by Arlene Weiner
My travels for the past few years have been bipolar. I’ve gone north for happiness, to see my young grandchildren, and south for sad duty, to see my cousin, who has had heart problems and was diagnosed a little more than two years ago with ovarian cancer. My cousin lives south of Roanoke, Virginia in a town, once a railroad hub, with roads that snake up and down over hills. New streets with developers’ names, like Scenic River Road, branch off roads with no-nonsense, industrial-era names: Tanyard Road, Power Dam Road.
My cousin’s resting. The large-screen TV set is playing. I don’t want to turn it off because I might mishandle the two remote controls and black out her service. As it is, it seems she can find only one channel. When I walked into the living room just now, I was astonished to see and hear a woman who might have been Dorothy Collins on “Your Hit Parade” in the 1950s—bouffant hairdo, big smile, sweetly singing “Till There Was You.” A little later I realized, this actually was the Lawrence Welk show, a staple in olden days. A time capsule. The chanteuse. A Negro (as he would have been called then) tap-dancer in a suit, working hard and smiling hard. A pair of ballroom dancers, she in a full-length gown with sparkly bodice, he in a business suit—all in powder blue—dancing a polka to a song from The King and I. All the cast around them in powder blue, surrounding Welk, who is playing the accordion and wears red. And this on the public broadcasting channel!
And now, on the same channel, Song of the Mountains. I’m enchanted by a large bluegrass group, ETSU Old Time Pride Band, young people from East Tennessee State University. One guy in a fedora and blue shirt on bass; another fedora on fiddle; a vest and bowtie on guitar; a Lennonesque guy with a red beard in a yellow newsboy cap; a black girl in a ‘frohawk, tulle skirt, black boots, feather earrings on guitar; a girl in a fancy black dress and pearl earrings who might be in Sex and the City on autoharp. A small, vigorously fiddling brunette in a dress with a shiny silver overlay and fringed hem. They are working hard and seem to be having a good time. As one steps to a mike, two other step back to make room, smoothly. On “Pretty Polly,” the Black girl takes the lead. “I’ve researched this song,” she says, sings a version in which Willy gets his comeuppance in the last verses. It’s rousing.
Shots of the audience show a lot of people wearing red, a lot of people smiling, applauding, including a man in a turban. As John Balaban has written, “Moments like that, you can love this country.”