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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Ole Earl's Lament

Ole Earl’s Lament
Oh they pine each day
If I only knew now
What I didn’t really know then,
Oh the past can’t lie
 You know that’s so
Cuz my heart never knew
What it can never know
And if I really didn’t know
What I knew then
I wouldn’t let you
Be breaking my heart again
Cuz my heart don’t know
What it never knew
That it’b be missin that love
Comin from you
Oh the past can’t lie
 You know that’s just so
Cuz my heart never knew
What it can never know
*****
          First time I met Earl, I was driving lost somewhere in the swamp piney woods of Louisiana, heading somewhat north to Texarkana.
           It was a sleepy little road on a sleepy mug warm summer Sunday morning. I could see a bump in the road ahead. The bump moved cross my path and as I got closer, I realized it was the biggest box turtle I had ever seen, making his slow turtle way across this little country road. I swerved to avoid the turtle, but something told me to stop and help that turtle make his journey safely across the road that morning. I slowed quick, threw my convertible in reverse and headed back to carry the bump to the safety of the other side.
         When I picked up the turtle, his shell told the story of his age. A bit battered and scarred, the old turtle had made it this far without me, but I couldn’t resist to offer a hand. His shell had dull yellow starred marks on a chocolate brown background. I set the old turtle down in a little patch of swamp grass near the water and headed back to continue my drive to Texarkana. That’s when I first heard the voice of Earl Daniels.
       A crackled voice came out of the woods.
      “Thanks for helping my ole friend”, the voice said. “I’m sure he’s grateful for the ‘ssistence .”
        It took a minute or so of looking around, all squinty-eyed in the morning sun to see a little shack set back 20 yards or so from the edge of the road. On a saggy low wood ledge that stuck out from the front of the shack, held up by bricks and a metal pipe, was an old man, lost in the oversized floral faded cushions that filled an old rocking chair.
           Pointing with a gnarled finger at a space in the road, the old man said “My friend there, crosses that road nearly every day, headin’ into the swamp in the mornin’, en crawlin’ right back under the porch at night here”. The man’s lips barely moved, but his voice was strong and clear on that Sunday morning,
           “Most folks would drive on by, bein’ in such a hurry and all these days. Thanks for stopping.”
            With my car, sitting in the middle of the lane, and with no traffic that I could distinguish, I headed over to see the old man up close. His face was grooved with deep wrinkled chasms, browned dry by a hundred years of sun. On his lap was an open book, and in his hand, a worn old guitar that looked to be about the same age.
          “Names Earl Daniels. I’m dry and gotta get me glass a lemonade, if yer thirsty,” he offered. And with that I headed to the porch. I introduced myself and I could see up close that the battered old book was a bible he had been reading before I stopped. When he saw me staring at the book, he set the guitar across his lap and said                                   
        “I don’t get much time with the Book like I should. I had a load a life kept me from it for too many years. But it’s a friend now.”                                
       His brittle fingers and yellowed nails began to search up and down the neck of the guitar as if they were looking for a song. His voice started low and then Earl started singing:
In the deep grows in hills of old Virginia
                                             There's a place that I love so well
                                             Where I spent many days of my childhood
                                             In the cabin where we loved to dwell
                                                 White dove will mourn in sorrow
                                             The willows will hang their heads
I live my life in sorrow
Since mother and daddy are dead
         And then his voice faded and stopped, his fingers still lightly strumming the guitar. I had heard the song many times on the gospel station that I could pick up sometimes late at night, fading in an out on still warm Louisiana nights when I was laying in a sleepless bed wondering how I had managed to get so far away.
        “That’s a nice song”, I said. “I like the old songs.” I was a bit at a loss of what to say to Earl at that point. I needed to be going, but I needed to hear him sing, right there, right on that old porch. I would never have this opportunity again. This was just too real.
        He started again, this time he started talking the words until his voice caught up with the
melody on the guitar.
“Dust on the Bible dust on the holy word
The words of all the prophets and the sayings of our Lord
Of all the other books you'll find there's none salvation holds
Get that dust off the Bible and redeem your poor soul
I went into a home one day to see some friends of mine
Of all the books and magazines not a Bible could I find
