from the American Masters doc Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
In a St. Louis tavern on Christmas night in 1895 Lee Shelton (a pimp also known as Stack Lee) killed William Lyons in a fight over a hat. There were other murders that night, but this one became the stuff of legend. Songs based on the event soon spread out of whorehouses and ragtime dives across the country. Within 40 years, Stagolee had evolved into a folk hero, a symbol of rebellion for black American males. With commendable scholarship and thoroughness, Brown shows how we got from the murder to the myth.
so says Leopold Froehlich in Playboy, quoted on the book’s back cover. I’ve been curious about this book since I first heard about it, finally pulled the trigger. Just that a book like this exists brings joy.
The murder was around 11th and Morgan in St. Louis, which today looks like this:
Should it be a UNESCO site? Paired perhaps with another St. Louis place of myth and violence, Cahokia?
By 1958, when Brenda Lee is singing “Rockin Around The Christmas Tree,” we have a Christmas song that’s playing on the existing corpus of Christmas music. “Let’s rock up those old Christmas classics,” is the theme of a song from sixty years ago.
In 1957, Elvis sings “Blue Christmas,” already playing on “White Christmas,” a song from 1940.
Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-director-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing. One day he told his secretary, “I want you to take down a song I wrote over the weekend. Not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.”
The Charlie Brown Christmas Special aired in 1965. If you saw it as a ten year old, you are now eligible for Social Security.
Schulz was adamant about Linus’ reading of the Bible, despite Mendelson and Melendez’s concerns that religion was a controversial topic, especially on television. Melendez recalled Schulz turned to him and remarked, “If we don’t do it, who will?”. Schulz’s estimation proved accurate, and in the 1960s, less than 9 percent of television Christmas episodes contained a substantive reference to religion, according to university researcher Stephen Lind. It could also be worth noting that Linus’s recitation of Scripture was incorporated in such a way that it forms the climax of the film, thus making it impossible to successfully edit out.
Just musing on both the meta quality of Christmas music and the accruing of material in a way that is both comforting and emotionally potent.
It has often been noted that the mix of melancholy—”just like the ones I used to know”—with comforting images of home—”where the treetops glisten”—resonated especially strongly with listeners during World War II. A few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Crosby introduced “White Christmas” on a Christmas Day broadcast. The Armed Forces Network was flooded with requests for the song. The recording is noted for Crosby’s whistling during the second chorus.
Already we’re deep in nostalgia.
The poetry in some of these songs:
So I’m offering this simple phrase
To kids from one to ninety two
And of course, most powerful:
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
1966. The Beatles return from the US, having played what will be their “last proper concert,” Candlestick Park, San Francisco, August 29. They have some time off.
For the first time in years, the four of them were able to take a break from being Beatles. With three months free, they could do what they liked. Ringo chose to relax at home with his wife and new baby. John went to Europe to play Private Gripweed in Richard Lester’s film How I Won The War. George flew to Bombay to study yoga and to be taught to play the sitar by Ravi Shankar. This left Paul to his own devices.
For a while he hangs out in London, where he’s surely the most famous person. It gets a tiresome, really. Paul gets the idea of going incognito. He arranges a fake mustache, and fake glasses, and slicks his hair back with Vasoline. He has an Aston Martin DB6 shipped to France, and across the Channel he goes. He drives around France for a bit, relaxing in Paris, sitting in cafes unrecognized. From his hotel window he shoots experimental film of cars passing a gendarme. On he goes.
Upon reaching Bordeaux, he felt a hankering for the night life. Still in disguise, he turned up at a local discothèque, but was refused entry. “I looked like old jerko. ‘No, no monsieur, non’ – you schmuck, we can’t let you in.” So he went back to his hotel and took off his scruffy overcoat, his moustache and his glasses. Then he returned to the disco where he was welcomed with open arms.
I absolutely hoovered up this book. I’ve read a bunch of Beatles books in the last few years: Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming The Beatles, the gossipy The Love You Make by Peter Brown and Steven Gaines, You Never Give Me Your Money by Peter Doggett, about the Beatles post Beatles. This last one may have been the most compelling, even though much of it is patient unraveling of complex business and tax situations (plus anecdotes about decadence.) A tragedy about the years the Beatles spent suing each other. Maybe because how a person handles that kind of stress – the stress of tedious meetings – is more revealing, the personalities really came to life.
You’d think I’d be bored of the Beatles. The facts of the history don’t even interest me that much, and I doubt there’s a Beatles song on my top 100 most played. I’m not that much of a Beatles fan, to be honest, not compared to the psychos. (A funny bit in this book is Craig Brown, saying he’s spent a few years in deep on Beatles books and lore, acknowledging he’s barely scratched the surface of like, people who know every version of the lineup of the Quarrymen.)
