Editor’s note: If you love the Louvin Brothers as much as I do and we all should, you will plow through this last chapter of Aynsley’s thesis and learn a bit more about this very influential duo. Thanks again to Aynsley for letting me republish her hard work. As good a writer as she is her fiddle hard work is even more entertaining. Enjoy.
The Louvin Brothers’ 1958 hit “Are You Teasing Me” presents a picture of an unsteady relationship between the narrator and the object of their affections. Even though the couple’s relationship is “still young,” the main character struggles to feel certain of their beloved’s feelings towards them. Throughout the song, the speaker asks the titular question repeatedly through a series of varying scenarios. Each verse’s inquiries tackle specific scenarios that the narrator wishes to clarify (such as “you say that my kiss sends your heart in a whirl” and “you tell me my love could make your life complete”) which consistently center around the statements which the other character has made, but what appears to be truly troubling the main speaker is their lover’s actions rather than their words. In each of the repeating choruses, the question is asked “are you untrue when I’m not with you / when we’re apart are you free” which shows that despite the potential confirmation that the beloved could give the speaker, the speaker ultimately does not trust them. However, the issue ultimately stems from the singer’s insecurities and their realization that without their beloved—whom they see as the manifestation of their own self-worth—they long for fulfilment.
“I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me” follows a similar structure as “Are You Teasing Me” in that it depicts a narrator who seeks acceptance and fulfillment through another’s love, but struggles to feel as if they have indeed obtained it. The speaker begins with describing the beloved’s heart, using the simile of a “wall of memories” from their sad past that is causing them to feel distanced within the relationship. The persona spends the rest of the piece trying to break down this barrier which the song’s object has set up to protect them from future love and as they perceive it, eventual future rejection. While the two do have romantic chemistry and the object of the main character’s affections states their attachment to them, the narrator ultimately feels that they cannot keep the other person from straying. Like “Are You Teasing Me,” the character feels inadequate as a result, but instead of succumbing to their feelings, pleads “let me repair your broken heart” to win back their wayward love, effectively placing themself in the role of fulfilment.
Both “Are You Teasing Me” and “I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me” follow similar plot lines, and likewise borrow themes with “I Wish You Knew.” The lack of context within the relationship causes the listener to hear only the narrator’s viewpoint, which does little to establish which party is at fault. There is a great deal of suspicion of the unknown other, who the persona in “I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me” fears is lying about them to their beloved. However, while they state their fear of this individual preventing their beloved from staying in love with them, there is little explanation of this fact. As in “I Wish You Knew,” the initial assumption that the singer in “I Can’t Keep You in Love with Me” is innocent can be countered with lines such as “There is a way you can repay the one who let you down / Let me repair your broken heart, don’t leave it on the ground”. When taken into context with the theory that the narrator is in fact the one who “let down” the target of the song and is pleading for another chance, the suspicion of the beloved towards the main character is justifiable. Likewise, “Are You Teasing Me” details the doubting narrator questioning the constancy of affection that the secondary character shows them (“Are you untrue when I’m not with you / when we’re apart are you free”) but with the introduction of the concept of the narrator as unfaithful, the song becomes an insistence for attention in their suspicion.
Finally, “When I Loved You,” released in 1960 on the album My Baby’s Gone, rounds out the selection of rejection-themed songs with still a different perspective. The speaker in this song describes a relationship with an unnamed secondary character, to whom they address their comments to for the duration of the piece. The speaker reminds this individual that although they once had feelings for them, they “turned [them] away from the door of [their] heart”. This event, while painful at the time, has proven to be rather ironic to the speaker, as their “darling” only later has realized the depth of their feelings for the persona once they have found another. While the persona details this former flame’s attempts to reunite and rekindle their relationship throughout the song, even suggesting that the narrator cheat on their current wife to pursue an affair, the speaker flatly refuses their previous lover and rejects the character once more.
“When I Loved You” is unique in that it provides both the perspectives of the character who is rejecting and the character who is rejected. The speaker has endured the pain of being rejected before, but unlike the individuals in songs such as “I Wish You Knew,” they have accepted the refusal and moved on to find a new love. While the narrator in “When I Stop Dreaming” hopelessly embodies sorrow, and the main character in “Hoping That You’re Hoping” offers optimism that the two former lovers may be reunited after offering constancy of affection, “When I Loved You” varies in that it shows the final stages of emotional recovery. The persona claims that their new marriage is a happy one, and freely admits that their new spouse does not make their heart “ache,” unlike their previous love. However, the secondary character, who is shown to be envious of the new couple’s happiness, refuses to leave the narrator alone, sending messages through acquaintances and pleading with them for secret meetings. Nevertheless, the main character’s own rejections do not soften their heart towards this schemer, as the persona argues that they would only plant doubt in their mind about their willingness to cheat on this new character if they executed the plan to commit adultery. In the case of “When I Loved You,” the narrator’s tale teaches that the act of rejection may in fact end happily if one is able to overcome the initial pain from the event. This series of three songs shows the healing process that can take place after the initial act of rejection, from grief, to denial, to acceptance.
The topic of rejection surfaces in various ways within the subgenres of the Louvin Brothers’ secular and sacred music. In the previous chapter, many of the analyzed sacred songs fit satisfactorily within the thematic discussion of religious acceptance and reformation. Interestingly, each of these songs can also be examined within this proposed frame of rejection. In “Are You Afraid to Die?” the line which states “Would you to God’s bosom fly?” is answered with the stanza-ending statement “God will hear your cry,” assuring the listener that God will not reject a sincere and repentant heart. “There’s a Higher Power” similarly depicts the Lord as One “who’s faithful and refuses none,” and urges sinners to “believe on him who rests on high…unless [you] do, [you]’ll surely die”.“There’s No Excuse” shows the goodness that God provides if one rejects their previous lifestyle, as does “Satan and the Saint.” Finally, “Satan Is Real” similarly praises God’s goodness but also warns of the dangers of sin with its lines “It’s sweet to know that God is real” / “But sinner friend, if you’re here today / Satan is real too,” exhorting the listener to reject evil. In each song, Charlie and Ira Louvin also make two distinctions about this concept of rejection: firstly, that an individual who rejects their sinful ways and seeks God will find him (the first act of rejection), and secondly, that once this first act is accomplished, God will not reject them from his flock. This contrasts vividly with the countless forms of romantic rejection found in both Louvin-penned songs and covers such as “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face?” “You’re Running Wild,” and “How’s the World Treating You?” in which the chance of reconciliation is unlikely at best. While the duo’s secular selections present a spurned suitor who is rejected in spite of his faithfulness and love, the duo’s sacred songs use the speaker to present a choice that the listener must make—God’s mercies, while extended to any person who repents and returns to him, cannot be forced. The audience must choose whether they will humble themselves so that God will not reject them, or in turn, reject God. With the offering of this decision to the audience as one matter that they can in fact control, no matter how many loved ones desert them, the Louvin Brothers were able to weave thematic similarities across subgenres to not only provide a comforting acknowledgement of the difficulties of secular rejection, but also show their listeners a sacred alternative to their search for fulfilment and love. Through the incorporation of the themes of love, acceptance, rejection, worthiness, and forgiveness, Charlie and Ira Louvin were able to not only heal their own emotional wounds through songwriting, but those of their listeners for years to come.