Notes on a decade

Born near the turn of a decade, the decades of the marked years neatly match my own personal decades.  The 2010s were pretty much my 30s.  Probably I was less in tune culturally than I was in the 2000s / 20s.  Or maybe I was REALLY tuned in.  Who can say?  Sometimes re: “current events”, they did feel like little more than backdrop to my own personal dramas.  If nothing else I was present for a lot of cool moments, the finales of The Office and VEEP, for example.

For that I’m grateful.

Helytimes was launched in 2012, out of a desire to claim a space for myself on what we still called “the Internet,” plus a sense that figuring out how to write online would be important.  Haven’t quite made it to ten years yet, which I remember setting as a benchmark to strive for.

The 2010s decade, if we’re being flexible, has to begin with the September 2008 financial crisis and aftermath.  The bad guys really did get away with it.  That’s a fact we’ve had to sit with all decade, and I think it’s an ugly, unpleasant fact that lies beneath a lot of the roiling turmoil since then.  A small percentage of people rigged the economy and were reckless with the lives of others, and mostly left others holding the bag and were never held to account.

Did it all begin here?

The decade was really split by the shock of the 2016 election.  A troubling, disturbing shock, even to the guy who won!  When I consider that was almost four years ago it feels weird, I’m still kinda not out of the initial dizziness that Donald J. Trump is the President.  It feels like it warbles the universe to even write that and have it be true.

Historywise, what was this decade?  Was it good?  Was it bad?  Was it tumultuous?  Are we brimming with more hope than we were in 2009?  If you were making one of those CNN docs of the decade, what would you have to include?  The fact that it is kinda hard to answer does – well I don’t want to say it disappoints, but it might suggests this was not a decade of great innovation.

Art and culture of the 2010s?  How were they distinct from the 2000s?  I can’t name the true trends in music, or even film or TV.  What about literature?  Here we are in 2019 and who’s a hot young writer?  Sally Rooney?  Jia Tolentino?  Is there anyone else who pops out of this decade in literature?

Technology-wise, 2010 was very different for me than 2000, when I didn’t own a phone.  But I don’t think 2019 is that different from 2010.

The big ticket of the 2010s, it seems to me, is “social media.”  My phone regularly reports to me that I spend five or so hours on it A DAY, and I don’t think I’m that unusual.  Twitter, Insta, TikTok, etc.  Gaming streams? Social is where people live.

Is sorting the decades by their cultural touchstones itself kind of a Boomer idea?  Feels like it became strongest with “the Sixties.”  As David Halberstam pointed out in his book, it wasn’t like nothing was going on in the ’50s, it just felt like that for a certain generation which hadn’t yet come awake.

maybe thinking about “decades” is itself an old idea, we’re so fast now we’re on years, months, days, moments.

Moments.  Were the 2010s the decade of moments?  We could capture and share moments better than ever before.  I remember a tech bro pitching me an idea in Austin for some kind of photo storing service.  “I was getting so sick of missing moments,” he said.  Within a few months another person pitched me essentially the same idea, though neither time did I really understand what the problem was, exactly, nor the solution.

One quality the 2020s will need is hope.  One of the best things there is is hope, and here’s hoping for a decade of amazing moments for Helytimes readers, and well heck, why not wish everyone a peaceful, happy, prosperous decade with just the right amount of excitement.

I put on Spotify’s best of the decade and man, I’d forgotten this one:

CeeLo’s “Fuck You” if the link dies, as they inevitably do.


They Britney’d the abandoned KMart!

Not sure the photo captures the majesty of seeing it in person.


When The World’s On Fire

enjoying Ken Burns Country Music (I guess, I wish it had a table of contents or something).  This is the Carter Family song that’s been on my mind as I read the news!


Brimful of Asha

Hearing the song Brimful of Asha by Cornershop in the film Under The Silver Lake (enjoyed!) got me reading up on the meanings of the song.

This song is based on the history of film culture in India. Since their beginnings, Indian films have relied heavily on song and dance numbers. The singing is almost always performed by background singers while the actors and actresses lip sync. Asha Bhosle is a playback singer who has sung over 12,000 songs and is referred to as “Sadi rani” (Punjabi for “our queen”) at one point in the lyrics


Tchoupitoulas

po’boys at Domilie’s

There are many famous and intriguing streets in New Orleans – Royal, Esplanade, Canal, Basin, Magazine, St. Claude Avenue, St. Charles Avenue, Chartres – but a street that caught my interest is Tchoupitoulas.

Traveled this street while on my way back from Domilise’s, which David Chang once claimed serves the coldest beer in the world.

Could be!

Tchoupitoulas runs alongside the Mississippi.  There is an enormously long, apparently vacant structure that runs along the river and the railroad tracks.

I asked a bartender at Cavan in the Irish Channel about this structure.  She told me it’s a set of wharves and warehouses, many of them still privately owned.  It was said, according to her, that somewhere under this place Marie Laveau had once had her voodoo church.

based on a drawing, now lost, by George Catlin

“The Wild Tchoupitoulas” were a band of Mardi Gras Indians, who in 1976, with the help of the Neville Brothers and some members of The Meters, recorded an album based on their chants.

