The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Way Down Below: Terraplane Blues

Several times during his life, I heard my Dad speak of a car that a young man in his small town owned back in the '30s. He described it with awe, as a special kind of powerful machine. It was called a Terraplane and was manufactured by the Hudson car company.

When I looked it up back in the day, I found Hudson had also manufactured a companion line called Essex through the '20s and early '30s, and the first Terraplanes in '32 - '33 bore this designation as well.

In my opinion, those from '36, 37, and '38 were on the ugly side, with bulbous bodies and ungainly looking grilles and fenders. But those from '32, '33, '34, and '35 were very nicely styled, with proportioned hoods and graceful flowing fender lines.

And like Dad remembered, Terraplanes were powerful and fast. Wiki says,
1933 Essex-Terraplane 8-cylinder cars were believed to have the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio of any production automobiles in the world, and were favored by several gangsters of the day, particularly John DillingerBaby Face Nelson, and John Paul Chase, for their lightness, acceleration, handling, and discreet appearance.
The opening hood vent doors (instead of louvers) indicate that the beautiful '33 coupe below had the powerful straight eight, but most of them came with six cylinder engines. They were also very fast.

Their speed, light weight, and strength (all steel frame) made them legendary. If you were interested in fast cars, you knew about Hudson Terraplanes. Thus, these beautiful cars became a part of popular culture, including music.

Especially Blues music. Robert Johnson had obviously heard about these fast cars and he wrote a song about them, "Terraplane Blues." Well, not exactly about the car. You see, the song's ostensibly about a car, but it's also about a woman. The comparison between the two is extended over the whole song. In fancy literary parlance, this is called a conceit, or an extended metaphor. Back in the late '70s, early '80s I used to use this song as an example of that figure of speech in class sometimes.

Johnson sets up everything right away. He says, "Who's been driving my Terraplane for you since I been gone?" The woman is his "Terraplane" and somebody's been driving her since he's been away. he can tell somebody's been messin' round with his car (woman) because he flashes her lights and finds her horn won't even blow. He says there must be a short in her connection "way way down below."

Yup, something's definitely wrong, so he needs to "heist her hood" and check....Well, you get the picture.

The version of Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" I used in class was on a compilation vinyl album I bought in the bargain bin back in the late '70s, and the singer was bluesman Son House. That version isn't available on youtube but you can easily find the original by Johnson in their vast holdings.

And there's this version, by Roy Rogers.

Whoa Trigger!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Summer Wages

I turned 18 in 1958 and like most young men, I faced many temptations. And like most temptations, they weren't so easy to ignore and set aside. But thankfully, I had a strong desire to leave home, get out in the world on my own, and, most importantly, go to college. To do that, I had to save my summer wages.

Right after I graduated from high school, my family moved to Texas. I got a job driving a truck hauling eggs. I saved about 95 percent of what I earned (around $700). It was a staggering pile of cash for an 18 year old who was used to getting along on meager fare. It amounted to about a sixth of what the average worker earned in a year in those days. The major temptation was to buy a fairly good and sexy used car. I could have used it to pay half down on a used '55 Chevy V8 210 post, which could be had for $1200-1500. Like most '50s teens, I loved cars; they symbolized freedom and unlimited possibilities. Believe me, that Chevy, or something like it, was very, very tempting. But that would have meant delaying college and working to pay off the payments.
Somehow I kept my wits about me and used my summer earnings to pay for a full year of tuition, room, and board ($220 per quarter) at Martin Junior college in 1958-59.

The next summer, 1959, I worked at Nashville Electric Service, on one of their construction crews laying conduits in new substations. I operated one of the most important technical inventions in the history of mankind. A shovel.
I wielded that sucker by following after the necessarily destructive efforts of a man nicknamed Coleslaw who broke up the earth with either his clay digger or jackhammer depending on the nature of the soil/rock. He broke it up, I shoveled it out of the ditch. It was blazing hot work. I slaved, sweated, and turned brown in the sun. I can't quite explain it, but the work made me feel pretty damn good, too. Again, driven by the same motivation, I saved almost all of what I earned to pay for another year of college.

