Some of my fondest memories as a child are of my mother’s singing to me. She was born and grew up in Appalachia. Most of the songs she sang were the hillbilly, bluegrass, or country songs she knew and loved. One of them, “The Knoxville Girl,” has an intriguing history, but I can’t recommend any mother sing this particular song to her children. I still remember one line: “Oh Willy dear, don’t kill me here, I’m not prepared to die.” You get the idea.
Another of her favorites was “Detour,” a country song written by Paul Westmoreland. A recording of the song, by Jimmy Walker, accompanied by the composer, came out in 1945 when Mom was fifteen years old. She would often sing “Detour” in the car, especially when we were traveling a long distance. I loved it and still remember the chorus.
Detour—there’s a muddy road ahead.
Detour—paid no mind to what it said.
Detour—all the bitter things I find.
Should have read that detour sign.
Like all good ballads, “Detour” operates at more than one level. It uses the language of common road signs, a detour sign, in this case, to talk about life’s difficulties, “all the bitter things” the singer experienced as the result of ignoring a warning sign. Signs on concrete highways often alert us to road work or difficult spots ahead. Sometimes, they even let us know how long to expect the trouble—“Road Under Construction next 5 miles.” But life’s highway is not nearly as accommodating. Traveling it, we sometimes find ourselves in a difficult place, unexpectedly; and rarely, if ever, do we know how long the trouble will last.
In college, my daughter was introduced to, and fell in love with, Argentine tango. In contrast to ballroom tango, which has defined steps, Argentine tango is improvisational. To dance Argentine tango is more like playing the blues than like playing classical sonatas.
During one of her visits home, we talked about her fascination with tango. She confessed that often when she was feeling down, she would attend a milonga, an event where Argentine tango is danced. Immediately upon entering the venue and hearing the music, she said, she could feel her spirits lift. And by the end of the evening, her mood had entirely changed; her previous sadness had vanished.
She had recently been teaching tango to women. She taught them how to lead. My first thought was that this must be some idea she’d picked up in college, for men lead in tango. But then, she explained why she taught women to lead. As an improvised dance involving two people, how does the follower in tango know what to do, how to follow the leader. She said that leaders telegraph future moves in subtle ways: a shifting of weight from one foot to another, a slight movement of the shoulder, a gentle turning of the hips, a soft tapping of the fingers on the back of the follower. The best way to become a skilled tango partner, she argued, is to learn how the leader signals. And the best way to do that is to learn to lead. Then, not only will the follower be tuned in to the leader, but she will have an understanding of how the leader communicates, the vocabulary of the dance.
As though this was not enough for me to absorb, she went on to make a quantum leap. “I think that dancing the tango,” she said, “is like dancing with God. The key to dancing with God is the same as the key to dancing with a human partner. Be tuned in to his signals, follow his lead, and understand that if we attempt to lead God,” she concluded, “we wind up stepping on each other’s toes.”
When she returned to school, I decided to take some tango lessons. I enjoyed them enormously. I never became a good tango dancer, but there was something about it, the music, the movement, the emotions involved, that had an almost magical effect on me. Jorge Luis Borges, the late Argentinian short story writer, poet, and philosopher, once said:
The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret.Jorge Luis Borges
Perhaps that secret is learning to read signs, learning to follow another’s lead down life’s crooked road.
All the best!
Photo, “The Embrace,” courtesy of Anne Guthrie.
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