Viewers of Treme will recall that Steve Zahn’s character and his girlfriend Annie Tee have a discussion when they move in together about whether they need to keep both of their two CDs of The Wild Tchoupitoulas.

Next time I’m on Tchoupitoulas I’m going to visit Hansen’s Sno-Bliz.


Iko Iko and Mobilian Jargon

Reading up on the New Orleans classic Iko Iko, made famous by the Dixie Cups, I find myself reading about Mobilian Jargon.

Mobilian Jargon (also Mobilian trade languageMobilian Trade JargonChickasaw–Choctaw trade languageYamá) was a pidgin used as a lingua franca among Native American groups living along the Gulf of Mexico around the time of European settlement of the region. It was the main language among Indian tribes in this area, mainly Louisiana. There is evidence indicating its existence as early as the late 17th to early 18th century. The Indian groups that are said to have used it were the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo.

A possible meaning?:

Another possible translation interprets the third and fourth lines as:[30]

Chokma finha an dan déyè
Chokma finha ane.

Chickasaw words “chokma” (“it’s good”) and “finha” (“very”), Creole “an dan déyè” from French Creole “an dans déyè” (“at the back”), and the Creole “ane” from the French “année” (“year”).

Translation:

It’s very good at the rear
It’s a very good year.

What about the possible voodoo origin?

Louisiana Voodoo practitioners would recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. The practitioner, the horse, waves a flag representing a certain god to call that god into himself or herself. Setting a flag on fire is a curse. The man in green, who either changes personality or whose appearance is deceiving, would be recognized in Voodoo as possessed by a peaceful Rada spirit, inclining to green clothes and love magic. The man in red, who is being sent to kill, would likely be possessed by a vengeful Petwo spirit.[33]

Haitian ethnologist Milo Rigaud published a transcription in 1953 of a Voodoo chant, “Crabigne Nago”[34]. This chant to invoke the Voodoo mystère Ogou Shalodeh is similar to “Iko, Iko” in both pentameter and phones.

Liki, liki ô! Liki, liki ô!
Ogou Shalodeh.
Papa Ogou Jacoumon,
Papa Ogou Shalodeh.

More on the topic can be found in an article in a 2008 issue of Southern Anthropologist – we find ourselves amidst controversy:

Right from the beginning, Galloway (2006: 225-226) belittles the amount of linguistic information available, which she evidently takes as a justifi cation for not addressing specifi c linguistic and historical data that Crawford and I have accumulated and analyzed over the years. Although Galloway (2006: 228) recognizes my book of some four hundred pages as “the most thorough study of Mobilian jargon (sic) now available,” she oddly does not use a single piece of linguistic data from it in her own essay; nor does she review the substantial amount of sociohistorical documentation that both Crawford and I assembled for what anthropologists and linguists had long thought lost. Instead, Galloway (2006: 240) has curiously drawn on a short, seven-page essay by Kennith H. York (1982) for inspiration and “the insight of a sophisticated native speaker of Choctaw,” which demands a short appraisal

The linguistic origin of the song is the subject of a 2009 Offbeat article by Drew Hinshaw, who traces it to Ghana:

One afternoon, 1965, the three Louisianan sisters/cousins who gave you “Chapel of Love,” unaware that the studio’s tapes were still rolling, recorded for posterity two minutes of delightful historical intrigue that had been circulating in oral obscurity for generations unknowable. “Iko, Iko,” they called that tune. The English chunks of the record came from an all-too-obvious source—R&B singer “Sugar Boy” Crawford who claimed he never saw “just dues” from the top 40 hit—but the cryptic refrain of the Carnival standard is of a lost language, entirely mysterious: “Eh na, Iko, Iko-ahn-dé, jaco-mo-fi-na-né.” You know these words. “Sugar Boy” said he remembered them from the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of his salad days, while the girl group said they heard it from their grandma, Which is where the song begins: “My grandmaw and yo’ grandmaw….”

Reminded me of this cool, dialogue-less scene in Twelve Years A Slave which probably tells us about as much as can be known about the earliest origins of New Orleans music:

Not sure why I bothered writing this post, as I already texted with MMW about this topic (he suggested I look into Pidgin Delaware) but the oddest topics have lured readers to Helytimes, and really, what else is this site for but

1) to peer into the past until the view becomes a crazy fantastical kaleidoscope

2) to celebrate the rich weirdness of the world, and

3) to delight that there are people out there fighting over Mobilian Jargon?

 


Delta

ruins of Windsor Plantation

Found myself, for the second time in two years, driving Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta.  I don’t feel like I intended this, exactly.  Once was good.  But there I was again.

This map by Raven Maps was a breakthrough in understanding the Delta, what makes this region freakish and weird and unique.  The Delta is low-lying bottomland.  Thinking of the Mississippi in this area as a line on a map is inaccurate, it’s more like a periodically swelling and retreating wetland, like the Amazon or the Nile.  Floods are frequent, vegetation grows thick, the soil is rich and good for growing cotton.  That is the curse, blessing and history of the Delta.  This year Highway 61 was almost flooded below Vicksburg.

