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He Ain’t Heavy

Story by Janelle Bassett (Read author interview) September 12, 2022

Art by Matheus Ferrero

The one picture I have of my parents together was lifted from a tumblr account called The Lesser Folks, which featured sixties folk singers who achieved only minor regional success. My parents, for instance, were pretty hot shit on the south side of Philadelphia for half of a single summer, when their song “Put Your Weapons Down for Lazy Hour” played on local radio every forty-five minutes. Their voices had that clear, insistent quality all singing voices seemed to have back then, like they were the ones who could cut through the violence, the unrest, the upheaval, if only anyone would stop free-lovin’ long enough to listen.

My mother wrote the song to persuade my father to please stop, once and for all, trying to imitate the folk hit “If I Had a Hammer.” His attempts at songwriting were really attempts at song-copying: “Where’d I Place my Pickaxe?” “I Want to Meet a Mallet.” “Can’t Hunt Down a Hacksaw.” He was an unrepentant Seeger siphon. Mom felt that in the folk world, feelings must be accessed through earnestness, not parody, and she wrote a hit to prove him wrong. Then, to prove a bigger point about their power dynamic, he left her while she was pregnant and never came back.

The song is my only sibling—we come from the same convergence. Plus it lived in my house, bugged me, and kept me company in the bath. My mother sang the song anytime I was upset. So, being a diehard crybaby, I came to know the words by heart. The chorus says “Stop your heavy business, baby. Stop your push for power. Put your weapons down for now, it’s time for lazy hour.” (I didn’t claim the song was good, I claimed it was briefly popular. Maybe you’d say the same about your brother.)

In the photo my parents are on stage, facing each other, my father holding a guitar between them—talking, not yet playing. My mother appears to be listening, but I can tell that she’s got something to say, that she’s barely tolerating being told what’s being told. If I had to guess (and I do, because they are both too guarded and too dead to speak) I’d say he’s giving her advice on the best way to sing her own song, the one she wrote to splash him with cold water. Don’t forget to punch the word power, Susie and there’s Susie looking very ready to punch. She would have already been pregnant here, early stages. So I was in there, between them, sharpening the points I would need to someday prove.

There is no photo of the three of us taken after I was born, no mantle centerpiece where we’re posing together in gingham or straw hats or white lace or velvet lapels. This is our best and only family photo—a picture of gall, patience and no me at all.

After the photo was taken, they performed their hit for a small crowd who probably felt momentary calm and awe, swaying and singing along to a song that had become a tent pole of their summer. The swayers saw my parents as the perfect duo, an “it” couple on the rise, fresh-faced kids with middle parts singing a two-part harmony about doing less. I wish I had a photo of that moment instead, the coming together one. The open-mouthed, front-facing, united front one.

When the summer temps cooled down, their hit cooled too. Mom was using her newfound confidence to work on new songs, had dreams of a full-length album, a nation-wide release. Dad knew that she had the talent and drive to pull it off, to hit it big, so he was out of there. He didn’t want to be a back-up singer, a supporting player, a hanger-on husband. He didn’t want to be a Pip or a pop.

By the time disco peaked, Mom had a desk job and was married to a man who never told her how to sing. But he also never joined in and sang along. Dad had become a backing musician for a touring has-been. And I’d become a child who could walk and talk, who could run in circles shouting, “What the hell happened here?”

Mom completely stopped playing music to take care of me. She was the kind of serene person who could downgrade her dreams and not feel bitter. Dad got to keep going with music, but he didn’t get far. He was the kind of person who could get to keep going and still feel bitter. I never started or stopped playing music. I am the kind of person who isn’t bitter at all because I never even dreamed of having dreams.

When I had my own child, I sang her my mother’s song when she cried. But she would put her hand over my mouth, muting Mommy through her tears. I don’t blame her. My voice doesn’t work. There’s a catch in my throat that turns the nice noises I’m intending into reaching moans. I mean to sound like a glide, but it comes out as a stumble. My parents passed down none of their talent and all of their disconnect.

“Put Your Weapons Down for Lazy Hour” continues to thrive in its own small way. It was covered by a semi-famous fifteen-year-old and became her fourth most popular reel. It also was chosen to be on a compilation album that’s been played by half a million streamers. The song is  hands down the more successful sibling. I’ve yet to be picked or compiled. I’ve yet to be grouped, to find my audience. No friends, no partner, no calls, no honors, no talent, and for sure no one listening.

The song is clearly the best thing to come from my parents. I’m more like a by-product, a that-too. That sounds very sad, but it isn’t. I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove this point: It sounds very sad, but it isn’t.

About the Author

Janelle Bassett‘s writing appears or is forthcoming in Passages North, New Delta Review, The Offing, Washington Square Review, and Wigleaf. Her story collection THANKS FOR THIS RIOT is a semifinalist for the Pamet River Prize and she is a fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter @hazmatcat

About the Artist

Matheus Ferrero is a portrait and book photographer from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Seven
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The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

Deadline November 15!

The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction (The Smokey) is a biennial competition that celebrates and compensates excellence in flash. The grand prize winner of The Smokey is automatically nominated for The Best Small Fictions, The Pushcart, Best of the Net, and any other prize we deem appropriate. In addition to all this love, we will also pay the grand prize winner $2500. Second place: $1000. Third place $500. Finalists: $100. All finalists and placers will be published in the special competition issue in December 2022.