Life Stand Still Here
by David Gates, author of Jernigan and A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me
Even most people from Kentucky probably haven’t heard of Linefork, a remote mountain community in the southeastern part of the state, with a population of about 200. Lee Sexton, a former coal miner, has lived here for all of his 88 years, and few outsiders would have heard of him either if he hadn’t recorded four banjo pieces for the folklorist and musician John Cohen in 1959. They appeared on the Folkways album Mountain Music of Kentucky, best known for introducing the music of Roscoe Holcomb to the wider world. A handful of aficionados continue to admire Sexton’s precise and powerful two-finger banjo style—nearly as complex and fully as aggressive as Earl Scruggs’s more modern three-finger bluegrass style—played on a loud resonator banjo. But unlike Holcomb, or Virginia’s Tommy Jarrell, Sexton never became a folk-circuit celebrity, and he didn’t release an album of his own until 1988, a modest EP called Whoa Mule. In 1999, he got a Governor’s Award in the Arts from the state, but he remains obscure even in the obscure world of old-time music, performing at some local dances and festivals, giving banjo lessons, living in his trailer home with his wife, Opal, and farming his tract of land at the end of a dirt road.
In 2004, Boston-area musician Vic Rawlings came to Linefork specifically to seek out Sexton after hearing those four tracks on Mountain Music of Kentucky, recorded five years before Rawlings was born. He went back a year or so later; then, in August 2012, he returned once more. “I made some audio recordings,” he says, “and played with Lee while my girlfriend Liz sat and talked with Opal—it was one of those afternoons. I began thinking of a film right then and there—really, right when I entered the house that day.” He got in touch with his friend Jeff Silva, a filmmaker who’s taught at Harvard and Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, who counseled him to buy his first video camera; Silva was sold on the project after seeing footage Rawlings took that October. Between then and 2015, Rawlings and Silva kept filming in Linefork, and spending their nights at the Parkway Inn in Whitesburg. Linefork, the film that resulted, took a total of twenty-four days of shooting, and at least a year of editing.
We’ve had documentary films about other master musicians from the Appalachian backcountry—Cohen’s The High Lonesome Sound, featuring Holcomb, and Les Blank’s Sprout Wings and Fly, featuring Jarrell. But Holcomb was revered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, and toured Europe in company with the Stanley Brothers; Jarrell was surrounded in his later years by hipsters eager to learn his fiddle techniques, and won a National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. Rawlings and Silva don’t attempt to argue that Lee Sexton is a comparable figure who’s been unjustly neglected. Linefork presents him simply as he is: an ordinary (though not uncomplicated) man with one extraordinary gift that lifts him at certain moments—when he’s got a banjo in his hands—out of his everyday life. Tending the garden. Feeding the chickens. Shopping at the dollar store. Gossiping with cronies. Watching Maury Povich—at peak volume because of his deafness. Sitting under the porch roof staring out at the rain. One of the most revelatory sequences comes near the end, when he’s playing with a small band at a square dance, anchoring and driving a bunch of much younger musicians, a wide, boyish smile on his face. Then a fingerpick slips off his hand and he’s immediately an octogenarian, fumbling for it on the floor. He recovers the pick, resumes playing and he’s a boy once more. The pick slips off again—and so forth. It’s his life in miniature.
Or more accurately, it’s his life in inverse proportion: Linefork devotes far more screen time to the meditative tedium of old age and country ways than to the scenes of transcendent music-making. This must be what Lee Sexton’s own experience must actually be like—as opposed to how a conventional documentary might present it. Everybody knows how to make one of those films: you open with your subject’s banjo plinking on the soundtrack as the camera pans over a shabby-idyllic landscape, then you feed in the old codger’s voice-over for a while, then comes the title (music up), then a talking head (someone more sophisticated than the old codger) does some explaining about why we should care about him, then… The opening of Linefork puts us on notice that this a different kind of film. It begins with a blank screen and a loud, unpleasant racket, then we’re looking down at a train passing under a bridge, empty coal car after empty coal car after empty coal car after empty coal car stretching out of sight—surely we won’t have to watch every last damn one of these cars pass. But we will. It’s a rebuke to the conventional documentary, as well as to the familiar quick-cut editing of movies and TV—and it teaches us how to watch what’s to come: patiently, accepting and embracing that meditative tedium. There’ll be a lot of it. Sexton, in sky-blue coveralls, slowly moving behind his rototiller out of the shot, then back into the shot. His wife, Opal, cooking in their cramped kitchen for what seems like hours. Lee and Opal picking vegetables and picking vegetables and picking vegetables. A small tethered dog jumping onto a cinderblock, off the cinderblock, onto the cinderblock, off the cinderblock, onto the cinderblock… These Beckettian episodes are the batter; the musical moments are the raisins. Without both, neither would make much sense: on the one hand, mere sociology; on the other, mere hagiography.
Rawlings and Silva handle even the obligatory exposition—who is Lee Sexton and why do we care?—with great originality: no talking heads, no voice-over with Ken Burns-like stills, but Sexton in his living room reading aloud from a book about Appalachian music that summarizes his biography and career. He doesn’t seem proud of having gotten such recognition—though, of course, why else would he be reading it aloud?—but mildly curious, as if this “Lee Sexton” is someone else. Rawlings says the scene wasn’t staged, and it’s easy to believe him: Sexton just seems to be idly passing the time, much as he does when he’s watching that blaring big-screen tv. Much as Opal does when she’s sitting at the kitchen table working word puzzles. Linefork is less a film about music than about time itself: its slow passage, its seasonal cycles from bleak early spring to lush late summer, from tilling to harvest, and its inevitable depredations. How many more seasons will Lee and Opal have to plant, to harvest, to feed the chickens, to cook, to browse in the thrift shop, to show young people some moves on the banjo? Lee talks on the phone about an old friend who’s become debilitated and demented; meanwhile he goes about his chores with difficulty, and the electronic tuner clipped to his banjo suggests he can no longer tune it by ear. And Opal’s health is failing. In one scene we watch her undergoing an MRI; in another, Lee bends over to help her on with new shoes that are meant to ease her diabetes. He doesn’t seem to notice that she’s simultaneously straightening his collar, but we do: this is also a film about a marriage, and Opal is its secret star, shyly smiling and doing a little dance as Lee plays a banjo tune she must have heard a thousand times.
After watching Linefork, I remembered the passage from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in which Lily Briscoe reflects on a years-past visit to another long-married couple. (Brace yourself for a highfalutin comparison.) “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark . . . Mrs Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs Ramsay saying ‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent . . . this was the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said.” This slow, meditative film presents us with such transcendent, time-stopping moments in the sludgy flow of everyday events: moments of musical transport, moments of marital love. Those little daily miracles are the film’s true subject, and they’re worth waiting for. Lee and Opal Sexton hardly seem to notice them—who does while they’re happening?—but they come at us with the force of revelation.