River

River

Been listening to Bill Frisell live dates on YouTube a fair amount in the past couple of months (since I came across this, at least), roughly equivalent to the period of my move from New York, up to present. Frisell wasn’t unknown to me, but I’d never listened to him much before. And why his stuff — at least the material of his last decade or so — has taken with me just now, I can’t say with any clarity.

Newly so tuned in, it wasn’t long before I picked up on Frisell’s penchant for the American folk tune ‘Oh Shenandoah,’ which opens the wonderful set in the video above and many others. From what I can tell — correct me if I’m wrong, somebody knowledgable — he first recorded it on Good Dog Happy Man, 1999. Entirely coincidental, I’m confident, is that my immediate destination out of NY, where I am right now, is in the middle of the river valley that bears the same name, Shenandoah. Two months ago I didn’t know Frisell enough to have known that he’d ever recorded this tune, let alone that it was a favorite. It isn’t the tune among his apparent favorites (or his audiences’?) that I’m most inclined to listen to a lot in any case. But it’s kind of a fun coincidence.

Now, it seems — if Wikipedia is reliable here — that the song in fur-trading colonial American origin never had anything to do with this part of the country where I’ve landed. That hasn’t prevented later Virginians from adopting it — indeed from trying to make it the official state song, some of them. Anyway, where I’m sitting now (more figuratively than literally), what’s sort of appealing about what this song represents as folk culture is that it owes its spread, the history says, to having been sung by work crews on docks and boats and so carried down the Mississippi and out to sea. Whatever it’s about, it’s a song that’s made its mark by wandering, as I seem for present also to be doing — if not, I expect, correspondingly out to sea.

In more recent American history, the song’s hold in shared imagination undoubtedly gets a boost from the 1965 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, named simply Shenandoah. I think I’ve only seen it once, and that probably no nearer than twenty-five years ago, but it’s occurred to me that this might do for one of my four ‘defining films’ (answering Darrell), if only because of one scene, one moment really, etched in my mind’s eye as few film scenes are (certainly of those I’ve only seen once), when the grown son who tends patriarch Stewart’s farm while Stewart is away is murdered, run through with a sabre by the soldier turned brigand to whom he’s offering a drink of water — an instant of screen violence that caught me entirely by surprise, as I recall. The film-makers’ pulling off (with a certain kind of viewer, anyway) that moment of horror to such effect isn’t by itself what I’d attach this sense to, that maybe the film could be said to be defining for me somehow. More likely, I’d say, the power of the scene hints at the emotional investment the story as a whole elicited. And if the power of the film’s story has somehow eventually to do, gestating under the surface, with a change in my own thinking about the war and land the film’s set in, among related things — change I’ve begun trying to discuss a bit, here, in the last year — then ‘defining’ in my life it may well be, even if now it’s not the story I consciously retain so much as it is certain fragmentary screen impressions.

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