Go Tell Aunt Rhody

TWO YEARS AGO, I purchased my first guitar. At the time, I was singing with a wholesome folk trio and thought it wise to learn to play an instrument on which I could easily accompany myself. That way, after our saw player and I inevitably came to blows, it would be easier to go solo.

For a couple of weeks, I dutifully tried to master the basics. And then one evening, I never got around to practicing again. For a month, my guitar sat untouched in the corner of the living room. Eventually, I got sick of feeling guilty and banished it to a little-used closet.

Recently, I found myself in essentially the same predicament that prompted me to buy that guitar. Our almost all-gay country band, Purty Mouth, seems to be gaining a little momentum. And since I'm writing originals, I'd like to be able to play them unassisted. So a couple Sundays ago, I hauled out my neglected Yamaha acoustic and, with tender fingers and a renewed sense of commitment, tried once more to learn this new discipline. I borrowed a copy of the self-instruction manual that worked for my boyfriend, and lo and behold, I was soon playing "Amazing Grace." Poorly and with the rhythmic assurance of a septuagenarian on Quaaludes, but, nevertheless, I was strumming a whole song.

Suddenly, I recalled why I had abandoned my studies the first time—and it wasn't sore fingers. It was that the technique I was struggling to learn, as put forth in Fretboard Logic by Bill Edwards, eschewed using songs as part of its program. Divorced from the context of playing even the most common ditties, practicing Edwards' five basic chord forms soon became mind numbing.

I'm sure Fretboard Logic works for some students. The Guitar Center salesman praised it. But I should have sensed we were ill suited when I read the introduction, where Edwards critiqued traditional guitar books. "Many teach songs that are of no interest except, perhaps, to small children," he kvetched. "Maybe you don't want to play songs that were hits 75 years ago. The classic one for this is the kid who went into his first guitar lesson dreaming of 'Eruption' and came out playing 'Go Tell Aunt Rhody.'"

What the hell is so humiliating about learning "Go Tell Aunt Rhody"?

First and foremost, "Aunt Rhody" only involves two chords, D and A7, both of which are simple to finger. It's even easier to fumble through than "Amazing Grace." Yet is that ease of playability sufficient to sustain a novice's interest for hours, while you conquer changing chords without hesitation? At least with "Amazing Grace," when boredom sets in, the student can imagine he or she is Mahalia Jackson or, perhaps, Meryl Streep in Silkwood.

But closer examination shows that the lyrics to "Go Tell Aunt Rhody," a song that has endured for over 150 years, are seething with drama. Just like countless hoary old clunkers from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, its cornerstone is a tragic death—that of Rhody's beloved old gray goose. But the twist? The damned thing drowned . . . "a-standin' on her head."

Geese don't normally drown. So was it murder? No. I rule it a suicide. Why would a fowl decide to end it all via water ballet? Simple. The goose knew that her patron was just exploiting her, and that she had designs to pluck the poor bird and "make a feather bed." Rather than suffer such ignominy, clearly the brokenhearted goose opted to take its own life.

Then there's the familial repercussions of this barnyard tale of woe: "the goslings are cryin'," and "the gander won't eat now." Wailing mourners and a hunger strike. It's a veritable Greek tragedy down there by the millpond. Verdi could've written an opera around "Go Tell Aunt Rhody."

And I'm not the only one who thinks "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" is a quintessential American classic. So does maverick country legend David Allen Coe ("Take This Job and Shove It," "Field of Stone"). He covered it, as "Old Gray Goose," on his 1974 album Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy. This is a dude whose mailing address was the Ohio State Penitentiary for most of his 20s, who camped out in a hearse in the Opry parking lot and has counted Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Pantera, and Kid Rock among his drinking buddies. Coe is a 100 percent, grade-A badass, and he digs "Aunt Rhody," too!

I have no starry-eyed dreams of being the next Joe Satriani or Yngwie Malmsteen. I just want to learn to play basic guitar. The cold precision of Fretboard Logic didn't help me do that; "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and its litany of death, treachery, and sorrow did. So you can keep your precious Eddie Van Halen, Mr. Bill Edwards of Tampa, Fla. What's so cool about "Eruption" anyway? It doesn't even have words.

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