pretty voice trilling on the last line, ‘And she never sings cuckoo till the spring of the year,’ and for a minute she was that little girl again, so silly and so good.”

Nonnie will leave her family at the first sight of Black Jack Davey, here a singer called Harry Sharp who also performs as Pete the Tramp. After catching him in bed with another woman, Nonnie will die in a fire, alone: “The last thing she saw before she lost consciousness was the wide blank gaze of Ezekiel’s blue-blue eyes as he led the high cold singing in the Church at Chicken Rise. ‘Oh God,’ Nonnie said. ‘Oh God,’ for she really had loved him. Then her mouth was full of dirt and she was dead.”

There’s no end to the story the storyless song forces its carriers to live out. “The very notion of love terrified me,” Nonnie’s daughter Lizzie says, “bringing to mind all the old ballads, which show love as a kind of sickness, or a temptation unto death, a temptation that destroys women, even as it destroyed Mamma. To me, ‘falling in love’ was like falling in death.” “I might as well say it,” Nonnie’s granddaughter Rose Anne says, looking back on her nights rolling on the ground with her cousin Johnny Raines. “Johnny ruined me for life by making me feel so much then. Why, I was more alive at fourteen, fifteen, than anybody has a right to be ever, and I haven’t got over it yet.”

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The Black Jack Daveys sing their own song, wreak their own destruction, seek their own death: Johnny Raines reappears as country singer Blackjack Johnny, picking up women, seducing them in motel rooms and stealing their money: “Johnny prefers to keep his bottle right here, in the inside pocket of his western jacket, his trademark black Nudie jacket with silver piping, silver studs: it’s that dark dangerous look the women like, that’s what Johnny’s going for, kind of a cross between Porter Wagoner and an undertaker.” Rose Anne reappears after making a respectable marriage to reliable, productive Buddy Rush but still thinking of a necklace teenage Johnny gave her, made of dried red hawthorn berries: “I would rather have it now, all brown and crumbly, than the diamond lavaliere Buddy gave me last Christmas,” she says, following the “I’d rather sleep on the cold cold ground” of “Black Jack Davey” in perfect cadence.

Despite his origins in 14th century England and Scotland as “The Gypsie Laddie,” Black Jack Davey is an American original. There is a picture of his like in Richard Carlin and Bob Carlin’s “Southern Exposure,” a collection of photographs of itinerant and community musicians from the 1850s to the 1950s: a dashingly handsome dark-haired man with a mustache and hooded eyes. From under a broad-brimmed hat he looks you right in the face, daring everything, promising nothing. Foulard tie, jacket, vest, watch chain, holding his five-string banjo: You wake up next to him and he’s already gone -- and “I’d be gone in a New York minute,” Lee Smith said when she saw the picture.

This is Black Jack Davey -- but given what stories, regrets, laments, fond memories or erotic dreams he must have left behind in Hope, Ark., where his picture was made some time in the 1890s, he is also a spiritual ancestor of Bill Clinton. So Rose Anne leaves Buddy for Johnny and one day, in a verse from Blackjack Johnny’s own song, the song his life sang, shoots him dead. “I was sure he deserved shooting, since she’d shot him,” Nonnie’s great-great-granddaughter, the country singer Katie Cocker, thinks when she reads the headlines. “It occurred to me that Johnny Raines had been just waiting for that bullet his whole life long. I can’t tell you what I mean by that, but I know it is so. There’s some men that are born to be killed.”

With the curse never lifting, only finding new bodies to inhabit, “The Devil’s Dream” -- the dream the devil dreams with a smile crossing his lips -- is a contest, or a race, between “The Cuckoo” and “Black Jack Davey”; “The Cuckoo” wins. That means, finally, that at least some of Smith’s characters, all of them women but certainly not all of her women, those who risk everything for a taste of the life that Rose Anne said had ruined her for life, take their stories back from the devil, who owns every story in “The Devil’s Dream” as surely as Rockefeller owned Standard Oil. That doesn’t mean that some of the women who sing “The Cuckoo” -- who in a way pray through it, pray to an unknown, unfixed and undetermined sense of life -- own their stories, merely that the devil doesn’t. He has a lien, but if you die before it’s due, you don’t pay. You don’t pay him.


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