p e r s o n a l   h i s t o r y  

j o e l  a g e e

A friend of my mother’s introduced me to the folk singer and photographer John Cohen, who was planning to make a documentary film about Kentucky country musicians and needed an assistant. I said I wanted the job, he said “you got it.” I said I had no experience with a movie camera, he said “I don’t either.” In fact he didn’t have a camera.

We borrowed a 16-mm. Bolex from a friend of his. He showed us how to mount it on the tripod, load it, wind it, use it. We should give the machine a trial run, though, he said, just to make sure it was in working order. The trial run took place on top of a second friend’s house. We were going to film the roofs of the Village, the sky, the pigeons, each other. But a third friend of John’s dropped by, a folksinger named Bob Dylan who was all excited about some new songs he had written, and we ended up making a fifteen-minute film of him. I recognized him immediately: “I saw you at the Gaslight Cafe,” I said.

“I saw you too,” he said. “You walked out on me. You and your girl.”

“It wasn’t because of you,” I said.

“I didn’t think so,” he said.

John Cohen was the filmmaker and I was the assistant. Throughout our work in Kentucky, he rarely let me use the camera. But on that roof, he let me do the shooting. After all, it was just a trial run.

Because we didn’t have any sound equipment, Bob Dylan could pretend to do virtuoso runs up and down the neck of his guitar. Then he sang one of his new songs, something involving a request for a pillow from the woman who had locked him out of her room.

“It’s rock-’n-roll!” John said.

“Yeh. Do you like it?”

“You’ve got something there. Keep it up.”

“I will.”

Memory is fickle, and maybe snobbish, and fame is a glue that makes time stick fast for a while. Why else would a relatively banal moment like this one continue to burn as clear as yesterday while the entire month I spent in Kentucky, in circumstances as strange to me and as interesting as any I have encountered since, lies largely submerged in oblivion, with just a few details rising through the mist like fragments of a dream? But as I jot down these fragments, I see others coming up with them: The tiny village of Daisy, some twenty wooden houses scattered in a valley among rugged hills, and the long, haggard face of one of its denizens, Roscoe Holcomb, looking old in his early sixties, with thin sad lips and creased cheeks, deep-set puzzled pale blue eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, bony hands plucking the banjo strings, singing with a high reedy voice:

“Uhcross the Rocky Maa-oon-taaaaaaaaaains. . .

Ah’ve traaaaaaaa-veled fur’n’wide . . .”

