Susan Cooper Eastman: Exposing the Dark Side of a Christmas Classic

Editor’s Note: This is the 20th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Susan Cooper Eastman’s article "Jingle Bell Crock" recounts the type of story daily journalists rarely encounter. The feature has all the elements of the perfect narrative: tragedy, family drama, and a yet-to-be-solved mystery of legendary proportions.  It won the staff writer at Jacksonville, Florida’s Folio Weekly a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award in the Arts Feature category.

Eastman, who is a veteran alt-weekly reporter, says she discovered the story when she received a call from Billy Garland.  Billy is the brother of the little-known guitar-master Hank Garland, whose musical genius can be heard on tracks crooned by Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and other celebrated artists.  But it’s the creation of one song in particular, "Jingle Bell Rock," that is the backdrop for Eastman’s story.

In a plot that unfolds over more than four decades, Eastman recounts the Garland family’s contention that Hank — whose soaring Nashville career was cut short by a tragic car accident — was cheated out of royalties for the holiday classic, for which he is credited only as the lead musician.  According to brother Billy, Hank didn’t get his financial due as a coauthor of the song.  It’s an assertion that the family has been making for years and one that is also backed up by statements from those who were present the day the song was recorded.

But that’s not all. 

As the story continues, the reader comes to discover a more sinister and convoluted context to the tale, as told by Billy.  His account of his brother’s stolen rights fits into a larger scheme, one rife with conspiracy and grandiose details.

During a recent interview, Eastman spoke about the remaining questions raised by the Garlands’ story, how to use literary devices in news writing, and what it was like to rely on a source who believes a cadre of Nashville music industry thugs are out to get him and his family.

The article begins with some really wonderful imagery and it’s written using a lyrical style that continues throughout.  How do you construct that kind of writing?

For this story, I was thinking, in the beginning, about the iconography of Christmas — how just a little sign like a candy cane or a nutcracker evokes the whole season.  The "Jingle Bell Rock" song is one of those things.  I wanted to somehow find a way of saying that.  Sometimes I backtrack from a concept like that into a story. I think of it first and then I guess I employ the patience of a poet in finding language that accurately expresses the idea.

Is that type of writing something you had to learn, or did it come naturally to you?

That’s a natural gift, but making it work in journalism was quite a struggle for me.  In some of my early writing, I would get caught up in my ideas.  I remember writing a story about a dance at a hall in Gulfport, Fla., and I was thinking about the oak dance floor and all the different dances steps burnished into it.  I wrote this lyrical description of the dance steps, and it went on for paragraphs.  I turned it in — I worked for hours on that part of it — and they took that whole top off the story.  I was just crushed.  I think now I can keep my writing in check better than I could when I first started out.

Do you think journalists misuse or abuse literary devices in news writing?

The devices are powerful, and you are using them to make the reader feel that they are experiencing the truth about the subject, so they have to be used in a very careful and responsible way.  Sometimes I wonder how writers know the things that they’re saying.  I understand that some things are not always attributed information — the reporter might have actually seen it — but when it moves from what’s reportable, and what they can know either through documents or through research, into the speculative realm, that’s where I feel like it’s going into fiction, and it bothers me.

What was it like to rely on Billy Garland as the main source for the article?

He had this certain story that he wanted — a certain interpretation.  I think over the years he began to think that everybody was against him — that there was a conspiracy.  He can’t really separate out the documentation he has that proves stuff in black and white from his theories.  It’s all just one big mess of stuff in his head.  It made it difficult because he would go off on these tangents that were irrelevant.  I had to do a lot of patient listening to what he had to say and then try to get him to share what I was interested in.

How do you typically cope with sources who try to guide how a story will be written?

I frequently find that people open up to you and tell you really deep things about themselves.  They seem to get into a place where they’ve forgotten that you’re a reporter and that you’re going to be writing about them.  Once you leave, and they kind of come back to themselves, they’re worried about how you’re going to handle their story.  I tell them, "You know, I know it’s difficult and it must be scary, but I’m going to try and be as careful as I can with your story.  I’m going to try and be as honest as I can.  You might not like everything I’m going to say, but I’m going to try to be fair." 

There are some details in the article that would be difficult to prove.  What gives Hank and Billy Garland’s story its gravity?

Hank was one of the best studio musicians in Nashville in his day and the lead musician on the song "Jingle Bell Rock."  Hank said that he wrote it.  I think that claim has validity.  The threats against his life — I don’t know.  People would dismiss that that’s possible.  I think it’s possible there might be people in the music industry who had a cash cow in the song and might try to steal it from somebody.  I don’t think that’s such a stretch. 

How were you able to separate fact from fiction?

There were some things that were difficult to discern, but the basic information they had documentation for.  They had a copy of the song written out with all the musical notations and the lyrics in Hank Garland’s handwriting; they had anecdotes from the session and a sworn statement from another musician about how it all came about.  They had public records, the accident report, newspaper article — a lot of documentation.  I confirmed some things independently. I didn’t just have everything from Billy, but what I found was a duplication of what he had. 

Was it difficult to distance yourself during your reporting for the article?

I don’t really try to distance myself.  I talk very honestly about what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking about things as the story is evolving.  I think that’s why people respond to me.  I’m very authentic, and I don’t have boundaries — I don’t really feel the need to keep a lot of distance. 

Can that method work for any reporter?

I don’t know.  I think a lot of reporters don’t get to the story because they put a wall up between them and the people that they’re writing about — whether that’s through class or race or other things. They cling to the world that they come from, and they’re not willing to let that go to enter into other people’s worlds and try to understand where somebody else is coming from, how somebody else lives, and what their lives are about.

That ability to listen and to be empathetic, and to try to understand is central to me, but to pull yourself back from that and meet your obligation to the reader can be hard. 

The article is obviously very much about Hank’s life, but in a sense, isn’t it mostly just his brother’s version?

Yes, it’s Billy’s story about Hank.  I wondered sometimes how much Hank really cared about whether he got his proper due on the "Jingle Bell Rock" song. He told me the song was stolen from him, but how driven was he for that? How did Billy get on this whole quest?  Was it for monetary reasons?  The relationship between the brothers would have been really an interesting character study.  Certainly, Billy was obsessed with “Jingle Bell Rock.”  He’s still obsessed with it.  He can’t let it go.  How do you finger those folds in somebody’s character, those ugly, sticky elements of somebody? I wish I could have somehow gotten more into that. 

Will this conflict ever be resolved? 

I don’t think so because I don’t think that Billy Garland is going to be very effective at pursuing it.  He’s so focused on his conspiracy theories he can’t see the forest through the trees.  And what does it really matter now?  His brother is dead.  I think that maybe the story of Hank Garland can be told, but will Billy Garland ever be satisfied and feel like that the wrongs have been righted?  I doubt it. 

Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.

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