David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 191: Sixteen Horsepower (I Seen What I Saw)

October 14, 2022

In the mid 1990s, I stumbled upon Sixteen Horsepower's Sackcloth 'n' Ashes, a band merging bluegrass, folk and rock music in fascinatingly disturbing ways. The cover featured some backwoods man sitting with a hen on his knee, while arresting song titles, such as "Black Soul Choir," "Scrawled In Sap," "Heel On The Shovel," and "Red Neck Reel," seemed to evoke the Appalachia of my home state, West Virginia, something I missed having moved to Michigan via Indiana more than a decade earlier.

From the get-go, Sixteen Horsepower underscored my conflicting views about that Appalachia, a beautiful place of proud, down-to-earth people, and yet profoundly poor, isolated, and even a little frightening. Perhaps it was because I was from Morgantown, one of West Virginia's few cultural oases away from the hollows and the coal mines, but I most anguished over the illiteracy of many Appalachian folk, especially as the outside world made fun of West Virginia hillbillies.

Which is why I was a little pissed that this banjo-picking, backwoods-fronting band that started the CD with the linguistically-cringing "I Seen What I Saw" was from Colorado.  Colorado? Plenty of mountains, sure, but you don't hear many Coloradans called Hillbillies. Or maybe they do say that in Nebraska? What do I know? I have no interest in going to Nebraska to find out. With the obvious solecism of "seen what I saw," Sixteen Horsepower dabbled in those unfriendly waters of "only-those-of-us-from-the-region-can-poke-fun-at-us."

It was only in reading about Sixteen Horsepower for this blog that I learned that lyricist David Eugene Edwards was heavily influenced by his childhood experiences hanging around with his Nazarene-preaching grandfather, making so much of the religious imagery in his songs more sensical (not that the CD title, Sackcloths 'n' Ashes, didn't set the stage).

"I Seen What I Saw," despite my grammatical angst, captures a narrator seeing someone in "your red room laughin' with your shinin' coffee can," apparently committing "so many wrongs all kinds goins on," that our narrator knowing he should run far away, still does "a bit more lookin'" to "saw you dancin' on the pine porch creakin' mouth open and doors down wide." 

Ultimately "I Seen What I Saw" is story-telling that makes us wonder if anything is true, as the chorus hammers home: "I seen what I saw/and what these things I do are wrong, that's all/and these tales I, tales I tell, are tall." Perhaps in this context "saw" is noun, the proverbial old maxim unchallenged for its veracity.

Legends, saws, myths, folklore all shroud West Virginians much like the fog over our mountains on a brisk morning. Maybe Sixteen Horsepower is from Colorado, but the linguistic story-telling of their songs reverberates with the voice of Breece D'J Pancake, whose short stories about West Virginia were largely unnoticed until after his suicide in the 1980s. Given that Appalachia has immutable ties with evangelic Protestantism, it is no wonder that Edwards provides such grainy songs like "I Seen What I Saw," with a musical version of the black-and-white 1967 documentary, Holy Ghost People, spotlighting the Pentecostal community of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia.

In that documentary, in Pancake's short stories, and in all of Sackcloth and Ashes' songs, there's an uneasy voyeurism. That's what made "I Seen What I Saw" such an appropriate opening song. Even the horse that our narrator falls off in the second half of the song is a voyeur: "He took off 16 horses strong, left me lying in the mud/and there I sit until the sun's up shinin'/yes and black stands my ride, 20 hands high/and watchin' spookeyed my hands on his side."

We're all a little spookeyed whether from here or not. That's what makes us so fascinating.

Sixteen Horsepower. "I Seen What I Saw." Sackcloth and Ashes. A&M, 1996. Link here.

Day 190: Elton John "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues"

Day 192: Love & Rockets "The Telephone Is Empty"

See complete list here.