But that year, there were other sirens calling me as well. One was to hit the road. Travel around some, see what's over the hill. Again, I think most young men feel that urge. Some go on an extended trip with friends, just driving around the country and raising a little Hell. Others, with money, go to Europe, or at least they did in the old days. Still others join the service. I believe the drive that gets in the heart of a young man is a basic, instinctive urge to roam, to go to strange places, to see the world, to have an adventure. But I guess maybe I'm not the adventurous type...I suppressed that urge and stayed on course.

In the summer of 1960, I again worked for the electrical utility, this time in a pole setting crew. It too was hot, hard work.  I again used a shovel, a small one this time, to remove the dirt and rock from the deep cylindrical holes being dug for new poles.
Frequently dynamite was used to loosen the earth and rock and getting down in the hole meant inhaling some of the residual smoke. This resulted in many nitrite induced headaches which were as bad as any I've ever had.

I worked at the electrical utility from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. I got home around 3:30, bathed, and made it to work at a local grocery store from 4:00 p.m. till 10:00 p.m.

I worked 13 hour days M-F and then on Saturday, worked at the grocery from 2:00 p.m. till 10:00 p.m. I again saved almost all the money I earned. I had no free time but I loved it. This time I had a little added motivation for being careful about those summer wages...I was getting married in mid August.

After all these years, I can still remember the strong temptation, especially in '58 and '59 ('60 not so much) to throw caution in the ditch, forget my plans, and spend that summer money, the most I'd ever had in my pocket in my life. I felt a strong desire to take the risk, to blow it all, or maybe gamble the whole stash on some wild, off the wall, crazy  undertaking.

But somehow, someway, I kept my head down and didn't give in to the temptations to spend those summer wages. I'm not criticizing anyone else who took the risk, rolled the dice, hit the road, or perhaps followed some wild dream. But I don't envy them either.

People take different paths and the lucky ones make the one they choose their own. I'm comfortable with my choice and glad now that I didn't blow those summer wages.

Ian Tyson's..."Summer Wages, sung by Tyson, Emmy Lou, and Sylvia."

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Wolverton Mountain and the Chevy II Drug Wagon

In spring, summer, and fall of 1962, I was working on my Master's degree at George Peabody College in Nashville. To help with expenses, I worked part time at a drugstore in what's called the Village which is just over the hill from the Vanderbilt and Peabody campuses on 21st Avenue.

I worked as a short order cook for the grill/fountain area and on some days did drug deliveries to the pharmacy's regular customers, especially those who were shut-ins. (Dapper Dan, the Drug Delivery Man.)

The drugstore vehicle I drove while making the deliveries was a brand new, stripped down, white 1962 Chevy II wagon. It had a 90 hp four cylinder engine. Except for the color and the fancy trim, it looked a little like this...

 I said it was stripped down, and it was, but it did have an AM radio which I always tuned to WSM 650 as I made my deliveries.

That summer and fall I'll bet I heard Claude King's "Wolverton Mountain" about a thousand times on that Chevy II radio as I made my drug deliveries. (You can listen to the tune below.) The DJs played it over and over. It seemed like every time I got in the drug wagon and turned the radio on, the song was playing.

King actually co wrote the song with Merle Kilgore who had written a crude draft of the song earlier. It was based on an actual person, Kilgore's uncle Clifton. King liked what Kilgore had and deftly shaped the rough original into the hit ballad.

The song has a catchy tune, tells a story about a love struck young man and the girl protected by her father who lives on Wolverton Mountain, and it has those echoing "ahoooos" at the beginning.

