Sometime in the late 1960s, Townes Van Zandt wrote a song called “Tecumseh Valley.” Singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith says she first heard the song around the same time, when she was fourteen; thirty-something years later, in 1993, she covered it on her album Other Voices, Other Rooms. And about a year after that, I heard the song for the first time and was introduced to my very first whore.
Griffith almost always records original material, but Other Voices was a covers album, all old folk and country songs that she grew up loving—stuff by John Prine and Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but a lot of lesser-known songs, too. She meant it as a tribute to the songwriters that made her a songwriter, but for me, at age nine or so, it became a kind of ad hoc roots music primer—though it would be years and years before I understood the significance of any of the songs or the artists or considered their place in the world beyond the confines of my parents’ Dodge Caravan.
My dad was going through this really weirdly obsessive Nanci Griffith phase at the time, and when he was at the wheel, that cassette was in the tape deck. Soon it just became a fact of life, like water or air or breakfast cereal or underpants. I heard those songs over and over and over again, the words becoming ever more familiar to my small ears—ever more familiar, and ever more confusing. I was a kid; I liked Treasure Trolls and American Girl dolls and the most tragic thing in my life was mastering cursive. But these songs were heavy, all about the Dust Bowl and failed farms and lovers leaving and cowboys and old abandoned apartments. Other Voices introduced me to all of those things.
And then there was my very first whore.
Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley” is about a country girl named Caroline who leaves her ailing father to work in town, does okay, sends money back and returns home only to find him dead. She kinda loses it, and eventually dies—at nine, I understood that much. But there was one verse that really boggled my little brain:
So she turned to whorin’ out on the streets
With all the lust inside her
And it was many a man
To lay himself beside her
Whorin’—what? Huh? At school, when we were reading, some teachers told us to skip big words we didn’t know, but I was a total vocabulary nut and prided myself on figuring that shit out on my own. This wasn’t a big word, but it was weird and new. (Thank God I always misheard “lust” as “must,” or it would have been double-madness.) I couldn’t figure it out—didn’t know how to spell it, didn’t know what it mean. I didn’t know what to do. It stuck in my head, just rattled around.
A couple years later, when I was 11 or so, I fell into a strange obsession of my own. During a winter pledge drive, our local PBS station started airing the Great Performances taping of Les Miserables live in concert at the Royal Albert Hall. They played it seemingly on loop, and I watched it seemingly on loop. All the French Revolution business was totally over my head, but my pre-pubescent brain soaked up the songs like a desperately thirsty, nerdy sponge. The night my dad brought home the soundtrack on tape, my sister and I squealed and ran around the living room and demanded we play it during dinner and then during every single family car ride for the next several weeks. Could have been months, actually. (Having bombarded us with Nanci Griffith for the better part of two years, he could hardly refuse.) It was just fantastic—dramatic and romantic and funny and big. But there was one song that left a burr in my brain, just like “Tecumseh Valley.” It was “Fantine’s Arrest,” in which the destitute, consumptive single mother quite unwillingly—well, uh, at the time I wasn’t sure what she was doing, actually, but at some point, she hits some dude for saying something to her that I also didn’t quite catch, and when the police arrive he shouts, “This prostitute attacked me!” And then later she dies.
I was watching the show for about the 743rd time when I decided I could no longer bear the mystery. My mother was ironing clothes across the room. “Mom,” I said. “What’s a prostitute?”
My adult-self can only imagine that her first impulse was to iron her own face, but she resisted and offered a careful answer: “A prostitute is. Um. A woman. That men pay. To keep them company.”
It seemed a little odd—why do they have to pay? Why don’t they have real friends? But whatever! Adults, so weird! And then I developed this very specific mental image, which for some reason I can still recall, involving the Les Miserables “prostitutes” in all their garish makeup and ripped, ruffled dresses playing board games—checkers, I think?—with their strangely aggressive gentleman friends. I figured that’s what Van Zandt’s Caroline did, too, until she died—except I guess all those men didn’t like playing games, they just wanted to lay there? Beside her? Why were all these prostitutes always dying, anyway? I didn’t ask about that. Too much for one January afternoon.
Later that year, some girls at school were talking about another girl that I didn’t know but whom they insisted was a “whore” for doing something-or-other with a boy in our class, and my world was rocked. There were whores at my school? Not just in songs and in Les Miserables? What a strange development! Were these girls getting paid, too? Why did this make no sense? Had I misunderstood my mother? Had she lied to me? I decided to take things into my own hands, to get to the bottom of the matter once and for all. When I got home that afternoon, I hunted down a dictionary and flipped to the right page, trailing my finger through the muddle of words until it landed upon the one I so desperately sought, the one I thought would surely unlock this whole riddle.
“Hoar,” it read. “Archaic or literary. Adjective: grey or grey-haired. Noun: hoar frost. Origin: Old English.”
I was high and dry. Nanci and Caroline, Les Miserables and Fantine, my mom and her iron, those girls in class—somewhere, somehow, somebody’d got their wires crossed.
In the end, it was probably some epithet scrawled on the back of a green-leather school bus seat that sorted out my spelling (damn homophones), and probably a little more between-class gossip that cleared up the truth of the word’s definition (or at least the most vocal Ooltewah Middle School sixth graders’ version of it). And it makes sense—that’s how kids usually learn these things, right? On rowdy bus-rides home and through tangled, ill-informed adolescent grapevines, from other kids already corrupted by older siblings or parents or bad TV or movies or songs or whatever else ostensibly-cultured parents try to keep their spawn away from, in favor of something “real”? Not that I suspect my parents were doing this, but there’s still this feeling that if you can divert kids’ small, fragile minds away from the overwhelming, over-sexualized dross of the mainstream and feed them instead with actual art—something real—then they won’t find themselves at nine years old, fussing over whatever “whores” might be.
Yet there I was, listening to a covers album of one some of the most important American roots music of the 20th century, watching one of the most celebrated stage productions of our time—songs that still sock me in the gut even today—doing just that. And I’m so glad I was. At least one version of “Tecumseh Valley”—maybe the first Van Zandt recorded, though I’m not sure—swaps out the verse about “whorin’” with one that’s a bit heavier on the innuendo (“She turned to walkin’ down the road / From all the hate inside her / And many a man returned again / To walk the road beside her”) but I’ve heard it the other way so many times that it hardly even seems like the same song. I don’t have kids right now, but I guess if I ever do, I’ll have to make some kind of call on what they should hear and what they shouldn’t—but when it comes to this song, or my prostitute-riddled favorite musical, it won’t be a tough choice. I want them to hear what I heard, love it like I loved it, whores and all. And when they ask me what a prostitute is—well. I’ll probably just call my mom.
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor.