Welcome to the Undertown

Undertown (n): Like the bottom part of the wave that actually moves all the water (and can do all the damage), that beneath the surface pulls you in and gives you an appreciation of the ocean, the undertown is that part of any place that provides a glimpse into its true meaning — beyond the lip service, hypocrisy, glib acceptance speeches and polished recordings. The undertown is where you find the literal and figurative prisons of a place, its dark secrets and hidden longings. You find what a place truly wants to be, and people willing to stand up and do what is necessary to make it happen.

In a musical context, the Undertown is what doesn’t get played on the radio. Music that doesn’t have a face on MTV, VH1 or CMT. It’s music with a connection to personal roots, an absolute absence of disposable music – reverence and relevance where it is due, and iconoclasm where it is required. Bluegrass, folk, Appalachia, Western swing, hillbilly, hick, redneck, rural, Bakersfield, Austin, midwestern, plains, poor, downtrodden, spiritual music. The music that represents the America you don’t see except out your front window, if you bother to look. The America that doesn’t require (or for that matter, appreciate) reality programming.

The Undertown is then, more or less, a battleground. A place where a war is constantly raging; not of flesh and blood, though that too may be consumed in the struggle. No, it is a battleground of the spirit. What is the struggle? In the words of e.e. cummings, “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

For many years, I have been a citizen of Undertown. That experience has resulted in a number of different poems and songs, like this:

Late at night it slows a little:
that slow burn right down the middle,
turning progress upside down
and into the sad streets of undertown;

Where nothing’s likely brewing,
and the only thing worth doing
is to swim or else you’ll drown
beneath the current in the undertown;

You think I’m joking? Look around.
Welcome again to undertown.

There is no use in speaking
out against the darkness leaking
into everything that’s found
its way here to the heart of undertown,

and no sure way of knowing,
not much of a good thing going
when they shut the sidewalks down
and turn the lights out here in undertown;

It’s hard to find your way around
Here after dark in undertown.

Outside there’s the sound of thunder;
how long will it last, I wonder?
’til the lost have become found
and take the road that leads from undertown

where there’s no light left burning
to prove that the world’s still turning
any way but straight and down
to bury itself here in undertown.

It may sound funny, but I’ve found
just one way out of undertown.

07 FEB 2007

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