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Bryan Appleyard Headshot

American Tales

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Staying at Mountain Village in the Colorado Rockies, I need to catch what the locals call the gondola but we would call a cable car to get down to Telluride. I start at about 9000 feet above sea level. The car first rises up to 10,500 feet and then falls 2000 feet to drop me downtown where the Film Festival is in progress.

For 13 minutes I skim through the ghostly aspens. I have not yet been alone. People jump into the cars together and then they talk. They tell stories about themselves and expect yours in response. I have drifted up in complete darkness with a retired Texan hedge funder who asked me if I knew Jeremy Clarkson and skimmed downwards with a local kid who wanted to study at the Royal Academy. One family from Philadelphia included me in a debate about the finer points of canyoneering and mountaineering. A lady explained something of the biology of aspens. Only once have I sat in silence - a high school girl and some college students were discussing their lives in terms far beyond my sphere of competence.

Meanwhile, I am reminded that it is 50 years since William Zantzinger received a six month sentence for killing Hattie Carroll, a casual, racist injustice that would have been forgotten but for the fact that it produced a very great work of art -- Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol," which was, as a friend says, 'one of the first songs to reveal his talent in all its blazing glory'. The great critic Christopher Ricks told me he regarded it as was one of three perfect songs by Dylan, the others being I Want You and Sign on the Window.

What strikes me most about Hattie Carroll is its dazzling storytelling through the use of startling syntax and unexpected detail. You can read the lyrics for yourself, but here's just one example -- Carroll, sings Dylan, 'Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane/That sailed through the air and came down through the room.' This takes my breath away. That 'down through the room' is shocking in its oddity. It is obviously surplus to requirements -- what else would it come down through? -- but, somehow, it puts you right there at that fateful moment; you can feel the air disturbed by the cane's movement on your face. I could go on...

The British tend to think of poetry as a matter of economy, of compression. Dylan, like Whitman, like America, sees it as an occasion for extension. And why not? Life should be extended. That's what stories are all about.

It's also what America, at her glorious best, is all about. Those gondola conversations will stay with me as evidence of a sweet, gracious, courteous, polite, curious, friendly, storytelling society. That is my normal experience of this country. Of course, I know the rest -- the sentimental attachment to violence, a dim-witted respect for money, an appalling vulgarity, the creation of a vicious kleptocracy that is expropriating the wealth of the middle and working classes and now, probably, another unwise military adventure. But, strange as it may be, those things all become less not more apparent when you are actually here. What becomes most apparent is the urge to tell stories, perhaps because there are still remnants of settler/frontier society or -- and I am pretty sure this is the most important factor -- simply because it is very big country whose wildernesses inspire a strong sense of place and home and a desire to celebrate that in stories.

The gondola tales are like poems, yet further occasions of extension and little moments of sweetness and grace. Hattie Carroll lives on, having changed the world for the better. This land is not my land but sometimes I wish it was.