This was the summer of 1954, and Hank Williams had been dead for a year and a half – dying in a moving car in a snowstorm in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve. But we didn’t necessarily know that. We just knew he was a voice, a plaintive voice, on the jukebox.
The diner was in a hamlet called North Creek in upstate New York. I was staying a month with people who were (are) like family to me. Many evenings after supper, Jimmy, who was six days younger than me (that’s how our mothers met) and I would hitch-hike the 7.7 miles to the Red Diner. We were 15.
The diner had a corner with, as I recall, a pinball machine, and guys could drink a beer and play the jukebox. I was a city kid – no doubt made that point way too often – and my main connection with “country” or “western” or “hillbilly” music was from Gene Autry records and seeing him in the rodeo in Madison Square Garden.
Hank Williams was no Gene Autry. He was a phenomenon unto himself – wailing and courting, letting it all out, six plays for a quarter, as I recall. “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
It was an education for this city kid, and the education goes on, in the PBS series that is pulling me to the tube, two hours every night, all this week. It is about America – hard times, nasty times, lynchings and injustices but also the contribution of African-Americans to the swath of American music. I learn something every minute – the old icons I saw at the Ryman in the 70’s and 80’s, long after they were young and hungry and immensely creative.
I heard them first on the jukebox in the Red Diner in North Creek – Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Eddie Arnold, Pee Wee King (later my Louisville neighbor), Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb.
There was also a woman’s voice, as piercing as Hank Williams’, cutting into the noise in the Red Diner. Her song was a reply to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” which blames women for leading us poor men astray. Miss Kitty Wells was having none of it. She, too, borrowed an old Carter Family tune, and she lectured the men: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
In the smoky, noisy corner of the Red Diner, we were getting a dose of feminism, although we hardly knew that.
Her song had been banned on some chicken networks, fearful of offending (male) listeners and (male) sponsors, but I never heard any of the farmhands in their clean boots and jeans, or the townies, or teen-agers like me, debate Miss Kitty’s point. Lady had a point.
After our hour or two in the Red Diner, we got out into the cool night air, crossed the street into the woods to pee into the Hudson River and then point our thumbs homeward.
The PBS series makes me think about the jukebox in the Red Diner. As of Tuesday, the series was up to 1953.
No Patsy Cline, no Loretta Lynn, no Dolly Parton, no Emmylou Harris, no Lucinda Williams, no Iris DeMent. Not yet. Kitty Wells passed in 2012, at the age of 91. She was there first.
* * *
Bio of Kitty Wells:
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.