Mole In the Ground (Bascom Lamar Lunsford)

I got this from Bascom Lamar Lunsford, as did we all. Lunsford was a complicated and interesting man, a lawyer from North Carolina who was born in 1882 and grew up playing local fiddle and banjo songs. In 1928 he organized one of the first official folk festivals — by some accounts the first — in Asheville, which became a yearly event and among other things is notable as the place where a sixteen-year-old Pete Seeger first became interested in folk music and five-string banjos.

That would not have been Lunsford’s choice for a biographical credit, since he strongly objected both to northern city performers playing “mountain music” and to the association of folk music with leftist politics. I gather from his biography, Minstrel of the Appalachians (by Loyal Jones, who tries to put his views in the best possible light), that he was considered a difficult man back home as well, and it has often been noted that in all the decades he ran the Asheville festival he never presented a black performer (though Jones writes that he did present black musicians in other settings).

So the biography is messy… but he collected a lot of great music over the years, and in 1928 he recorded this song, which is wonderful.

I began playing this in the late 1980s as part of a project to adapt clawhammer banjo pieces to guitar (another example is “The Cuckoo“), and recorded it on the cassette I made in the early 1990s. Which said, I don’t recall playing it all that regularly until I read Robert Cantwell’s book about the folk revival, When We Were Good. There is some smart stuff in that book, but also some spectacular passages of academic prose, and the analysis of this song was so rich that I took to reading it from the stage:

[W]hy does Bascom wish to be a mole in the ground? Perhaps because he is a man not at home where destiny has placed him. He has been in the “Bend,” quite likely a prison, too long, “with the rough and rowdy men” of whom, I think it is fair to say, he is not one. And he has had a bad experience with railroad men, who “drink up your blook like wine.” Even Tempe, his woman, doesn’t love him in the way he deserves, wanting him only when he can supply the cash for the nine-dollar shawl she covets; that doesn’t prevent him, though, from loving her… To hear her sing, he would wish himself not only a contemptible mole but a vile “lizard in the spring.”

A lizard, a mole: Bascom is not the first man in love to feel his rodent-like unworthiness and reptilian cupidity… Nor is he the first to feel, under the influence of love, the roughness of his own sex, or whose heart has learned the arcane and curious language in which nature, in the form of mole and lizard, little miracles of creation and perhaps, in the metaphorical field of sexuality, covert genital symbols, both speaks to his condition and brings him into unconscious sympathy with his beloved.