Down in the River to Pray - Alison Krauss
My father was a strange man. He was brought up by Plymouth Brethren women. The Plymouth Brethren are quite difficult to define, but alI recall from my own association was that they were well meaning conservative followers of the bible who, at the time of my father's childhood did not believe in sports and thought that any performance of music excepting praise of the Lord was a bad thing. To play the piano, for example, to entertain others was a symptom of vanity and therefore frowned upon. My father's Cousin Margaret for instance, was a wonderfully gifted pianist who loved Beethoven's sonatas but was not aloud to play them. Arts in general therefore were out, as was alcohol, and most things that were fun, like the radio, tv, pets, novels, and parties deemed temptations from the devil's locker. Women, those temptresses incarnate, couldn't wear trousers, or hold down careers, and were definitely subordinate to men.
His father (1948 incredibly - 1918) died when my dad was only 9 years old, with the result that he was brought up by my grandmother and an assorted flock of elderly aunts, cousins and Plymouth Brethren neighbours led by his supposedly fearsome Aunt Alice. Fearsome, that is, according to my mother. He had no brothers or sisters and was the only boy in this community, making him the apple of their Puritan eyes. On long leaves from Bahrain I remember visiting his relations who would welcome us warmly, and even give us a meal, though when they served it they would leave the room until we'd finished, not being permitted to break bread with unbelievers. I recall being shocked when I realised that they didn't even eat with their own children, until the latter had been confirmed, usually when they were around thirteen years old. I don't suppose all Plymouth Brethren were like this, and there was much talk of a great idealogical schism in the movement in the early sixties over issues which included how literally they should interpret the bible - for instance at one time there was disagreement as to whether women were permitted to cut their hair.
So my father concentrated on his work - he had precious little else to do - and excelled in the sciences, winding up at the Royal College of Mines studying metallurgy. His mother, Aunt Alice and the rest had no idea that he was going through the same agonies that Charles Darwin, Edmund Gosse and others had suffered before him, unable to square his increasing knowledge of science and geology with his belief in the existence of a God, the latter finally giving way to the former. He recalled to me expounding to them all on the Dorset Mesozoic beds and them all smiling and saying "yes dear" with no idea that he was committing sacrilege. When he was there he was extremely shy and had difficulty getting to know girls, but he was always at heart an adventurer and one day signed up to go on a fortnight long ski-ing holiday in Zermatt in Switzerland. To his amazement, when he boarded the coach to set off, he discovered that he was one of only two men in a party of forty Most of the women were students at St Mary's Hospital School. The not often mentioned truth about the origins of recreational ski-ing is that it was powered by enthusiastic, independent British women, perhaps looking for places and pastimes where they were not automatically relegated to second place by the social structure. So in the very infancy of ski-ing as a tourist industry, my father found himself surrounded by an eager troop of young men, German, British and Austrian men, the pioneer businessmen and engineers who were setting up this new sport, all trying to get to know the young women through him. So well before the introduction of the first T bars, my father became close friends with a bunch of Germans and Brits, amongst whom were John Sommerfeldt, Sefton Delmer, Leander (Pip) Jameson and Herman Hintner, all of whom I was to meet years later. Sommerfeldt and Jameson were trying to sell the Swiss the snow plough, and Dad told me tales of them being towed up the ski slopes on these, ten at a time, instead of having to rely on seal skins to get to the top.
As he danced and drank each night away in the hotel bars of Zermatt he would wonder what his Aunt Alice would think of it. Needless to say, he never told her.
Years later, when I was twelve years old, Dad took me ski-ing in Zermatt, where we met his now English friend from "the old days", John Summerfield. As far as I could make out, the man was completely barmy. He had a disconcerting habit of drooling out of the corner of his mouth whenever he got enthusiastic about something, which was often, and he chartered a helicopter to drop us off on the top of Monte Rosa so we could ski down it, which was terrifying. This, you must realise is the second tallest mountain in the Alps. If that wasn't bad enough, the pilot and our guide were sharing a bottle of something that smelled alcoholic to my untutored nose and were singing boisterous songs in German all the way up, and when we got there I froze as we posed for photo after photo for John, who later lost the camera while doing summersaults (yes a fifty six year old man doing summersaults on skis at four and a half thousand metres) on the journey down. And his saliva froze down the side of his face in one long, happy, drooling icicle and the guide insisted on yodelling loudly all the way, with me desperately praying he wouldn't start an avalanche.
Alison Krauss's parents were German immigrants to America, and the song was probably written by a black slave in the American south, and probably was one of those to which Cousin Margaret would accompany Aunt Alice and the others on the piano every Sunday morning.