There’s nothing like studying something to dispel its mystery. You examine it, finding that you can explain away almost all of the inconsistencies and irrationality. The thing becomes known and familiar, less strange as you begin to associate it with other known things. Like an object sprung from orbit, the pull of mystery exerts less force each passing day.
Old-time Appalachian music seemed packed with dense, haunting materials that I would never be able to plumb. The minor-key melodies and lyrics about death, murder and longing left a high-lonesome echo in my waking life, and I immediately set out to learn as much as I could about the place and its music. I read Night Comes to the Cumberlands and realized that the generations before me had also fallen in love with the hills. Robbie Robertson described reading the very same book and beginning to populate his songs with imagined figures from remote hollers, and Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia wore out their copies of Harry Smith’s Anthology of Ameircan Folk Music. The 60’s folk revival saw the reemergence of old-time singers like Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb, and the music returned again in the 21st century courtesy of T Bone Burnett and a cadre of freak-folkers. So much popular music, I discovered, was fueled by a common source.
After two years and nearly one hundred Thesis pages later, I had mined everything I could from the region. While I completed my final revisions, I replaced my scratchy old-timey recordings with crisp electronic tracks. Bascar Lamar Lunsford for Squarepusher. I had never set foot in Appalachia, but I had exorcised the haunting.
Most children don’t wish for nightmares, but my father’s favorite genre was horror and my mother could do a convincing Wicked Witch impression. From an early age I loved vampires and werewolves and all manner of evil monsters. From the time I can remember until around age eight, I lay in bed every night, willing myself to have bad dreams. Mostly it didn’t work, and if I had had truly terrifying, wake-up-screaming nightmares, I probably would have quit the whole business altogether; however, the ‘nightmares’ I did have were more like the movies I watched. They were more interesting than scary, and as soon as I woke up I would relive them, going over every detail in my imagination.
In one, I entered a wood and wandered until I came upon large silver structures. Some were elongated strips and others were squat, like coffins. A witch appeared in the distance, a figure in a black cloak whose face I wanted to see but couldn’t quite make out. I ran, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and then I would wake up.