A banjo-picking English professor meditates on mountain music and rural lifestyles.
Harvey (English/Young Harris Coll.) began his musical explorations like thousands of other boomers, sitting in front of a record player listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and other icons of the folk music revival. Career and family concerns led him away from music, but in rural Georgia he discovered the Appalachian tradition of banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, and modal songs. The essays he collects here attempt to convey a sense of what this music says to a modern American, and how its values survive in our present-day world. Harvey has a strong feeling for the music (although he admits to being a mediocre player—one essay recounts his last-place finish in a banjo contest), and his enthusiasm is often contagious. His description of the construction of a homemade banjo is full of fascinating detail, and he is at his best when he refers to specific songs or musicians—even those the reader may never have heard of. But he can’t resist the temptation to fish for deeper significance in his material, a desire that often leads him astray. His essays on the medieval church modes (the foundation of many old mountain songs) pontificate on the emotional significance of each mode, but Harvey’s overwrought metaphors betray the subjective nature of his claims. At the same time, his failure to explain the musical structure of the modes will leave non-musician readers in the dark. He also makes much of the fact that a local pawnshop sells both musical instruments and firearms, a practice hardly unique to the rural South. But he is at his most eloquent when he gives up straining to find unplumbed depths in the experiences of which he writes and lets the material speak for itself.
Often precious, this will strike a chord nevertheless with many old folkies.