Growing up in Eastern Kentucky in the 1950's & 1960's I listened to a lot of bluegrass & classic country music primarily because that was what most of the people around me listened to and most of the radio stations I could pick up also played it daily. But I also loved the music in all its manifestations. As I became a hippie in the late 1960's, I ceased to listen to bluegrass and country for several years and listened primarily to rock and folk until about the middle 1970's. At about that time, I returned to the music of my childhood and have listened to it nearly every day of my life since. I generally prefer bluegrass over most other forms of music but do still periodically listen to classic rock, folk, blues, classical, jazz, and zydeco. But, when I want to feel at peace, at home, comfortable and rested, I listen to bluegrass. My favorite musicians include the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, Bill Monroe, Dailey & Vincent, the Carter Family, Tom T. Hall, Doc Watson, Area Code 615, Dale McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Clarence Kelly, Patty Loveless, Don Rigsby, and Larry Cordle. Nearly every one of these people is an above average musician and there are some of the best songwriters in America in this group. Nearly every one of them has written and/or recorded at least one American classic song which has woven its way into the hearts of the general public. Several of them such as Bill Monroe, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt & Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and Larry Cordle have written and recorded several such songs.
Bluegrass music is the music of the Appalachian working class, the poor, the disenfranchised, and many of the people in the country who seek to move upward from an economic or social condition which they do not wish to live in for the rest of their lives. Bluegrass music shares these qualities with both country music and rap. Like country music, bluegrass has commonly heard themes of love, drinking, unrequited love, cheating, home & family, hard work, prison, Christianity, and love of place, an Appalachian Value I have discussed at length in several other posts. Bluegrass also shares several of these themes with rap and at some time in the future, I will also write a post about common themes in bluegrass and rap. But for now, my topic is a sub-genre of bluegrass music which I have always referred to as Dead Baby Music. And I have to give credit for the name Dead Baby Music to my wife Candice, a transplanted Wisconsin native, who first heard bluegrass with every negative opinion possible and has since come to know and love it. I have searched for a slightly less off putting name for this type of music and to be honest, I cannot find one that is more accurate or more appropriately descriptive of the music I am discussing. What I mean by Dead Baby Music is music which almost always has a central character, usually a child, who dies an untimely and often painful or cruel death. In some of these songs, that death may have even come at the hands of a parent, family member or friend.
Tom T. Hall, one of America's greatest living songwriters, with a portfolio of classics to his credit also wrote one of the finest pieces of Dead Baby Music when he penned "The Water Lily" which is best heard on the Hall & Stanley duet on Ralph Stanley's "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning" recordings. The song also begins with a dream, another common element in Dead Baby Music. But this time, the mother is dreaming "of a lily decked pool with a border of ferns and a beautiful child with butterfly wings trips down to the edge of the water and sings." Hall has probably consciously reversed some of the best elements of the earlier classic by having the mother dream and the child beckoning from the dreamland asking the mother to come. But he has also consciously kept the elements of the dream, the mother, the child, and the water. Tom T. Hall did not become the unequaled songwriter he is accidentally. He has studied and written both novels and short stories. His public nickname has for many years been the Story Teller. During the time he worked as a regularly touring musician, his band was known as the Story Tellers. And in the story of "The Water Lily", he has woven one of his finest and one of the favorites of all followers of Dead Baby Music. The lyrics of the song are woven together by the chorus of the child with butterfly wings singing to her mother "come mother, come quick follow me. Step out on the leaves of the water lily." And, naturally, the mother attempts to join the beckoning child "but the lily leaves sink and she wakes from her dream". And of course, the writer and the mother let us all know the inevitable for "waking is sad for the tears that it brings and she knows it is her dead baby's spirit that sings". There is no finer example of Dead Baby Music in the world today. Hall kept the best themes from "Little Bessie" but reversed the position of the mother and child. He has the child already dead and begging her mother who is unable to comply to come and join her. But, like "Little Bessie" we still have the grieving mother left behind by the dead child.