Wiki says,

King was born in Keithville in southern Caddo Parish near the city of ShreveportLouisiana. At a young age, he was interested in music but more so in athletics. He purchased a guitar at the age of twelve, and although he learned to play, most of his time was devoted to sports. He was offered a baseball scholarship to the University of Idaho at MoscowIdaho.
King later returned to Shreveport and joined Louisiana Hayride, a television and radio show produced in Shreveport and broadcast in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. King was frequently on the same shows with Elvis PresleyTex RitterJohnny CashHank WilliamsWebb PierceKitty WellsJimmie DavisSlim WhitmanFaron YoungJohnny HortonJim Reeves,George Jones, and Lefty Frizzell.

"Wolverton Mountain" was a hit right away and stayed at No. 1 on the country charts for nine weeks; it also cracked the top ten 100 hot list for that year and eventually sold a million records.

Mr. King died this week at age 90. Here's the song which he'll be remembered for over many years to come.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


As of this writing the Cumberland Post has had 100,327 total page views since we started in late January of 2010.

We crossed over the 100,000 line this morning while Joyce and I were getting our car serviced.

I took the entire staff out for lunch at the appropriately named "Our Place Cafe" to celebrate. Joyce enjoyed a tasty baked Tilapia dish while I had the Lasagna.

The line came up sooner than I figured it would; since January, lots of my older posts have really taken off. Why, I'm not sure, but I ain't complainin'. (It ain't spam either, I checked.)

We didn't actually get a trophy, and I realize 100,000 is nowhere near as many page views as some bloggers have, but it's a milestone for us.

Red River Valley Mystery

The origins of the famous folk/cowboy song "Red River Valley" are uncertain. Variations on the title are plentiful too and range from
"Cowboy Love Song", "Bright Sherman Valley", "Bright Laurel Valley", "In the Bright Mohawk Valley", and "Bright Little Valley"—depending on where it has been sung.
Some think the song is of Canadian origin, dating from the time of the Wolseley Expedition (1870) which was a military force organized to put down the Red River Rebellion at the Red River colony in the Manitoba province. It was, according to Wiki, also intended to "counter American expansionist sentiments in northern border states."

Others think "Red River Valley" came from Iowa in 1879 because a manuscript of the lyrics exists which has a notation to that effect.

Wiki also notes that
The song appears in sheet music, titled "In the Bright Mohawk Valley", printed in New York in 1896 with James J. Kerrigan as the writer.
There is no mystery, however, as to how popular the song is. It's one of the first songs many of us learn to sing. It's simple, hymn like melody is easy to follow and it's my opinion that the song embodies and conveys a wistful kind of natural spirituality and sentiment that even an atheist is comfortable with.

The lyrics suggest a hard truth--love, like life, is not eternal, does not last. The narrator seems to grasp this truth but resists it. He knows that his lover is leaving and asks for some sign of affection ("come and sit by my side if you love me").  He holds out hope against hope that somehow their love can be maintained, that it's not over.

There is also no longer a mystery as to which version of this song is the absolute, very best of all time. It's this one.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Day Country Music Died

People live, people die. It's an inescapable fact of human existence.

If  people are famous when they die, the world takes notice.

If they're famous and they die with other famous people in the same incident or at the same time, their death can become a kind of historical marker for a shift in the direction or substance of culture.

The history of pop and rock music was significantly altered in February of 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, and their pilot Roger Peterson were all killed in a small plane crash in Iowa. This event was immortalized in Don McLean's "American Pie" in 1971 as "The Day the Music Died."

Four years later, on March 5, 1963, the landscape of country music and pop music was abruptly changed as well when Lloyd Estel "Cowboy" Copas, Patsy Cline, Harold Franklin "Hawkshaw" Hawkins, and pilot Randy Hughes, who was Cline's manager and Copas' son-in-law, were killed in a plane crash near Dyersburg, Tennessee.

In years to come, Patsy Cline's legend grew, but at the time of the crash, most people in country music and its fans as well would have said Cowboy Copas was the bigger star of the three. His first big hit was in 1946 with "Filipino Baby," and he had a string of others on into the early '50s including "Signed, Sealed, and Delivered," and "'Tis So Sweet to be Remembered." Then his career went South for a few years until 1960 when his biggest hit ever, "Alabam," reached the top of the charts and stayed at No. 1 for three months. Copas was an excellent guitar player and he demonstrates his fast thumb picking style in this video of "Alabam."

