I would have been 13 or 14 years old when one day I heard this funny little song about outhouses on the radio. It was Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back.” It got a lot of play for a few weeks before local radio returned to its breathless documentation of the British Invasion. Whimsical fantasies about plumbing architecture trends in Appalachia didn’t stand a chance against the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark 5, and that other group.
But there was wisdom in the whimsy. Mr. Wheeler described the title facility;
Now, it was not a castle fair, but I could dream my future there,
And build my castles to the yellowjacket’s drone.
I could orbit ‘round the sun, fight with General Washington,
Or be a king upon a golden throne.
But it stayed with me and suggested something I was just beginning to suspect; my imagination and a quiet place might be a powerful antidote to the random adult violence depicted by Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley.
The next year I heard the Kingston Trio deliver with typical Kingston Trio gusto the instructions of Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Desert Pete”;
You’ve got to prime the pump.
You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself
‘Fore you’re worthy to receive.
A simple thought; one I had learned in Sunday school and Cub Scouts, but now had outgrown in my teenage cynicism. I was so much older then…
It wasn’t until I heard Judy Collins on her concert album talk about Wheeler and sing three of his songs that his songs became important to me.
Ms. Collins sang his elegant description of a “Red-Wing Blackbird”;
O can you hear that pretty little bird singin’ with all his heart and soul?
He’s got a blood-red spot on his wing, and all of the rest of ‘im’s black as coal.
That’s my bird now.
It belongs to me and my part of the country.
I may not be happy about the sombre imagery (“When a man spills blood on the coal…”), but it belongs to my home state.
It’s my bird singin’.
Ms. Collins also sang his amazingly prescient “Coal Tattoo.”
Travelin’ down that coal town road; listen to my rubber tires whine.
Goodbye to buckeye and white sycamore. I’m leavin’ you behind.
I got no job and I got no pay – just got a worried soul,
And a blue tattoo on the side of my head left by the #9 coal.
This in the mid-60s’ and more true now.
A couple of years later, Wheeler anticipated the coal country environmental anxieties of the 21st century in his “Coming of the Roads”;
Look how they’ve cut all to pieces our ancient poplar and oak,
And the hillsides are stained with the greases, and they’ve burned up our heavens with smoke.
Is Mr. Wheeler the the Madame Cleo of the Smokies or have we not been paying attention? Perhaps a bit of both.
It gets grimmer.
Two of my favorite Wheeler songs speak of the longing to fly…but with a price.
In “High-Flyin’ Bird”;
There’s a high-flyin’ bird flying way up in the sky
And I wonder if she looks down on me as she goes on by?
Lord, look at me here. I’m rooted like a tree here.
Got those sit-down, can’t cry
Oh Lord, gonna die blues
And the song ends with specificity;
And the only way to fly is die.
He echoes this thought in “Winter Sky.”
Out under the winter sky
Out under the winter sky
Stars come tremblin’ on my eye.
Hand me wings for to fly.
And I feel like somethin’s gonna die.
I feel like somethin’s gonna die,
And me with it.
I wonder if once again Mr. Wheeler has accurately predicted, 50 years ago, a mind-set of today. In a geography of few opportunities, no jobs, education possibilities starved of funds, and little hope, how can you fly?
In a geography of dwindling art experiences to spark dreaming of futures and castles and orbiting the sun, how can you even dream of flying?
Well…………of course there are pharmaceuticals.