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last exit
by derk richardson


JUST WHEN THE O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack finally made it to number one on the pop charts last week, I began to feel I was coming to a deeper understanding of its phenomenal appeal. It may have something to do with 4.4 million people waiting for the right collection of bluegrass, old-time country, blues, and gospel music to come along. But it has everything to do with the secret activation of a "shadow government," rethinking our "nuclear posture," and Tonya Harding beating up Paula Jones.

I came to that realization last Wednesday night during the discussion after a weekly meditation sitting. Wes "Crazy Wisdom" Nisker was asking how we can possibly keep our hearts open in the face of a world roiling with bloodshed, violence, religiously justified hatred, and morally rationalized "collateral damage." How do we dispel the cloud of depression that envelops us when we feel that what is happening around us is totally out of our control, or when the nouns "attorney general" and "John Ashcroft" can be uttered in sequence?

I suppose that approximately 280 out of every 281 Americans would more readily take refuge in the Three Stooges than the "three jewels" (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha). But even stupid white men have a need for a culture beyond Celebrity Boxing – something that gives succor and inspiration, helps them make sense of their lives, and allows them to move beyond alienation, cynicism, and despair. The problem is that if you didn't grow up with something like hip-hop, if you no longer hear yourself in rock and roll or see yourself as a "Survivor," authentic cultural connection can be awfully hard to find.

But somehow the Cox Family singing "I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)," Ralph Stanley warbling "O Death," and Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch crooning "I'll Fly Away" resonate with enough people to populate both Houston and Philadelphia.

I get the feeling, though, that the O Brother experience is akin to communing with ghosts who reassure us that we come from noble, hardworking, God-fearing stock. In this case, the salt of the earth is Appalachia, and for it to continue to symbolize an otherwise illusory American way of life that we can cherish and defend, it must continue to dress up in overalls and gingham dresses and sing to us about going "down to the river to pray."

Here, though, another problem arises. "To focus merely on what could be called traditional culture," WMMT-FM cultural affairs director Buck Maggard told the journal Appalachia, "would be to lock the Region in one time."

WMMT, which broadcasts to eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and parts of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio, is a project of Appalshop, a former War on Poverty program founded in 1969 to teach Appalachian youngsters about film and video production. Dedicated to both documenting and moving the culture forward, Appalshop has since expanded to include a radio station, a record label, a theater company, the American Festival project, and more.

Appalshop's 30th-anniversary tour, "Voices from Home," is in the middle of a Bay Area visit including music, film, and storytelling. Among other events, Mimi Pickering's documentary film Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song premieres Thurs/21 at the New PFA Theater, and Dickens performs with Dudley Connell, along with Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum, Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher, the Kathy Kallick Band, and the Bluegrass Intentions Sat/23 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in "An Evening Honoring Hazel Dickens," coproduced by Freight and Salvage. The daughter of a timber carrier in West Virginia coal country, Dickens became a trailblazing woman of bluegrass when she recorded with Alice Gerrard in the late '60s and early to mid '70s.

Attuned to global politics as well as labor issues in the coal fields, Dickens wrote one of her most famous protest songs, "Will Jesus Wash the Bloodstains from Your Hands?," during the Nixon presidency. In the Reagan era she added a verse decrying the fallacy of limited nuclear war, singing, "Bloodthirsty warriors don't know when to quit." Her delivery of that line on the CD reissue of her 1986 album It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song is enough to confirm the Swedish proverb quoted in the liner notes: "Those who wish to sing will always find a song." So will those who need to hear one.

'Hazel Dickens: It's Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song' screens with Dreadful Memories: The Life of Sarah Odgen Gunning Thurs/21, 7:30 p.m., New PFA Theater, 2575 Bancroft, Berk. $4.50-$8.50. (510) 642-1412. 'An Evening Honoring Hazel Dickens' takes place Sat/23, 8 p.m., St. John's Presbyterian Church, 2727 College, Berk. $18.50-$19.50. (510) 548-1761. For a complete schedule of Bay Area "Voice from Home" events go to www.appalshop.org/voices/sanfrancisco.html.