Remembering Ralph Stanley and Bill Cunningham

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Ralph Stanley

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Bill Cunningham

Among the many who ended their earthly pilgrimages in the past week are the two men pictured here.

Their passing was noted in the media outlets because of their notoriety. Mr. Stanley, a musician, and Mr. Cunningham, a photographer, both were Christians who in their very different lives gave quiet yet profound testimony to their faith.

Mr. Stanley in an interview some  years ago was asked about his unique singing style:

Now, that’s not my voice…. That’s a God-given voice.
If it wasn’t for the lord’s will, I couldn’t — I couldn’t sing that way. He gives everybody everything they have.

As an ‘old timey’ country musician singing with family members as the Clinch Mountain Boys he did not have a wide exposure until the 2000 Coen brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? in which Mr. Stanley sang unaccompanied the dirge “O Death”.

There’s never been truer words ever written, because every word in that “O Death” song is going to come. It’s going to come to you and me and everybody else.
And I try my best to make people understand it when I sing that, that it is. I never think about it, but I know every — I sing that every night. And I know that, one day, maybe tomorrow, or maybe 50 years from today, that’s coming to me, see?
It’s already come to a lot of people. And that’s true, a true song.


Just as one would really need to hear Ralph Stanley (and perhaps have an appreciation of country music) to get a sense of the man and his spirit, Bill Cunningham could best be introduced via a documentary done in 2011, Bill Cunningham New York. In this film that follows Mr. Cunningham around Manhattan as he photographs people on the street going about their lives as well as the interviews interspersed throughout the viewer will begin to understand a little of the deep Catholic faith that motivates his life.

Near the end of the film the interviewer asks Mr. Cunningham two questions: ‘Have you ever had a romantic relationship’ and ‘Why he goes to church every Sunday’. To the first he responds, “He wants to know if I’m gay!” and laughs. Beginning his career as a milliner Mr. Cunningham has always been involved in the fashion world in one way or another except for a stint in the Army. In answer to the question he states that he had never been in a ‘romantic relationship’. The second question elicited a different kind of response. When asked, Mr. Cunningham bowed his head remaining silent for about 30 seconds, seemingly in prayer but also almost weeping. Lifting his head, he replied that he believed that it is good to have a guide in one’s life.

In 2008 the French government bestowed on him the Legion of Honor. In accepting the award he ended his speech with, “He who seeks Beauty will find it”.

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