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Perfect Pitch: The Poem

This past summer, we wrote a blog about Patsy Cline’s residence in Lexington; she lived here between 1937 and 1942 when her father worked as a boilerman at Washington and Lee.

Our statistics showed that the blog entry had plenty of visitors, and one of them was W&L’s R.T. Smith, editor of Shenandoah, writer-in-residence at W&L and award-winning poet.

Rod was captivated with the thought that Patsy Cline had lived on Woods Creek. “I walked over to that much-altered residential area and tried to imagine her there,” he says. “Ginny was from Winchester, a foothill Virginian who walked, and probably ran and skipped, many of the same streets that I travel. And because I’ve loved her perfect-pitched voice since I was a boy in Georgia with access to radio ‘Hayride’ shows, she quickly became a ghostly presence. She’d always been, with her hurt-heart songs, a kind of siren, and when I was young, I loved her fringed cowgirl outfits as much as her yodel.”

So Rod began to study up on Patsy. He read Ellis Nasour’s “Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline” and Douglas Gomery’s “Patsy Cline: The Making of an Icon,” and he soon realized that “even the people who knew a lot about the woman didn’t agree.”

He remained fascinated by the picture of young Ginny, and says it “left me scribbling notes, wondering how I might make a poem for her, or really for me, but about her. But I didn’t know where it might go until I began to see her girlhood aspirations in contrast to the romanticized pictures of love’s sorrow which constitute the stories of her best work — ‘Walkin After Midnight,’ ‘Crazy,’ ‘She’s Got You,’ ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ ‘Sweet Dreams.’ These songs are about disappointment in love and the grief that follows, and her history, once she became Patsy Cline, is fraught with damaging marriages and reactive misconduct.”

After spending the summer listening to Patsy on his car stereo and watching YouTube videos of her performances, he began writing, “and unwriting,” the poem.

“Watching the successive drafts of the nascent poem alternately contract and expand, I started learning to live with the regret of everything that had to be omitted for space and pace,” he says. “I researched Big Band music and the Grand Ole Opry, read everything I could about the circumstances that led to the fatal plane crash that killed her, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and their pilot on that drizzly night.

“No matter how much I studied and experimented,” continues Rod, “what I kept returning to was how this icon of country western music didn’t really sing conventional country songs but cultivated the blue tones she’d learned from those early crooners in Lexington before the war took her family to different, and sometimes worse, living situations to follow the jobs.  I picture her in her nightdress or PJs, no slippers, rapt by the Gatsby-like dance music of WLU, then moving from cowgirl gal to pearled sophisticate in Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall, all ending in the tragic plunge of that Comanche into the woods of Tennessee, the spirit of Ginny Hensley always in the shadows since, her cut-crystal voice matching the divas note for note — a  little Piaf, a little Holiday, some Anita O’Day, but smoother, less glamorous — somewhere inside that intriguing woman so many revere as Patsy Cline.”

When he finished, Rod had “Perfect Pitch” printed in a brochure that is now available to Patsy’s countless fans — and to you. You can download a copy of the poem by clicking on the image above. Read for yourself how Rod has captured Ginny/Patsy and her connection to Lexington and W&L in verse.