Patsy Cline was a recognized and honored star in country music at the time of her death in '63, but since that time her legend has grown. The re release of her great records, the successful stage plays about her life, and the movies and TV shows about her have made her the most famous of the four who died that stormy night back in '63.

Wiki says that Cline (born Virginia Patterson Hensley)
was best known for her rich tone, emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice and her role as a country music industry pioneer. Along with Kitty Wells, she helped pave the way for women as headline performers in the genre. Cline's was cited as an inspiration by singers in several genres....Her hits began in 1957 with Donn Hecht's "Walkin' After Midnight", Harlan Howard's "I Fall to Pieces", Hank Cochran's "She's Got You", Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and ended in 1963 with Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams".
In the years before she died, Cline bought her dream home in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, which is part of the Metro Nashville area. Several stars from that era made their homes in Goodlettsville and neighboring Hendersonville; today's stars seem to prefer the much more upscale area in Williamson county.

Here's Patsy Cline's last recorded song, "I'll Sail My Ship Alone." This is a nice video with lots of candid shots of Cline.

The third country star who died that fateful night was Virginia native, Hawkshaw Hawkins. Although he began his career back in the late '40s, Hawkins had only just begun to achieve the kind of success that would have more than likely propelled him to a star status comparable to that of Cline and Copas at the time.

Wiki says that
He gained his nickname as a boy after helping a neighbor track down two missing fishing rods: the neighbor dubbed him "Hawkshaw" after the title character in the comic strip, Hawkshaw the Detective. He traded five trapped rabbits for his first guitar, and first performed on WCMI-AM in Ashland, Kentucky. At 16, he won a talent competition and a job on WSAZ-AM in Huntington, where he formed Hawkshaw and Sherlock with Clarence Jack. 
The 6'5" Hawkins served in WWII and won four battle stars at the Battle of the Bulge. His first two recordings with King Records in the later '40s were "Pan American" and "Doghouse Boogie." Both were top ten country hits.

He continued to record through the '50s but didn't have a hit until he recorded "Lonesome 7-7203" in 1962. The song didn't appear on the charts until March 2, 1963, three days before his death. By March 23, the song had reached No. 1 status and it remained in that position for twenty five weeks.

Randy Hughes, pilot of ill fated Piper Comanche, was a studio guitarist and Cline's manager. He signed on with her in 1959 and was instrumental in getting her to change labels; she went from Four Star to Decca. Because of this change Hughes was able to get her records produced by "legendary female-singer country music producer" Owen Bradley. Bradley was a proponent of the more lushly produced "Nashville Sound" which Cline initially feared. But he and Hughes eventually persuaded her to accept this style change which led her to greater success with "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy."

Most country stars of the time toured in car caravans or in buses. But Hughes, who had hopes of managing several stars, felt the Comanche would be a more convenient way for his clients to travel. The weather was bad that Tuesday when he and his three traveling companions took off from the Kansas City airport. They stopped once in Missouri to refuel and then made it as far as Dyersburg, Tennessee, where they landed at 4:30 p.m. Hughes was not instrument rated and the owners of the Dyersburg airport urged him to wait till morning when the weather was supposed to improve. But Hughes, Cline, Copas, and Hawkins were all tired and wanted to get back to Nashville which was just 170 miles away. So, they took off into the stormy night.

The wreckage of the plane was found in a forest in Camden, Tennessee, roughly 90 miles from Nashville.

Kathy Hughes, Randy's wife, faced a double tragedy that day; she lost both her husband and her father, Cowboy Copas, in the crash.

(The Tennessean's Peter Cooper has a long and interesting article about the crash, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath if you'd like to do more reading about these performers.)

The contributions these stars might have made had they not been killed that night in March fifty years ago are obviously unknown, but judging from their prior accomplishments, it's my opinion that whatever they might have done had they lived would have altered the shape, culture, and direction of country music.