Singing History and Finding Hope
In a barn in Wisconsin, Ben Theyerl maps a history of environmental crisis and displacement in old bluegrass standards.
I want to share a story about a history, a song, and a barn. The land around my hometown of Altoona, Wisconsin, leaves you with a strong sense of how humans shape the landscape. In the Midwest, there are no geological features to stop development across the generations: no mountains to hem you in, no coast to circumscribe your movement. The cornfield out back becomes a parking lot for a new strip mall, just as years before the old-growth forest was cut down to plant the cornfield. Roads replace railroads, replacing waterways, each bringing new people and displacing those indigenous to that land who’d been there for so long before. Land here isn’t so much environment as it is commodity, inseparable from its implications to human economic systems. Spend time in the Midwest and you begin to see the story of modern land development, a story in which the environmental movement occasionally checks economic development. Those checks attempt to preserve mountains, canyons, and deserts. Parks and land trusts are created to protect the sublime and uphold the picturesque. No one tries to save a cornfield, though. And so you learn to live with change. You find yourself on the back porch with the anxious question of how long it will be until it’s fluorescent parking lights, not lightning bugs, you’re watching as dusk falls.
Land use change reveals how our most familiar spaces are evolving tapestries woven together of different historical threads. This is why on a May evening I’m sitting with my friend Townes in a barn loft that once housed hay, but I can see the glow of the parking-lot lights from the paint store across the street as they pierce cracks in the warped wooden sides of the barn. Townes lives on land his parents bought from a family who homesteaded and ran a farm here for generations. His family still keeps chickens and farms a small field of corn on the southern side of the wooded compound that contains the house. But the barn we’re sitting in hasn’t had an animal besides Townes’s dog in it for years. For as long as we’ve been alive, it’s held only stories. Spaces like the barn are repositories of family histories and places where we go to tell of more urgent things as well—heartbreaks, new jobs, new lives for us to pursue. That barn loft is where old histories become hopes, where we dig up old experiences and sing them out into the rafters, only to have them drift back down into our souls.
Trips to the barn always hold the possibility of revealing intersections with other histories. For instance, Townes’s father, a guy who loves music, named his kids Robert, Miles, Townes, and Iris. Townes is named after the songwriter Townes Van Zandt (his siblings are named after Robert Johnson, Miles Davis, and Iris Dement, respectively). As we enter through the loft floor, Townes hits the switch on a generator, allowing a singular bulb to shine a spotlight on the posters and show bills that hang on one wall above pews rescued from the renovation of a local church. On the other wall is stacked an assortment of guitars, banjos, mandolins, and an accordion.
It was Townes’s father who introduced us years ago to the concept of the “great American songbook”—the oral tradition cultivated throughout our nation’s history, songs passed from generation to generation that capture the spirit and struggle of people living in a land of contradictions and dreams. That’s what we’re playing on this May evening. “Wabash Cannonball,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “John Henry,” the kind of stuff Woody Guthrie or Doc Watson played. Townes’s father played those kinds of folk artists around their house when we were young, and it was only a matter of time until we took matters into our own hands and tried learning the songs on the guitars and banjos stored in the barn. So we sing these songs for old times’ sake, remembering our youth and trying to hammer out some new experiences along the way.
With each new song we revive the histories and experiences of working people—their struggles with race, class, and the environment, mixing and melding them in a pot of verse and melody. We begin with one of our favorites, a relatively late addition to the bluegrass standards, “Paradise,” written and recorded by Chicago folk singer John Prine in 1971. We haven’t played together in a while, so landing on this tune is part choice and part necessity. It’s only three chords in the key of G, which means I know the chromatics needed for crafting licks to fill in our swing between G major, C major, and D major. We’re playing in unison on a pair of acoustic guitars, one made of maple, one of mahogany. We’re no professionals, but we’ve put in enough time up in the barn to make something we at least enjoy listening to and playing.
Townes begins plucking the G major chord, which gives me one bar to hop in before he begins singing:
When I was a child
my family would travel
down to Western Kentucky
where my parents were born.
What follows is a story of environmental crisis that mixes the history of a place and Prine’s personal history. Prine’s father grew up in Paradise, Kentucky, which was founded in the late 1800s as a coal town. There’s an old video of Prine performing “Paradise” in the backyard of his childhood home in Illinois, recounting his family history intersecting with a town and an industry that destroyed that town.
That history is dense, but can be summed up like this: Paradise, Kentucky, was torn down by the government in 1967 because of the pollution risks posed by a nearby coal plant that remains standing today. The song continues,
Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
In four lines over three chords we send the story of lives, families, human relationships lost to King Coal’s strip-mining operation. We send that history up into the vacant space of the barn, and I can’t say for certain that it doesn’t mix with some of the carbon released from that coal dug out of what used to be a mountain holding a town in its valley. With each line we breathe into that old song, moving the air with our vocal cords and our six-stringed companions, we get a little closer to understanding the deep affective connection of people to place and environment. We patch together the old songs with the environmental crisis we’re confronting in the present. “Paradise” is a history of a specific place, but it gives life to the images and adages of many. It’s a tale of destruction in the name of economic gain, a parable for the kinds of decisions made in so many histories to map out a singular future where in time, the oceans will rise to a level that threatens human populations, the crop patterns we’ve relied on for ten thousand years will fail, the highs will be higher, the lows will be lower, and we’ll see more twisters that threaten to blow everything down, including our old barn.
Yet we sit in that loft, smiling as we set out for one last verse. It strikes me that in singing these histories, we’re trying to sing toward hope. Singing in unison the histories of environmental crisis is a way of working toward solutions to the problems produced by industrial capitalism. Learning these songs on instruments that archive their nature—that came from a living source with the peculiarities of life—gives me a sense of the shared dependence between humans and the species we live with in our ecological communities. Guitars of different woods have different tones. For this song Townes holds the mahogany on account of its deeper and richer mid-tones, which resonate when strumming full chords. I play the maple because its upper tones are brighter, which comes in handy when you’re playing licks on the higher strings. As we understand it, reviving stories of human conflicts, land development and capitalism, and the environment is one way to intimately know our place in local ecologies.
The last verse of “Paradise” reminds me of these interdependences.
When I die let my ashes flow down the Green River
let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to heaven with Paradise waiting
just five miles away from wherever I am.
It’s just a simple allusion to Paradise and its promises, but it indicates the relationship between humans and place. By playing, by carrying on this song, we make an oh-so-tiny step toward turning the history of environmental destruction into hope. We begin to recognize the errors of the past so that we may act differently in our future.
Like the land we’re sitting on, in a barn surrounded by shopping malls and paint stores, our understanding is a patchwork of times, places, and peoples. We try to become attuned to singing these old songs. We live in a moment when everything from the past seems so accessible, where you could instantly listen to the song I’ve been writing about on Spotify and bring lessons long forgotten back into the present moment. That may appear to pose challenges to unifying our collective response to our current climate crisis. But I argue that it poses a greater opportunity. Climate change requires us not only to act based on empirical modeling using the latest technological advances but also to draw on one of our oldest inventions as a species, narrative. We must see that the solution to our ecological crises lies in thinking ecologically—as a species beholden to its natural environment rather than separate from it. We do this by telling stories about ourselves. To map out our future, we have to understand past narratives as intimately connected to the present. Might we in fact harness the stories of the past to find solutions for the present? Perhaps we can find hope in our histories, as I do in that old barn on Highway 12 in Altoona, Wisconsin. That’s where Paradise is for me.