By Lee Chottiner
You’d never know it to look at him, but Doug Van Gundy, a West Virginia poet and a fiddler who plays old-time mountain music, was once a punk rocker.
Though he played old-time music as a boy in Elkins, he left it all behind for the Clash, the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys, head banging at the University of Utah where he played with a punk rock band and buried his past.
Until, that is, he had a redemptive experience.
According to Van Gundy he returned to his apartment early one spring morning in 1988 in a drunken stupor. He flipped on the radio then passed out.
When he awoke later, the station to which the radio was tuned was playing a melody by Hazel Dickens, a famous blue grass singer and songwriter who also was born in West Virginia (Montcalm, Mercer County).
“It was like a tonic to my hung-over soul,” Van Gundy recalled. He said he wept, feeling as though the music was calling him home.
The next day he sold his guitar and bought a fiddle.
“I ran away from it [old time music] as hard as I could” he recalled, reading from his own essay on that experience, “then I was drawn back to it.”
Van Gundy recounted the experience Wednesday as a guest lecturer at West Liberty University, speaking at the opening of the annual Hughes Lecture Series in the Student Union. Approximately 40 people—mostly students and young writers—attended.
Lecturing on the topic “Music and the Muse: At the Intersection of Music and Writing,” Van Gundy differentiated between music and language, and how an appreciation for both can enhance one’s writing.
Music is visceral, he explained, playing a couple tunes on his fiddle—one happy, one sad—as examples.
“We don’t need to be told the emotional state of the people associated with those tunes,” he said. “We know right away. This is what music can do quicker than language.”
But language brings something different to a writer: specificity.
“Music can say, ‘I’m sad.’” Van Gundy said. “Language can say why.”
Reading the works of William Matthews, a poet and jazz enthusiast who wrote about some of the legendary performers of his day, Van Gundy noted how Matthews conveyed the power of music in his verses. He noted how the words, stoked by the music, enabled the poet to impart what he, and the musician, was feeling.
Not a traditional lecture (traditional lectures don’t include musical interludes on the fiddle), Van Gundy also encouraged the students to help him interpret Matthews’ poems.
Van Gundy teaches writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in The Oxford American, Poems & Plays, Ecotone, Appalachian Heritage, Waccamaw, and Poetry Salzburg Review. He is currently co-editing an anthology of contemporary writing from West Virginia for WVU Press, and working on his second book of poems, tentatively titled, No Dog Inside.
But he also plays fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica and performs in the old-time string band, Born Old, which has appeared at such live music venues as Mountain Stage.
Van Gundy also performed Thursday, Oct. 22, at the Wheeling Artisan Center, downtown.
Looking back on his stint as a punk rocker and his time away from home, Van Gundy said he ran away from his old time music roots because he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer.
Now he knows he didn’t have to do that.
“Including music in your writing can give you depth and dimension,” he said.