B. Phillipses for the Win

Well, I wrote a very funny (I think) Pith post in which I interviewed all of the B. Phillipses in my family, the ones who are still alive, anyway.

It was nice. And funny that all of them cracked jokes. Even the conservative ones.

I hope it will be as funny to outsiders.

This Novel-Writing Thing Will Be the End of Me

So, the truth is that one should probably not write a story of the no-good, terrible, very-bad church and the ministers who served there while at the same time feeling a great deal of anxiety about the impending visit of one’s parents.

I have concerns. One of my concerns is that nothing happens in the story, that it is, instead, just a bunch of people sitting around telling each other the stories of themselves that have gotten them into the situations they’re in. What kind of novel is that?! I’m also concerned that it’s too much that the woman who is turning into a flock of birds is also a rape victim, but the Professor asked me how many women are in my book and I was like “a shit ton”–the gal who’s becoming a flock of birds, the other gal who can become a flock of birds, the two women who are married to the dog family, the Watseka wonder, and the preacher’s daughter whose body she uses, plus the gal who’s becoming a flock of birds’ mom and her two nieces. And then the Professor pointed out that that’s pretty much statistically on-target–that one of them would have been raped. And yep, that’s true.

Anyway, I’ve just gotten to the part where the girl who is possessed by the Watseka Wonder is recounting her brief time as a sleep preacher and how her parents didn’t tell her that she was preaching in her sleep nor did they get her medical help right away because her dad was plagiarizing her sermons. And I had this moment where I thought, “Oh no! That’s the real story here. I wrote all this, but the real story is about the kind of man who could be so desperate that he would steal from his daughter and keep her sick so that he could be successful at the job that provided for them all,” and I was frozen with fear that I was writing the wrong story.

But then I realized, in a story in which parents are allowing their daughter to suffer for their own well-being, who thinks the story of the person benefiting from this arrangement is the compelling story?

So, I think I’m a little freaked out, too, because part of telling this story is dragging up a lot of crap for me, which is probably not good crap to drag up just before my parents get here.

And I also think that it has to be a story full of women’s stories because the women in my book couldn’t really do much, just because of their societal situations. So, if they’re going to participate in the narrative, it has to be through telling, not doing. Though I feel like telling, not doing, goes against every rule of fiction writing I could invent.

I need to get into, too, the ways in which members of the congregation would feel free to tell you all kinds of shitty things about your dad and to interfere in how minister’s kids are being raised.

Anyway, I’m feeling weird about it. But I forge ahead, not knowing what the hell I am doing.

Children, Go Where I Send Thee

It’s not too late to just decide that, even though he’s singing the wrong words, yes, I said it, the wrong words. It goes “Children, go where I send thee/ How shall I send thee?” Who has ever heard of a song, a religious song, where the leader says something and the respondents back-talk him? “Where you gonna send me?” Please. You have been given an order, Tennessee-Ernie-Ford Back-talkers. Go where he sends thee. Don’t sass the man.

Plus, it makes no sense for the rest of the song. He’s not sending them to two-by-two, that’s how he’s sending them out.

But I believe Ford to be a reasonable man. So, once we dig him up and reanimate him, I think he will be persuaded by my reasoning. Which brings me back to the first seven words of this post.

It’s not too late to just decide that Tennessee Ernie Ford has the perfect voice for singing this song and that, if you can’t reasonably reproduce the essence of this performance, you just shouldn’t bother. I invite you to go to youtube and view the videos of people singing this song and tell me if you don’t agree. This song works best when it feels like an invocation, when the singer has either a strong enough voice–like Ford–or a voice like a serrated porcupine quill–like Ralph Stanley–to get the attention of Heaven and earth.

I’m sorry Natalie Merchant. You have a lovely voice, but the children cannot hear you over the video game they’re playing in the other room. And multiple choirs who perform this with some kind of backing track? Hang up your robes, you frauds. This is a song that begs for minimal accompaniment.

Ha ha ha.

Yes, okay, clearly, I’m a little stressed about the holidays since I’m talking smack about people singing Christmas carols (though it’s interesting to note that both Ford and Cash seem kind of unsure if this even is a Christmas carol).

But I think it’s interesting to consider why this song works, when it works, and, like I said, I think it’s because it works as an invocation. You have this loud strong “Chiiiiillld-ren, GOOOOooooo Where I Send THEeeee” and it’s worth noting that one of the reasons this works as a call to action or worship is that we’re so used to the iamb–da dum da dum da dum da dum da dum (Think of “This shit is bananas, B-a-n-a-n-a-s” for a good example of iambic feet) that when we hear trochaic feet, we pay attention. It literally sounds strange.

And when you’re trying to invoke the strange–the sacred–to perform the strange is an incredibly powerful way to shift the energy in a space. Especially when we’re talking song here, not just poetry so that some of the unstressed syllables aren’t just unstressed. They are literally not there. After “thee” there’s no unstressed syllable, for instance. You just wait for the next line to start.

And then, there’s the building repetitiveness of the verses, which is a great way to, again, allow your listener (or singer-along) to shift headspace. It kind of has a chugging monotonous quality that lets you sing along with almost the whole song the first time you hear it.

I don’t know. I thought I had maybe more intelligent things to say about it. These books on Spiritualism and Old-timey Methodism have got me thinking a lot about the role of music in worship and about how these old hymns and spirituals were designed for specific mood-altering work, to help the worshipper get in a mind-altered state.

I want to think about that some.