Forgot your password? Close Login. Forgot Password. Close Reset Password. Processing Please Don't Refresh the Page. Browse Books. Learn More. Play Sample. Give as a Gift Send this book as a Gift! Book Rating. Publisher: Recorded Books Date: February Duration: 18 hours 51 minutes. Similar Titles. I sing it the way I feel it, just the way it comes out. They called me the boy with the hundred-year-old voice. They hear something much older than a hundred years in my singing. They say it puts them in mind of the sacred chanting at a Navajo ceremony, or the gospel singing from ancient times, way back to the olden days before the written word, when people first sung out their troubles.
The first time I ever sang in public was in a little country church way out in the sticks. It was a one-room building with plank benches and an old woodstove for heat. No special occasion, just another Sunday morning. You just about needed a search party to find it, tucked back in Long Hollow, miles from the nearest town of Nickelsville. They sing the old Baptist hymns the old-time way, a cappella—style, just the voices alone. But the Primitive Baptists are different. Usually the preacher or one of the elders will line out the songs for the congregation, which means the leader sings a verse and everybody joins in and sings it right back.
On this Sunday morning, my family was sitting all bunched together on the pew-bench like usual: my dad, Lee, and my mother, Lucy, and my older brother, Carter, and me. There was a song my dad wanted to lead on. The Name I Love. So he laid his hand on my shoulder and he called on me to start the song, to line it out for the congregation. Here we were, the church-house packed and everybody waiting on me. I like to stare a hole in the floor and crawl inside and hide. These people were friendly enough, but this was a new church from the one I was used to, the McClure Primitive Baptist Church, close by the hollow I was from back in Dickenson County.
When you traveled mostly by foot or by horse or mule, another county—even the next county over—might as well have been another world. Nothing against Dock, it just shows you how the world was a whole lot bigger place back then, especially in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Even if they were Primitive Baptists like us, they were more like strangers. Here I was, barely eight years old, sitting there in the pew, worried and shaking like a leaf, after my dad called me to lead that hymn.
I turned to my mother, but she paid me no mind. She was silent and somber, her head bowed down. In our church, it had to be a man lining out the songs, the preacher or an elder like my dad. I never did hear of a woman leading on a song. And it was unheard of for a child. Ever since I was born, I was in the shadow of my big brother. Carter was just eighteen months older, but that was like dog years for me, because he was my idol. I just never could mix well with people. And what was so hard for me came easy as pie to Carter, the Stanley brother everybody loved.
He took after our dad, tall and handsome with a million-dollar smile and a joke for any occasion. Carter was game for anything. He called on me. Early on, he noticed I had something God-given and unique. And now he was going to let everybody get a good listen.
Besides, he was in a bind, forgetting how to start that song. Scared as I was, I knew how the song went and that was what probably saved me. I was always taken by the sad old Baptist hymns we sang at our home church down by the river in McClure. I can remember singing those hymns to myself around the house when I was four or five years old.
Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times by Ralph Stanley
I just had a feeling for those songs and I still do today. So I took a deep breath and sung out the opening line the best I could:. The words come out of me and hung in the air and then faded to nothing. The silence was only for a second, but it seemed to last forever. Then the whole congregation joined in and sang the verse back, tracing the melody just the way I done it, and the church filled up with one big voice. I could feel my heart swell up like to bust. It was a feeling I never had before, and I jumped on the next verse before the feeling got away.
Just like before, everyone sang back that mournful melody in a booming voice so strong the walls of the little building like to shake down to the ground. I was too young to know what all the words really meant, but I can tell you now the hymn told my story, plain and simple. I looked up at my dad and his face was a-beaming. He finished out the hymn, and I stood there in wonder, listening to the song I had started all by myself.
Well, let me tell you, that was worth a lot to me.
Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times
Here was my dad, calling on me to lead that song and knowing I could do it. I knew then I had something special nobody else had, not even Carter. I felt proud that my dad had faith and confidence in me, because I was the boy with the hundred-year-old voice. Another thing, too.
Leading on that hymn, I learned you could be afraid and still get the job done.
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At all these fancy venues, I can perform with no stage fright at all, but I still get nervous when I have to line out a song in church. I mourn out my songs more than I did as a young man. Brother Carter and I started our band, the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, in , and we traveled together for twenty years.
There have been so many other losses along the way. Two of my best lead singers who replaced Carter were cut down in their prime. Roy Lee Centers was shot and pistol-whipped and left to die in a creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky, where he was from. Keith was just a kid when he joined up with me, and he could sing like an angel. Just when he finally reached the top of the country charts, he overdosed on alcohol.
Keith and Roy Lee were both good men and great singers—and just like Carter, taken away from us too soon. I sung at so many funerals. I sung when we buried my fiddler, Curly Ray Cline, who worked with me for more years than I spent with Carter. So many funerals. So many friends and family gone. Through the years, you never stop missing them. I can put more into it now, not as much holding back as I used to. My tenor has thinned out some. I can put a lot more feeling in now.
I started adding some crooks and turns and I can worry those lines like I never could before. Instead of doing two things, I can focus on the one. George was like family to us, the third Stanley Brother. So singing was something Carter knew something about. Course, Carter would have never told me such a thing to my face. The voice that Carter and my daddy put so much stock in has carried me all over the world. I tell people wanting directions that the best thing to do is to go until you get to the last mountain.
The family cemetery sits on the highest knob of the ridgetop, in the heart of the Clinch Mountain range. This land belonged to my grandfather, Noah Smith. When Carter and I were coming up, life was real hard here. It was something you had to live to really know about. It was all you could do to get through it. The old songs I sing are all about that, about the hardness of life and the hope for something better beyond. My wife, Jimmi, is a die-hard Stanley Brothers fan, just like her daddy was. She loves to listen to me and Carter sing together.
She thinks my own stuff is fine, but she likes the Stanley Brothers best. Through the years, people have asked me where my music and the music of the Stanley Brothers comes from. How come it sounds so dark and deep and soulful, so different from all the rest? Smith Ridge is where the dream started. The dream of making music our full-time work and devoting our lives to it.
The same way the miners got coal from the ground and the sawmill men got lumber from the woods, we aimed to gather that old music we found in these hills and hollows and take it out to people all around our territory. Together we lived the dream for twenty years, until the cold winter night in when he passed on, I believe, from the heavy price he paid to keep it alive in the hard times. Until the end he never did give up on the dream that finally done him in. I just wish Carter could be here, too.
Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times
After all he done for the music, he died a poor man. It still hurts me he never got to share in the success and get a decent payday. When I get to feeling a certain way, I go to the cemetery to be with Carter and my mother. So we took Carter up and now the whole row of tombs are raised aboveground like theirs. All ours are needing are the final dates carved into that granite slab. But I got through it.
I was back on the road in seven weeks. My wife, Jimmi, says the Man Upstairs has let me stay around because he has more work for me to do. I used to go to the cemetery a lot. In a way, it makes me sad. In a way, I like to go.
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It puts me in mind what my granddaughter Amber Dawn said to me one time. I had been on the road for a tour. It feels peaceful up on the high knob there with nobody else around. I reckon everyone should have such a place, and I feel blessed to have it.