Red Sovine used a different approach but achieved an equally touching effect with "Bringing Mary Home". The song begins with a narrator stopping in the night to pick up a small girl from the side of the road. The child climbs into the car and tells the narrator "my name is Mary please won't you take me home." And the narrator goes on to give us a touching physical description of the little girl. "She must have been so frightened all alone there in the night. There was something strange about her cause her face was deathly white." Here we also see another common theme in Dead Baby Music with white symbolizing purity as it has in literature for hundreds of years. Then the narrator and driver takes the little girl to the house where she asks him to go and when he gets out to open the car door for her "I just could not believe my eyes the back seat was bare. I looked all around the car but Mary wasn't there." And finally, Sovine brings the mother into the song with these words " A small light shown from the porch a woman opened up the door. I asked about the little girl that I was looking for. Then the lady gently smiled and brushed a tear away. She said it sure was nice of you to go out of your way. But thirteen years ago today in a wreck just down the road our darling Mary lost her life and we miss her so." This time the mother is providing the consolation for the innocent stranger who has just happened to become an element in the child's quest to return to the home and grieving mother." And then we reach the somewhat surprising and chilling end of the song when the mother tells the man "so thank you for your trouble and the kindness you have shown. You're the thirteenth one who's been here bringing Mary home." At this point, it is not uncommon to see tears in an audience when a good singer and band deliver that line.
Dolly Parton has also written and recorded some of the finest Dead Baby Music I have ever heard. She, too, is one of America's finest song writers with more than a few classic songs to her credit in the fields of country, pop, and bluegrass. But her best Dead Baby Music is rarely heard outside the world of bluegrass. On her classic bluegrass CD "Little Sparrow", Parton actually recorded two fine examples of Dead Baby Music, "Mountain Angel" and "Down From Dover". Parton did some of her best writing in "Mountain Angel". It is a song about a girl who was born as close to perfect as it is possible to be. "Skin as fair as lily's. Hair as golden as the corn. She was her momma's baby. She was her Daddy's pride." And then a man enters the picture and changes everything in this woman's life. He gets her pregnant and disappears before the child is born. "They say she had a baby. Some say that it had died. They say it's just as well as it had been the devil's child". And now the grief stricken mother disappears "into the wild". The most powerful lyrics in the song come in the last couple of stanzas. "She waited for him as her beauty faded. Her parents died from grief before their time." Not only has the tragedy consumed the mother of the dead baby in this song, it has also consumed the grandparents as well. And like the other mothers in the other examples, this mother tries to deal with her grief but cannot. "She tried to gather pieces of her life, they wouldn't fit. Beside the tiny grave deep in the woods is where she'd sit. Talking to the child, herself, to him, who knew for sure. Possessed they say by Satan's insane lure." At this point in the song, she has now completely lost her mind and become an outcast "high a'top the mountain" And that is how she lives out her life roaming the mountains, grieving for the dead child and the man who ruined her. Parton takes her out into the hills and leaves her for all eternity where "for years they say she's seen. Looking down upon the town where she had once been queen. She'd sneak around the playground, watch the little children play. They'd see the crazy lady then run away. They say she roamed these hills for years, wearing not a stitch. The lovely mountain angel now thought to be a witch."
Parton also narrowly misses the genre of Dead Baby Music in another of her songs, "These Old Bones" from the "Halos And Horns" CD. In that song, she tells a story of witchcraft or clairvoyance about another woman who lives alone in the mountains with her bag of bones, a dog, a cat, and a goat. The narrator turns out to be a daughter of the woman which "the country took you from me said I wasn't right in my mind." But this child lives to find the mother and takes care of her, burying her, and assuming her position of telling fortunes and living in the mountain with "These Old Bones".
In the other example of Dead Baby Music on the "Little Sparrow" CD, Parton writes about another young girl who has become pregnant by a man who deserts her. But this girl leaves her family and home and goes to take "care of that old lady" as a way to have a home away from her family who have ostracized her. As childbirth gets closer, she keeps repeating the chorus line "I know he'll be coming down from Dover." But the girl delivers the child still born and sings "dying was her way of telling me he wasn't coming down from Dover". All the songs I have discussed here are fine examples of Dead Baby Music. They share several common elements. There are many more in bluegrass which fit the genre. They are part of what makes bluegrass unique and wonderful. Rarely would anyone wish to listen to these songs all day long. But when you mix them in among the other standard bluegrass themes of love, work, prison, heartbreak, and religion, they are well worth paying attention to and accepting as a treasured part of the bluegrass music many of us will love to our dying day.