The river from the bluffs at Natchez

The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby, where ducks waddle and turtles drowse, ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta and many who are on the make.

So said David Cohn in his famous essay of 1935.

It’s been awhile since I was at The Peabody.

Dave Cohn was Jewish.  Shelby Foote had a Jewish grandfather.  The Delta was diverse.

So says Shelby.  On the Delta fondness for canned beans:

from:

Here’s something North Mississippi Hill Country man Faulkner had to say about people in this region:

Q: Well, in the swamp, three of the men that lived in the swamp did have names – Tine and Toto and Theule, and I wonder if those names had any type of significance or were supposed to be any type of literary allusion.  They’re rather colorful names, I think.

A: No, I don’t think so.  They were names, you might say, indigenous to that almost unhuman class of people which live between the Mississippi River and the levee.  They belong to no state, they belong to no nation.  They – they’re not citizens of anything, and sometimes they behave like they don’t even belong to the human race.

Q: You have had experience with these people?

A: Yes.  Yes, I remember once one of them was going to take me hunting.  He invited me to come and stay with his kinfolks – whatever kin they were I never did know – a shanty boat in the river, and I remember the next morning for breakfast we had a bought chocolate cake and a cold possum and corn whiskey.  They had given me the best they had.  I was company.  They had given me the best food they had.

The Delta is a ghost town.  In 2013 The Economist reported

Between 2000 and 2010 16 Delta counties lost between 10% and 38% of their population. Since 1940, 12 of those counties have lost between 50% of 75% of their people.

Another Economist piece from the same era has a great graphic of this:

“You can’t out-poor the Delta,” says Christopher Masingill, joint head of the Delta Regional Authority, a development agency. In parts of it, he says, people have a lower life expectancy than in Tanzania; other areas do not yet have proper sanitation.

Everywhere you see abandoned buildings, rotting shacks, collapsing farmhouses.  This gives the place a spooky quality.  It’s like coming across the shedding shell of a cicada.  There are signs of a once-rich life that is gone.

Here’s an amazing post about the sunken ruins of the plantation of Jefferson Davis.

Every town that still exists along the river of the Delta is on high ground or a bluff.  Natchez, Port Gibson, Vicksburg.  Once beneath these towns there were great temporary floating communities of keelboats, canoes.  But the river has flooded and receded and changed its course many times.  Charting the historical geography of these towns is confusing.   Whole towns have disappeared, or been swallowed.

Brunswick Landing, of which nothing remains.

The first time I ever thought about the Mississippi Delta was when I came across this R. Crumb cartoon about Charley Patton, who was from Sunflower County.

Something like 2,000 people lived and worked at Dockery Plantation.  It’s worth noting that this plantation was started after slavery, it was begun in 1895.

At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black labourers.

In a way, the blues era, say 1900-1940 or so, was a kind of boomtime in the Delta.  The blues can be presented as a music of misery and pain but what if it was also a music of prosperity?  Music for Saturday night on payday, music for when recording first reached communities exploding with energy?  Music from the last period of big employment before mechanization took the labor out of cotton?  How much did the Sears mail order catalog help create the Delta blues?

We stopped at Hopson Commissary in Clarksdale, once the commissary of the Hopson plantation.  (Once did someone run to get cigarettes from there?)  Here was the first fully mechanized cotton harvest – where the boomtime peaked, and ended.  If you left Mississippi around this time, you probably left on the train from Clarksdale.

 

If in Clarksdale I can also recommend staying at The Delta Bohemian guest house.  We were company and they gave us their best.

you may need this number

Here’s something weird we saw, near Natchez:

A topic of controversy.

We listened to multiple podcasts about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, that whole bit.  The interesting part of the story (to me) is that, according to the memories of those who knew him, Robert Johnson did somehow, suddenly, get way better at the guitar.  I like this take the best:

Some scholars have argued that the devil in these songs may refer not only to the Christian figure of Satan but also to the African trickster god Legba, himself associated with crossroads. Folklorist Harry M. Hyatt wrote that, during his research in the South from 1935 to 1939, when African-Americans born in the 19th or early 20th century said they or anyone else had “sold their soul to the devil at the crossroads,” they had a different meaning in mind. Hyatt claimed there was evidence indicating African religious retentions surrounding Legba and the making of a “deal” (not selling the soul in the same sense as in the Faustian tradition cited by Graves) with the so-called devil at the crossroads.

Does everybody in the music business sell their soul to the Devil, one way or another?

Is there something vaguely embarrassing about white obsession with old blues? I get the yearning to connect to a past that sounds like it’s almost disappeared, where just the barest, rawest trace echoes through time.  But doesn’t all this come a little too close to taking a twisted pleasure in misery?  And is there something a little gloves-on, safe remove about focusing on music from eighty years ago, when presumably somewhere out there real life people are creating vital music, right now?

I dunno, maybe there’s something cool and powerful about how lonely nerds and collectors somewhere and like tourists from Belgium connecting to the sounds of desperate emotion from long dead agricultural workers.

My favorite of the old blues songs is Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.  Blind Willie Johnson wasn’t even from the Delta though, he was from Pendleton, Texas.