We don’t need a recounting of the basic beats of the plot of the Beatles. We know.
Craig Brown goes so far beyond that. He assumes you know the rough outlines, and somehow he breathes new life into these old bones. He makes moments pop. Specimens of time, how far can we go to recapturing them? That’s the real question of this book.
Brown will take an incident – the day Bob Dylan turned the Beatles on to marijuana, for instance – and turn it over from every angle, consider every account. How do we know what we know? Who’s telling us? What was their agenda? How much can they be trusted? The historigraphy, you might say. At the same time, he puts us right there as Brian Epstein looks at himself in the mirror, repeating a single word over and over.
Take Pete Best. You probably know that story, the original drummer, they replaced him with Ringo. The cruelty of how that went down, how the Beatles treated him, shocks here in Brown’s retelling. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1967 Pete Best tried to kill himself. Brown takes us thereL
He locks the door, blocks any air gaps, places a pillow on the floor in front of the gas fire, and turns on the gas. He is fading way when his brother Rory arrives, smells gas, batters the door down and, screaming “Bloody idiot!” saves his life.
If you want to know what happened to the comedians who had to perform in between the Beatles’ sets on Ed Sullivan, this is the book for you.
Can I reprint all of Chapter 30?
Seems like I’m just approximating picking this book up in a bookshop. What harm in that?
Craig Brown: going on my Role Models and Inspirations board. In a random, unrelated search I learn that he is aunt by marriage to Florence Welch, of Florence + The Machine. That’s the kind of connection Craig Brown would track down and work over for any possible meaning. Maybe there’s something there, maybe he’d discard it to the flotsam of chance, who knows. The point is he’d track it down.
Brown’s 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret is great too, if you’re into The Crown type stuff.
Willie Nelson in Vulture. And:
I read that you and Snoop Dogg were doing a new song. Is he also a fan of Willie’s Reserve?
Oh yeah. I was over in Amsterdam one time and I called him. I said, “Come on, Snoop. This is where you and me need to be.” We had a heck of a good time.
After we discussed Nintendo soundscapes, a correspondent writes:
So the simplest reason is that Nintendo a whole are like that, gentle, pleasing in aesthetic with musical rhythms to fit. When making the old games like Donkey Kong in the arcades, where they had wanted to a) get kids hooked to Keep spending quarters b) not sound dark or dangerous to scare off any young kids or parents worried about the new technology and c) being forced to create an earworm that, because of the chip being limited yet the amount of time they want you playing, be a sound loop that keeps it bouncy, happy, and remain in players head so you would think of it after leaving the arcade.When they moved home consoles, to the NES there wasn’t anything they could do as music really, the Commodore 64 had only the beeps that the computer chip itself could make, (kind of like what a modem would do). But Nintendo improvised. Say they only had a chip that could make 8 bit tunes, memory space of a few kb which were utilising system itself. No synth or midi or anything like that, 4 channels, because all the memory had to go towards the sprites basically. So you had just a small number or door bell tones basically making the sound effects nd the music at the same time. (Mario bopping a block, grabbing a coin playing along with a tune could go up or down a tiny bit then have to loop back again almost imperceptibly. Staying in c and returning back to the same notes as often as possible in different ways like the song that Never ends til you haven’t even noticed it hasn’t.They also, seeing as budgets and schedules were tight and with almost no memory for music music conposers werent hired, so the programmers had to do this, a little known tidbit is the origin of the Zelda song came from an all nighter. The developers planned on using a tiny orchestration of Ravel’s Bolero as the title crawl, seeing as the arrangement was so old. So that was the idea for the mario kinda games. With something like Zelda, still operating under the same rules but wanting a more grand brave adventurous sound they chose an old arrangement, Rachel’s bolero to go with it, they found out like the night before it had to go to print that it was one month before it would go to public domain so the composer made a whole new score in one night to make one of the most memorable and recognisable tunes ever. 49 years and 11 months and if Zelda was delayed by one month it would have rewritten video game history. But I’m getting off track.The biggest thing to happen after the Nes with the Super Nintendo music was Donkey Kong Country and a fella called David Wise. Nintendo had figured out a way to create a 3D look to a dimensional platforms, by shading the characters differently and moving them along deceptively deep but static backgrounds (kinda like tv animation) so he worked out a way to do the same thing with the same musical limitations. Rare and Nintendo hired him to make one jungle themed tune, link here, and he wrote the music along one string, moved the entire string down a few octaves and then just wrote over that with the melody going over it to basically make it one track sounding like multiple instruments rather than a tiny synth out tracking from less than 10 bits. It seems like it might be simple now but it was revolutionary, it sounded live instrument quality but it was tiny in size in reality. so they hired him to do the whole score. So with Koji Kondo creating Zelda and Mario’s basic looping almost gambling sound effects into what couldn’t really be considered a tune to something you can hum thirty years on to DavidWwise creating 2d soundtracks that sounded 3d by keeping music simple they tapped into repetition and psychological depth that you are still nostalgic for these daysTldr a cartridge has only so many chips back then and so you had to twist the chip to make it repeat the same noise only mildly different to look back to the same chip doorbell which makes it almost 4chord Beatles ish in its genetic simplicity.They’d also loop say four notes a few times then one loop then go back to those same 4 notes and repeat so it wouldn’t sound the same but it would be … familiar maybe why you have such nostalgic memories of them
I’ve never played Animal Crossing, but my wife is playing, and I can hear the sounds from the next room or down the couch. The sounds are so soothing and pleasant. Since the NES days, Nintendo always managed to produce nice, soothing sounds. Some games are exceptions, but when I think of the sounds of Super Mario, or Tetris on GameBoy, or Mario Kart on N64, and now Animal Crossing, I’m impressed at Nintendo’s ability to generate fun, calming sounds. I believe that’s an under-appreciated part of Nintendo’s appeal and success.