An alien sound interferes, it’s Chubby Checker on the radio, Roscoe’s daughter is dancing the twist and maybe protesting against the folkways we’re here to record. Roscoe quietly puts down the banjo and looks out over the hills, as he often does, sometimes for hours. There is time in those hills, he told us that: “Waaay back inna ole Pro-high-bition days you could hear the sound of banjers comin down, clangity-clang, from all over dem hee-ills.” And now I see the spirit moving like a whirlwind through a dark pinewood church, moving the women especially, “Jesus!” “Oh Jesus!”, one of them driven up and off her bench so suddenly she drops her one-year-old — clunk! — on the wooden floor: “waaaaa!”, to be picked up by another woman, because the mother is hopping up and down with flat feet tight together raising her face and stretching her arms to heaven and letting out strangely sexual yelps and squeals and then dropping to her knees in a puddle of sunlight with her arms thrown out from her sides, her head thrown back, her long blond hair spread over her shoulders, and immediately several women swoop in to stroke her hair, stroke, stroke, urging her deeper into ecstasy, while in front of the altar one of the five musicians, the guitarist, goes into a different kind of seizure, he’s strumming away with his eyes rolled up and his whole body vibrating vertically, very fast, so that his shoes rattle against the floor like a jackhammer, and then I notice he’s slowly sliding across the platform until he’s facing the altar and has his back turned on the congregation. I see Roscoe again, in his garden, stalking one of his chickens with a rifle and shooting it inexpertly in the side and then whacking its head on a rock a few times, while John Cohen and Roscoe’s wife and a neighbor watch, laughing and clapping their hands. And now I realize why John urged me to read Isaac Babel’s short stories and especially the one called “My First Goose,” in which a bookish young Jew conscripted to a Red Army detachment of Cossacks proves his mettle by brutalizing a blind old woman and crushing a goose’s head with his heel, and why John told me a couple of times that “we’ll make a man of action out of you.” That was his fantasy for himself, going South with a banjo and telling the folks there his name was Cone (“no definitely not Coon, no sir, it’s Cone as in pine-cone, yup”) was as close an equivalent as could be found, in American terms, to Isaac Babel’s riding with the Cossacks, and if I flinched at the sight of our dinner still half alive, mangled and fluttering in the bushes, it was because I was still, like the young Babel, content to live with “winter in the heart,” ignorant of the inseparable beauty and cruelty of life. Of course John didn’t say this outright, but for several days after the chicken episode all our talk took place in the nimbus of some such meaning. For example, I had brought with me a book of poems by Yeats and read out loud to John one evening that tremendous poem, “The Second Coming.” There was one phrase in particular that struck me: “. . . and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” I said I imagined the image had come to Yeats from the common practice, among country people, of drowning kittens in a sack weighted with stones. John shrugged and said: “Maybe. But the poem isn’t about pity. The point of view is cosmic, not human. It’s the icy lake, not the kittens. And that’s something country people know in their bones.” It was the shrug that bothered me. I finally told him that I didn’t believe in the virtue of blood and cathartic violence. I was quivering with anger, but I spoke with an air of philosophic dispassion. Consequently, the heat of our disagreement simmered on, unacknowledged and unabated, until it manifested itself, not as an argument but in a ghastly and, as it were, illustrative event.

We went to visit the Carsons, a family of musicians. Mr. Carson, a miner, was late coming home from work. We waited for him. John chatted with Mrs. Carson while she peeled potatoes. A five-year-old girl stood half hidden behind her, staring alternately at me and at John, the expression on her face constantly shifting from a look of wide open astonishment to a faint and quickly suppressed tickle of amusement, which, I noticed, overcame her especially at moments when I spoke, I suppose because of my unfamiliar accent. Another daughter, approximately my age, sat shucking corn and partaking in her mother’s conversation with smiles and nods of her head. A third girl, fourteen or fifteen years old, tall and slender, with carrot-red hair reaching down to her waist, appeared briefly at the edge of the kitchen from behind the doorpost and watched me as I loaded the camera. When I looked at her, she withdrew — slowly, as if to hide the very movement of her disappearance. After a while, half her body and face emerged again, and this time I avoided looking at her. With Mrs. Carson’s permission, I took a few preliminary shots of the house and the garden, the chickens, the tethered goat with its legs splayed the better to tear up dry clumps of grass at the foot of the porch, and an old dog twisted in furious battle with the fleas at the root of his tail. Presently Mr. Carson could be heard roaring up the hill and with a bump through the creek we had stopped at on our drive up, and then we saw him in a battered jeep, waving his hat as he pulled up. He was still in his work clothes and his face and hands were streaked with soot, he hadn’t washed up too good, he said, so he couldn’t shake hands just yet, but he would be right out, and while he went into the kitchen his wife said, smiling, that sometimes her husband came home looking just like a nigger. Then, by the time he’d come out washed and combed wearing a clean cotton shirt and a fresh pair of frayed overalls and had shaken our hands and admired the camera and chatted with John and played on John’s banjo and listened to John playing, the light had gotten too dark for shooting and John asked if we could come back, maybe Sunday after church, and make pictures of all of them singing, and Mr. Carson said that would be just fine, and for now, he hoped we could stay for dinner because he’d brought something special, a big surprise for the kids, but it would take some work to prepare it and then a good long time of cooking. John said he was sorry but we were expected for dinner at the Holcombs’, but he’d sure like to see what the big surprise was. I started packing up the gear while Mr. Carson went down to his jeep and lifted a pile of rags off the back seat and, with an effortful squatting heave, lifted a large object and turned and walked toward us with bent knees pressing it against his waist, a giant snapping turtle, upside down, legs walking the air in slow motion, the gray serpentine head swiveling slowly from side to side. He put the turtle on its back on a table next to the porch and said to his youngest daughter, who was still hiding behind her mother, “Emily, go tell America to come on out.” And while Emily went inside, he went into a shed in the back of the house and came out with a hammer and a handful of nails and laid them next to the turtle, which was still steadily moving its feet, and pulled out a jackknife and opened it and put it next to the hammer and nails, and said, looking at John, that he hoped we didn’t mind if he just got to work on the turtle, and John said that was no problem at all, we’d be leaving soon anyhow, and picked up his banjo, and started playing a cheerful, here-we-sit-on-the-porch sort of tune. Emily came out with her older sister. All I remember now of her appearance is that her skin was of that creamiest white that makes the lips look painted, and that her eyes were wide-set and of gentle expression and ferociously blue, but what I thought then was: I can see why she hides herself, she’s dangerous to look at.

