Many thanks to Appalachia Bare for offering to publish the poem “Little Margaret.” It’s about an old friend, the late James Elton “Jim” McMillan, Jr.
While I was attending Emerson College in Boston in 1969-70, I lived in a house in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, with Jim and his wife Irene, along with the other people mentioned in the poem, Douglas, his brother Jake, Stanley, and various girlfriends, in addition to three dogs, six cats, a myna bird, and a goat.
Jim was the guitarist in the rock/blues band Twenty-Nine Nine (a short time later called HOMEBREW), named for the price of gas at the time. Stanley, Doug, and Jake all played in the band. Those were years of great promise and excitement. The band played the Appalachian folk tune “Little Margaret” as part of their repertoire:
Jim went on to get his doctorate, taught at several universities, and later in life published a celebrated biography of Arizona Senator Ernest W. McFarland. As the poem states, Jim died too young after a difficult life. The poem is my effort to memorialize him, and to reflect on those tumultuous years.
This ain’t about the Sixties,
Jim and those flamin’ Irish setters,
Walkin’ the hills above State College, or Bethlehem,
Or out on the dam in Sudbury,
Smokin’ and trippin’ and pullin’ on that infernal jug
While the maple colors flowed and in the farmer’s field
Cows ate smashed pumpkins.
And it ain’t about the Fifties either,
Which for Jim was the Eighties,
Him groovin’ on Duke and Ella,
That sweet sweet sound,
Those complicated chords,
Better than any rock and roll, he said.
And it certain sure ain’t about the Nineties,
Or the Zeroes, or whatever this pathetic decade is called,
Jim livin’ in a motel with the prostitutes and the junkies,
Killin’ himself while we all stood around and waited.
This is about a song, one song,
Come out of the West Virginia mountains,
Jim down there outside of Wheeling with Doogie and Jake,
Drinkin’ in a bar with black-faced miners fresh out of the hole,
And goin’ upstairs to fill an old hole that Doogie says is like screwin’ a metal scrub pad.
One song, Appalachia, goin’ back to Jim’s Scotch roots:
“Little Margaret sittin’ in her high hall chair,
Combin’ back her long yeller hair,”
And how the band took that song and made it rock,
But still you could hear the miners’ hearts in it:
“Little Margaret’s layin’ in a long black coffin with her face turned toward the wall.”
And it’s about why Jim couldn’t ever leave the Sixties,
When everything was so fine and all the promise was still in it,
Before Stanley and Boidie died in the back seat of a car crash.
“Three times he kissed her cold, cold hand, twice he kissed her cheek,
And once he kissed her cold, cold lips, and then he in her arms asleep.”
And I can hear that song clear as anything, right now,
Sittin’ in my windowless half-cubicle
With the noisy fan from the server closet blowin’
Disgustin’ air on me all day, I can hear it,
And I can feel it, I’m takin’ that sentimental journey,
For Jim, for me, for Little Margaret,
The wasted years, the wasted people.
Stephen Billias is a celebrated author of seven fantasy novels, one recent literary collection of short stories, and a newly published literary novel he cowrote with his wife Bela Breslau. In 2009, he co-produced the documentary Seeking the 36 with director/writer Dennis Lanson. Billias is also a MacDowell Fellow. You can find information about his work on his Amazon Author page, IMDB page, and information about both writers on Stephen Billias and Bela Breslau, Writers website.
Click the images below to find where to purchase Billias’s work:
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Wow Steve, that’s beautiful. So takes me back to that mind-expanding, impactful, pure, wild time… too oblivious then and very grateful since. Thank you for sharing your “sentimental journey”.
Wow! Very evocative of the times – how many of of us managed to survive relatively intact and others sadly not.
The music is classic- makes me want to hear the rest of the story; I suspect there’s no happy ending.
Poem and song both new to me and both very evocative. Strange echoes of a different age from across the pond. Thank you.