Junebug versus Hurricane


Elegy for the Living

Subiaco Cemetery Blues

Pineola

Taylor Black

02/03/10

Last week, I dealt with Emmylou Harris’ eulogy to a red dirt girl named Lillian and ended with the line: “We don’t sing to die, we sing because we’re not dead.”  While I can’t exactly say what I meant by this line, or why—aside from the strain of melodrama that weighs heavily on my personal style—I decided to end my piece with it, I can say it was intended in part as a sort of hopeful way out of this particular eulogy to failure.  Can singing ever really fall on deaf—or more pointedly—dead ears?  What sorts of spells do funeral songs cast over the living?

Magically, “the rare haunting power” of funeral songs surfaced again during my reading of Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe’s Typography, causing me to consider the ways in which singing in the name of the dead, or about death, casts a spell over life as it’s being lived.  Here, in one of his various readings of Theodor Reik’s autobiography, he asks: “What exactly links music to mourning?  What links it to the work or play of mourning—to the Trauerspiel, to tragedy?”   So, to continue my ruminations on death and sadness, I would like to ask why, if we sing to live, do we sing so much about death?  What are the residual effects of our mournful cries, our wailings, our keenings about the deceased for those that remain?

Lucinda Williams’ song “Pineola” was written in the immediate aftermath of the suicide of southern gothic poet Frank Stanford.    One afternoon in June 1978, Stanford got into an argument with his wife regarding some of the affairs he had been engaging in with some of the women—Lucinda herself one of them—in and around Fayetteville, Arkansas.  He then proceeded to go up into his bedroom and shoot himself three times in the chest.  The first lines of the song themselves do more than set the stage for this messy, confusing death—they emote and embody Lucinda’s feelings of shock and discombobulation upon learning of Stanford’s act.  In “Pineola,” silence itself is a sound, a spooky reverberation:

“When Daddy told me what happened//I couldn’t believe what he just said//Sonny shot himself with a 44//And they found him lyin’ on his bed.”  The whole song is one long response, a kind of primitive mourning.  It sounds something like the way you feel when you get punched in the throat or the stomach, like the moment just before you can cry when you feel like the wind’s been knocked out of you: “I could not speak a single word//No tears streamed down my face//I just sat there on the living room couch//Starin’ off into space.”

So many things about this song, and the way Stanford took his life confound me.  For one, while performed in its earliest incantations in a sweeter voice, more recent incantations of “Pineola” are more brash and anthemic:  it scares the hell of me.  In terms of the content of the story, I’m also staggered: How—not to mention why—in the world could someone fire three gunshots into their own heart? What is it about this song that’s so commanding when the only story it tells is of a singer’s lack-of-response to news of death?  The answer, it seems, is that it carries power in the noises it creates, and in the echoes of grief it produces.  There’s not much to “Pineola.”  It’s a simple song, really, but the ways in which it performs Lucinda’s loss of breath and response are heavy and clamorous.

The melody itself is a disembodied record as of Stanford’s death, but also of Lucinda’s feelings surrounding it.  As it is performed again and again, all of these things get brought back to life, as Lucinda conjures up the sound of her grief, in her characteristic affectless nasality.  Rhythmically, the song lurches back and forth in an a manic, speedy sort of way.  Listening to the song, I am haunted by both the image and the feeling of Lucinda sitting, dumfounded, on her family’s living room couch as she heard the news of her lover’s suicide.  The emotional direction of “Pineola” results in a eulogy, sure, but it’s also an aural record, a trace, of Lucinda’s spooky wailings – all that we can ever know of “Sonny.”
From red dirt to red dirt in Emmylou’s piece, “Pin-e-ola” drawls out the place of mourning and drops each rhythmic syllables like ashes all over her lover’s grave.  As the story closes inside Subiaco Cemetery, to the funeral proceedings for this man who made himself unfit for heaven, you can feel Lucinda’s emptied-out, hopeless presence standing like a ghost in the midst of Stanford’s grieving family members.   His mother who, as Lucinda tells us, “got the preacher to say a few words//So his soul wouldn’t be lost,” mourns only in order to absolve herself of any guilt regarding her child’s most unholy death.

Meanwhile, just as everyone around her mourns in unison, Lucinda begins to evaporate and then disappear.  The image I have of her at this moment is ghostly, vacant, abject and frightening—not so much because I can imagine it, but because I can feel and hear it too.  You see, this eulogy isn’t sung in the name of the dead, it’s sung by the spirit of the living.  It is Lucinda—not Stanford—that haunts me.  Every time I hear “Pineola,” my sense of Lucinda’s total numbness becomes more intense. Through my idea of her disembodiment I imagine what it must feel like to be a ghost among the living—sort of what it feels like to have someone touch a part of the body that’s fallen asleep.  You feel dead.  It’s all so wonderfully nauseating to consider.
In the end, Lucinda sings to sing.  She mourns to mourn.  The last lines of the song, on the other hand, echo Lucinda’s sadness lyrically—as well as thematically, as a casting off all the noises of her own silent sorrow, of her haunting us with them.

“I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave//I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust//And let it fall over his grave”