Soundtrack to a Mind: Brent Cunningham

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“Single Girl, Married Girl” by The Carter Family
Single Girl, Married Girl by The Carter Family on Grooveshark

In part I chose this song because it shows how much a “version” can matter. I revise my writing obsessively so I’m pretty familiar with the idea of “versions,” but only within the framework of the literary. I use this song to think about how other artists, in other frameworks, work with things like time, pacing, variation, revision, modification.

The version of this song heard most often, including on Harry Smith’s famous Anthology of American Folk Music (Volume 3), comes from the recording sessions the Carter Family did in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927. I prefer this lesser-known recording, from the 1936 radio transcripts out of New York, where the tempo is slowed way down and where Sara sounds depressed beyond belief.

I know so little about the technical aspects of music that I don’t even know if I’m using the term “tempo” correctly. But to me these two versions are studies in the effects of time on artistic objects. This New York version shows how an air of exhaustion or malaise, almost indifference, can have an effect that is nearly the opposite of what you might expect, pulling our interest towards the singer instead of alienating us. To my ear, the extreme unhurriedness here suggests that the song–which of course, like all music, only exists because time exists and moves forward–is on the verge of transforming into its own negative image: a stationary object. This is something that I try to use in my own writing, asking it to do things I know it can’t do, or be things it can’t be, if only because failure is more interesting than success.

Beyond the time signature, the song is a model of simplicity and cogency. Whether you remember your seventh grade English class nostalgically or traumatically you should recall the “compare-and-contrast” technique that structures these lyrics. The lyrics are simple, but murky and ambiguous too. At first we think the single girl, with her freedom, nice clothes, and money, suffers less than the married girl. Then the neutral statement of the last line twists this understanding around. “O, baby on her knee.” Is the baby itself a source of suffering for the married girl? If it is, the whole thing–all of life, including the party-it-up lifestyle of the single girl–would have to be suffering as well, wouldn’t it? Wasn’t the single girl also a baby herself once? So she must have restricted the liberation and joys of her own mother. In that case, isn’t the single girl’s leisure and pleasure the product of that initial restriction and pain? The dual equation set up in the song is so stripped down–and moral judgement so removed from this language of flat statements–that the largest questions of existence just sort of show up, staring back out at the listener. What is leisure? What is burden? What do we owe? And what is that debt premised on?

Whenever I start thinking writing is about having a dazzling style, I listen to this song and think about how much it suggests, how much it did, with just two chords and the sort of basic parallel construction kids are still being taught in middle school.

Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher and visual artist living in Oakland, California. His first book of poetry, Bird & Forest, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2005. His second book, JOURNEY TO THE SUN, was published by Atelos Press in 2012. He currently works as the Operations Director at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley where he has been an employee since 1999. He and Neil Alger are the founders of Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing and ephemera.