“Girl,” Mr. Carson said, “it ain’t polite, hidin back there when folks come and visit.”

She bowed her head.

“You remember Mr. Cone?”

“I sure do,” she said, smiling at John and nodding hello. John nodded and smiled back, still playing his tune. Then she came over to me, and as we shook hands, she made a slight dipping movement, a remnant or intimation of a curtsy, and in that moment I heard Mr. Carson pounding in his first nail. I pressed the girl’s hand and held her eyes with mine, and then my chest began to ache as if some sharp thing was being driven into me, and there was no telling, later, when I thought back on it, whether it was the sight of her or the thought of the mute agony on the table that made me feel that way, or some unimaginable amalgam of these, but the frightening notion was there right away, that if I had to stay here another day, I would fall in love with this girl. “Joel,” I said, “my name’s Joel.” “My name’s America,” she said, and “pleased to meet you,” she added, and began to blush. I released her hand, I’d held it much too long, and for a moment the only sounds were those of John’s quiet playing and of the corn dropping softly into the pot between the oldest girl’s feet, and of Mrs. Carson’s knife carving the peel off the potatoes, but then came the pounding of the hammer again, and I decided to turn and look.

Emily was standing by the table, next to her father. The turtle was still upside down, its hind legs steadily walking — or, who knows, in a turtle’s measure, maybe scampering, racing. Mr. Carson was pressing one hand against the gray under-shell and with the other pulling the turtle’s left front leg out of its socket and over the rim of the shell and forcing it all the way down to the table. Then he set a nail against the foot and took the hammer and drove the nail through the foot into the table. The other front foot was already nailed down and grotesquely elongated. The neck, too, was pulled long and taut like a rubber rope and held fast by a nail just below the jaw, which was mouthing the air in a sideward scissoring motion. Mr. Carson picked up the knife and stepped around the table and bent over the turtle, blocking my sight. What I saw was the child, who was standing opposite. I looked at John, who was still plunking away at his ditty, and realized he couldn’t see what Mr. Carson was doing, though he might well have imagined it, if he wished to. What he couldn’t imagine, what I could not imagine either, though I was looking into her face, was what was happening to Emily. But it froze the blood in my veins to see the signs of it: her shoulders hunched almost up to her ears, her mouth open, the corners of her lips pulled way down, her arms cramped to her sides, her fingers splayed. She didn’t look human. A demon? No. If I were to paint a soul at the gate of hell, that is how I would picture it: right on the threshold, looking down, with nothing to hold her. Ten feet away, her two sisters, her mother, and John, like the rustic extras in a Brueghel landscape. But there is another figure in this tableau. Of course I can’t see him. It’s me. I am just looking. Everything in me has turned cold, and in that coldness, there is no pity, no pain, only the prayer for an end.

©Joel Agee


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Joel Agee’s “The Storm” appeared in Archipelago, Vol. 4, No. 4



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