Friday, August 26, 2011

Emmylou was a Beauty Queen

A Southern woman writer once wrote that for a man to amount to anything, as a little boy he had to have a mama applaud him. He needed a mama-woman to make over him, to smile at him with approval. The implication was that the course of a long road can be shaped by its initial direction. A tiny seedling never planted firm/happy/straight by a mama's hand had more difficulty growing up to be a mighty oak.

I am not a professional in matters of the heart or psychology, so she may have been right.

But it also sent me thinking about what shaped my generation of little girls. And--in the over-simplified, generalist manner in which I tend to think-- I came to the conclusion that we learned to be either beauty queens or cheerleaders. As a teenager, Emmylou Harris won the "Miss Woodbridge" beauty pageant and was awarded scholarship money and a tiara. I cannot help but think that somehow that had an effect on her. It is one thing to be gorgeous and talented but quite another to be gorgeous and talented and know how to stare down an audience and win their hearts. What a road she has traveled. I saw Emmylou in person for the first time onstage in Birmingham in the mid 1970s, not as a beauty queen but as a queen who also happened to be beautiful. Since that time, she has seen a lot of miles on stage with her game face on. A true beauty queen--a winner--walks out there in life knowing her worth and standing tall in the spotlight, daring you to listen and come away unmoved.

Cheerleaders were different.

A cheerleader rarely stood alone in the spotlight. Or even stood still, for that matter. Unless it was to listen to someone else and then respond, drawing the audience out of its shyness, urging the audience to clap and cheer. A cheerleader knew how to step perfectly in unison to get the job done as a team. A cheerleader learned never to point to the 'me' but to others, genuinely elated at their success. In response to an unfair judgment from a referee, a cheerleader tried to display good sportsmanship while nevertheless acknowledging the injustice. Cheerleaders didn't have to be beautiful. They just had to have heart.

"They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be." said Ophelia.

Some of us still keep our toes straight when we do a cartwheel. Some of us can stand in a doorway and stare down a room.

After all these years, Emmylou speaks straight to my soul. Even when all she's doing is singing back- up harmony on one cut of an obscure album, I can pick out her voice, even if her name does not appear in the credits.


Jeanie Thompson said...

Hey girlfriend, some of us have been going through life with the stigma of 1)not having made cheerleader in junior high, 2)never having entered a beauty contest cause our mommas didn't believe in that, 3)having decided to write poetry in a notebook in ninth grade as a way to express ourselves when no one was listening. Now we have the illusion that we are beautiful and can alternately cheer or stare down the universe in lines.

Anita Miller Garner said...

the key words here were 'learn to'. Our generation of women LEARNED TO stand in a doorway and stare down a room. Obviously you have been an intuitive student of life :) But you have to admit that Emmylou's got what it takes.