I asked them for the Bible when they brought it what a shame
For the dust was covered o'er it not a fingerprint was plain
Dust on the Bible...”
           “Mornin’ Mister Earl. That sounds good ole man”, the voice behind startled me and I looked to see if my car was blocking the road and then at the pile of tattered clothes and the man wearing them. He was hunched over with age and wore old thin blue and white striped overalls. His shoulders were covered with a tattered blue sweater that hung nearly to his knees. I moved back and he stepped up onto his place on the porch, next to Earl.  
             “Don’t be stoppin’ yer hollerin on a causin a me”, the old man said. It was then I noticed a wooden cane, the head polished shiny smooth by decades of helping him down the road.
            “I can hear you near a mile down the road. Who’s yer friend? I’m Tom Rowland. I live back there.” And with that he gave his head a jerk indicated further back in the woods. I had not heard a sound as he came down the road that Sunday morning.  
                Tom Rowland handed Earl a small bag of oilcloth. Earl opened up and took a shiny single barrel gun out of the oil-stained bag. He pointed it at the sky, then down and flipped the barrel forward. It shined metal blue in the sun, some engravings distinct on the grip and barrel. 
                 “That’s it” said Tom. ”That’s the very gun.” The old man smiled and pointed proudly. It was his one possession that defined him.” An 1851 Colt Navy cap & ball revolver” he said with pride. ”That’s the gun that my grandfather shot at Osawatomie and kilt one a John Reid’s men when he tried to put a gun to John Brown’s head that day.”
            Tom spoke as if the raid had happened last week. Earl was holding some history in his hand. “But they got John Brown that day by other means.”  
              I smiled as I remembered a few words of "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul's marching on." A-mouldering, I used to think, what the hell is a-mouldering?
                 I thought about asking Earl to sing the song for us, maybe John Brown, but a car was starting to approach and I thought it was about time to head north and stop blocking the world that was passing by this busy outpost on this little back road to Texarkana. I said my goodbyes, finishing up with the “y’all take care now and take care a’ that old turtle” and walked back to my car. 
                Later that day, after I arrived and settled into my little hotel room in Texarkana, I spent some time google searching on John Brown and Osawatomie and John Reid, finally by chance, looking for Earl Daniels. Turned out Earl had been quite the celebrity in the day, bus traveling the south with a small band for nearly 40 years playing honky-tonks and roadside affairs. His band got old and Earl and the band just disappeared. Most of the members of his band scattered to the wind, to the bottle or just died, quiet and filled with memories of the road.  
                Earl had written nearly 26 songs, inspired by the pain of love or the loss of a friend and late in life, he wrote songs about bibles and Jesus and living right as if he were trying to pave a way after the life he had lived. His songs never amounted to much. Earned him a few dollars and managed to keep him on the road a few more years playing the old timey songs about dogs and broken hearts and Jesus through dirty windows. 
            I think that ole Earl Daniels song goes something like this:  
Oh they pine each day
If I only knew now
What I didn’t really know then,
Oh the past can’t lie
 You know that’s so
Cuz my heart never knew
What it can never know
And if I really didn’t know
What I knew then
I wouldn’t let you
Be breaking my heart again
Cuz my heart don’t know
What it never knew
That it’b be missin that love
Comin from you
Oh the past can’t lie
 You know that’s just so
Cuz my heart never knew
                                                                              What it can never know 
                         Earl's going to be missed on that road. I’m sure his friend Tom made it home before Earl left. But I know that turtle still heads to the swamp in the morning and under the porch at night.
                      I am sure by now he's fingering the neck of his old guitar waiting for the voice inside to catch up and hitting a jug up in that holler in the sky. On mountain misty mornings and bug quiet nights, when Earl wasn't on the road, you could hear him singing sweet like the wind, through the trees.                 
             G’bye old friend. Someone will fill in for you. You jes keep singin' to all those Angels gathered around yer stoop.
  
This short piece refers to a version of a Bluegrass Gospel music original.
White Dove
Lyrics: Carter Stanley
 
Dust on the Bible
as written by John Bailes, Walter Bailes

Rejected submission by the Pithead Chapel press
Dear Stuart Welch,

Thank you for sending us "Ole Earl’s Lament." We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, this piece isn't the right fit for us. Please consider us for future submissions.

Thanks again for submitting and we wish you the best in finding a home for this elsewhere.