Only a Dream: Ralph Stanley’s “Cry from the Cross”

July 8, 2016

2014-07-24 16.48.04

I dreamed about Ralph Stanley the day after he died. I was feeling ill. I crawled into bed and fell into a deep sleep. Over the years, I had visited his hometown a few times, circling to and fro across the caustic back roads of Clinch Mountain. I had once stopped at his house and knocked on his front door, hoping to shake the good doctor’s hand. No one came to the porch but a wandering dog. I read his book, bought his records. And I had stood before his brother’s grave, atop a mountain in the afternoon hours.

I saw Dr. Ralph on stage a number of times in those final years as well. He needed a chair to sit through those sets. His grandson and his band would do most of the work. But every so often he would stand up, he would approach the microphone, and he would drown the audience in that chilling mountain voice.

The dream was short. I found myself in some ghostly façade of the Appalachian south. My family was there. We rode bikes on roads that were too wide and too straight. I don’t remember if Dr. Ralph had even showed up in the dream—only that his essence hovered around it all. I parked my bike at the foot of the Ralph Stanley Museum. It was not the great Victorian house that sits on a hill in Clintwood, Virginia, but a lonely cabin on the side of a highway.

The dream came and the dream went.

I think I experience Dr. Ralph’s music a little differently than most of his fans. I admire the union of voices that the Stanley Brothers created when they sang, the craftsmanship of those bluegrass melodies, but really, I’ve never been much for bluegrass. And as important as his claw hammer banjo is to American roots music, it doesn’t give me pause, or hit me on the head like John Henry’s hammer. With Stanley, it has always been the cold hard lonesomeness that speaks to me. It is that voice, full of Primitive Baptist severity that I won’t forget.

Everything I love about Dr. Ralph comes to a crescendo of Appalachian simplicity on the traditional gospel ballad “Two Coats”. On the closing song from 1972’s Cry from the Cross, a lonesome fiddle floats along on a minor rhythm. Stanley’s voice is as serious as ever. He sings of salvation, of throwing off the old coat of worldly degradation and putting on a new, holy one. He pulls no punches. He adds no flourish or poetry. It’s the aesthetic by which he lived his life. What choice do we have but to believe every word of it?

The dream has since faded. The mountain and the road and the cabin on the hill are gone. Dr. Ralph is gone.

I hope that someday I will knock on a front door and someone will answer. I hope that someday, some light can be shed upon the fractured dream that we all walk around in. And I hope that Dr. Ralph has thrown off the old coat, and that the man of constant sorrow will sorrow no more.

 

Information gathered from Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”.

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