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Article: 08.06.2013, Sat

Gettin' along with somebody else's troubles...

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In 1971 Merle Haggard penned and recorded a song called "Daddy Frank the Guitar Man". At first glance the lyrics appear to tell a story of an usual family band, where every member of the family learned to play an instrument and that way together they pass the time and make a living. If it really was like this, the tune could be classified as a typical and little interesting country song, because it is widely known the genre often relates to such family themes. However, there is something which makes the song content so different from corny family stories. We learn from the next lines of the tune that the main heroes of the lyrics - Daddy Frank and momma coped with a disability and they both successfully overcame it, with no complaints just living a full life.

Mama couldn't hear our pretty music, She read our lips and helped the family sing (...) And it wasn't like no normal family combo, Cause Daddy Frank the guitar man was blind (...)
Farther part of the lyrics shows that although the fate placed a huge challenge before either of the parents, thanks to a big love they were able to unite in their common misery and by supporting each other they made up for the senses they'd lost. They got around in a society in a normal way and both of them had a share of duties to do in order to push that family business forward and provide the children with decent existence.

Frank and mama counted on each other; Their one and only weakness made them strong. Mama did the driving for the family, And Frank made a living with a song. (...) Fever caused my mama's loss of hearing. Daddy Frank was born without his sight. And mama needed someone she could lean on, And I believe the guitar man was right.
In my opinion the song, although recorded long time ago, brings a beautiful message still up-to-date these days. It is a musical attempt to draw public attention to the fact that the disabled live in the society and, what is more important, aims to underline such people can perfectly fit in the world and do better than many of the able-bodied persons.

Johnny Cash

However, Haggard was not the only artist in the history of country music, who paid attention to the situation of the disabled. The other day on YouTube I came across a rare music video of Johnny Cash performing a song "I Believe". The clip consists mostly of archival video recordings from the 1984 Summer Paraolympic Games in the USA, mainly emotional and touching moments of the handicapped competitors' victories. The whole composition of the video along with the words of the song strongly emphasizes motivation and huge determination of those people - the song title says "I Believe" and it is them who believing hard they can overcome all obstacles, don't give up, achieve their goal and reach for the medals. The faith in their capabilities enables them to break all the limits.

Of course, Johnny Cash very often let us know he cared for the situation of people with different types of hadicap. A great example of this was when he performed the old gospel song "Old Rugged Cross" in American Sign Language (language of the deaf) at a concert:

Songs in ASL were performed on stage also by other country artists, for example John Denver.

Basing on a idea like Cash when he reffered to Paralympics in his music video - as an example of strong determination that helps overcome all obstacles - George Jones (deceased 2013) used in a clip for his song "Walls Can Fall" scenes showing a little girl, who perhaps suffers from spina bifida or cerebral palsy, but despite the disease she bravely tries to stand up and learns walk. The above-mentioned thread starts at 0:53 second, but watching the whole video is highly recommended:

I think it's also worth to mention that some country performers actively participated in organizations for the disabled. For example Eddie Rabbitt (d. 1998), the man who wrote one of the Elvis greatest hits "Kentucky Rain", worked as a spokesman for American Muscular Dystrophy and Cerebral Palsy associations. He also supported the paraolympic sports.

Ray Charles

Nevertheless in the history of country music and other genres too, there were musicians who never needed to raise awareness of disability by their lyrics or music videos, because they showed with their own example what a great artist, and first of all, what a great man can you be in spite of physical limitations. In particular I mean the two blind singers and pianists - Ray Charles and Ronnie Milsap. Milsap was mainly associated with classic country, but he also had a big crossover success with a combination of country and pop. Whereas Ray played many musical styles and genres (I believe everyone recognizes tunes like "Hit the Road, Jack" or "Georgia on My Mind"); he's cosidered a pioneer in soul music, but many honored Opry stars often emphasized his huge contribution to country music. Charles lost his sight at the age of 7, probably due to glaucoma. Ronnie Milsap was born with a progressive sight disorder which yet in childhood led to complete blindness and both his eyes had to be removed. Both the musicians learned to play the piano when they were already blind.

Ronnie Milsap

Yet they were far beyond compare in that field and personally I've always respected the two very much. They shared a part of their soul with the fans in every word they sang and their piano play was simply stunning, although they never saw the keys. Myself, I can only dream to ever achieve that level of musical perfection like either of these "disabled". Likewise, Billy Joe Shaver - a songwriter associated with the Outlaw Movement who penned the biggest hits for Waylon Jennings in that period, learned to play the guitar despite of missing

Hank Williams Sr.

fingers in his right hand, that he lost in a lumbermill accident in his youth. Also Hank Williams Sr., a pioneer of country music, considered to be one of the most important country performers of all time, whose work influenced the whole next generation of brilliant artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or George Jones, was born with a hidden form of spina bifida (occulta). Fortunately the disorder didn't bring on paralysis in his legs, but caused pain that became one of the reasons for the singer's later habits which eventually led to his death at a young age due to overdosing drugs and alcohol.

And finally, I can't forget about one more man who perhaps did not cope with a classical form of disability, but throughout his whole musical career he was aware of upcoming death as a result of a disease that was destroying him from the inside.

Steve Goodman

Steve Goodman, a Chicago-based folk artist who is known to the Americans mainly as the composer of the immortal hit "City of New Orleans", brilliant songwriter and guitarist. For 15 years he battled leukemia that eventually became the cause of his death in 1984, aged barely 36. However, the young Steve not for a moment manifested what a lethal fight he was going through. On stage he was full of energy and good humor with which he infected everyone who only took a look at him. He had lots of fun and the audience shared his joyful mood. Apart from his closest environment, no one knew about his disease. Always smiling and relaxed - that's how Steve Goodman was like until his final days. He gave us a beautiful example of how to deal with life and live it up as long as you can; enjoy every minute despite difficulties. I think though, that Steve's personal experience with the disease influenced him a lot to create the lyrics for the song "Somebody Else's Troubles", in which he gently and in a humorous way, points out that people generally don't care very much for others' problems until they get into troubles themselves.

(...) Did you ever pay for something that you didn't do? And did you ever figure out the reason why? And when the doctor says this gonna hurt me a lot more than this hurts you, Did you ever figure out that that's a lie? He knows it ain't too hard to get along with somebody else's troubles And they don't make you lose any sleep at night As long as fate is out there burstin'somebody' else's bubbles. Everything is gonna be alright. And everything will be alright (...)
Below there is a sample of Steve's outstanding ability to steal hearts of the audience - just try not to smile while staring at him and listening... I bet you ain't gonna make it =)

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Copyright: Krzysztof Kuldanek (c) 2013