Ralph Stanley’s Little Mathie Grove

If you’re ever a little curious about my approach to history, here’s a quick story about it. Before I tell it, you might want to download and listen to Ralph Stanley singing a song entitled “Little Mathie Grove.”

This song illustrates my approach to history.

To begin, it is itself historical. The original version dates back to the 17th century, in the era of Shakespeare. That’s when it was written and performed for the first time.

In addition, the song is raw and real. Nothing is softened or sugared. Straight, tough, powerful, and true—those are qualities of this song. There is also a willingness to tackle some of the most fundamental elements of life and living. These are the same qualities that I try to emphasize in every historical story I write or discuss. That’s the history that attracts me and, consequently, I will convey to you.

Ralph Stanley’s rendition is unforgettable. The pacing and intonation of his voice are haunting. They have a strange effect, of lifting and carrying back to the emotions of the moment. In his voice the centuries disappear. You are there and there is now.

The song as sung by Stanley has a swift movement, an unstoppable shift from part to part to part. That’s how I want my history to be. Beginning to middle to end, picking up and moving on with force.

Little Mathie Grove, Ralph Stanley, a capsule of my approach to history.

Is there a particular expression of art–and Stanley is every inch the artist–that reflects your life’s work, your life’s calling?