Cohen, J. (Writer/Director). (1960/2002). That High Lonesome Sound [Motion picture].
United States: Shanachie Studios
A documentary film of black and white footage from small town life in the mountains of Kentucky circa the early 1960s; actually three separate films, each by Cohen but packaged together by the studio.
The lion’s share of the footage is devoted to portraying the struggles of life in this moment of history and spot of geography. Coal mining, Baptist religious observances and farming are prominent in the montages that separate the interviews, performances and narrated scenes. The film’s treatment of race, poverty, family and community implicitly reinforce the seriousness with which the documentarians make the claim that music “gives a way of making life possible to go on”.
The Narrator remarks that life in Hazard, KY in the 1960s is comparable to Depression era standards of living.
There seems to be an effort to represent both the serious and the lighter sides of life in these communities. The stern and serious church services are situated between footage of a man dancing to a banjo player’s tune and footage of young people learning to dance the twist to the radio and at a community dance. The relationship between seriousness and celebration and the relationship between work, spirituality and community are each affected through music.
The End of an Old Song
Cohen profiles Dillard Chandler and his neighbors. Chandler’s familiarity with traditional English ballads makes him a noteworthy figure in the music of this community. Chandler’s performances of the ballads demonstrate the degree to which European and African musical traditions interacted, influenced each other and contributed to all American musical forms from church hymns to rock and roll.
Sarah and Maybelle of the Original Carter Family
No attempt to document the music of Appalachia in the mid-20th century would be complete without a mention of the Carter Family. On-screen text in the film credits the Carter’s with a prominent contribution to the appearance of country music. The first performance of this segment of the film (???) makes clear the degree to which the Carter Family influenced Johnny Cash as it is almost identical in its arrangement to Cash’s Joe Beam.
“Music is the celebration of the hard life here in Kentucky. The home music and the church singing are a way of holding on to the old dignity. Music is not a mistake. It gives a way of making life possible to go on. Life is hard here and music is the celebration.” (Narrator)
“Music, is its, it’ll. . ., its spiritual. You can take a small kid that can’t even sit alone - you pull the strings on some kind of instrument a fiddle or banjo or something like that and you watch how quick you draw the attention of that kid. It’ll do its best to hold that. It draws the attention of the whole human race.” (Interview with Roscoe Holcomb)
“The Shepard family, in Rosco, sings their music around the house. It is this music that joins them to the generations before. Their ballads and church songs are the old traditionals from which the new music has come. Now hillbilly, bluegrass, ‘country rock n roll’ - are heard along side of the old time music and are just as much a part of the mountain.” (Narrator)
“In 1916 the Englishman Cecil Sharp searched the southern Appalachians looking for English folk songs which had survived in America. He encountered a ‘community in which singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as speaking’. Today that society is gone and few are left who sing the old songs. Dillard Chandler is a descendant of that community. Perhaps he is the last one who can sing the old ballads with full intensity.”