There’s a big stack of books over here I’ve been meaning to write up.
This book is super good. Full of vivid detail.
Drums were banned everywhere in North America except French Louisian by the middle of the eighteenth century, and so were horns, which are made from wood or animal horns and played in hocketing ensembles in the slave coast and Congo-Angola regions.
There are excerpts from a long interview with Jim Dockery, of Dockery Farms. Stories retold and remembered. Sonny Payne tells of the Helena, Arkansas based radio show King Biscuit Time:
These are well-to-do white women listening. I listen, every day when I’m doing the show, for the simple reason that there’s something there. They’re trying to tell you something, and if you think hard enough and listen hard enough, you will understand what it’s all about.
The story this book tells is really about how blues music went from its origin point, where the Southern cross the Dog in the Mississippi Delta, to Chicago and then by record to the UK, where Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and the Rolling Stones heard it and picked up on it. Along the way there’s so much juicy richness about race and America and music and history and everything. Palmer takes us to a meeting in Chicago where they tried to encourage black migrants to come back to Mississippi.
This book is almost like a response to the fetishizing or the legend-building surrounding the Mississippi Delta and blues music. Says Wald:
If someone had suggested to the major blues stars that they were old-fashioned folk musicians carrying on a culture handed down from slavery times, most would probably have been insulted.
I didn’t know that Mississippi was dry until 1966.
It is startling to thank that all of the evolution from the first Bessie Smith record to the first Rolling Stones record took only forty years. When Skip James and John Hurt appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, they were greeted as emissaries from an ancient, vanished world, but it was only three decades since they had first entered a recording studio – that is, they were about as ancient as disco is to us today.
One point both these books make is that the Mississippi Delta at this time was actually kind of a dynamic region, crisscrossed with railroads, you could quit your job and move and get another one.
Wald tells of an anthropological team from Fisk University and the Library of Congress that visited the Delta in 1941 and 1942. They reported:
There are no memories of slavery in the delta. This section of the delta has little history prior to the revolution of 1861
The research team asked people what their favorite song was. What a question! (My Country Tis of Thee and The Star-Spangled Banner among the answers).
Gotta love a book where this is a footnote.
When I was a kid you couldn’t go to a library book sale or a book store without seeing some paperback Tony Hillerman mysteries, about the Navajo Tribal Police. I never got into books like that, not sure why. But when it comes to New Mexico writers, Tony Hillerman is a name to reckon with. (And there are a lot of New Mexico writers, just see The Spell of New Mexico, edited by Tony Hillerman).
So, as I was gonna be in New Mexico, I got Tony Hillerman’s memoir.
Man. Tony Hillerman was a combat infantryman in World War II. Before he was twenty or so he’d fought his way through the Vosges, killed German boys yards away from him, gone on night raids and been shelled in the dead of winter. Finally he stepped on a landmine, and his war ended in a military hospital. There was a guy in the hospital, a tank gunner, who was called “Jug” because of the way his injuries had mangled his face. Jug considered himself lucky compared to what happened to Colonel Delaney.
All this happened to Tony Hillerman when he was a teenager, before he’d ever really had a girlfriend.
When he got back home, he got a job driving a truck in the New Mexico oil fields. In the Chaco Canyon country, he happened to come across some Navajos on horseback. They were going to an “Enemy Way” ceremony, a ritual for those returned from war.
The healing power and religious idea of this ceremony impressed Tony Hillerman. It was just what he needed. (It sounds like the kind of ceremony Karl Marlantes describes the need for in his book).
Hillerman became a newspaperman in New Mexico, and the rest of the book is mostly funny and interesting stories about that life, and his family, and his decision to attempt some mystery books. On a writing class he taught at UNM:
my premise was that power to persuade lies in the ability to make people see – sometimes literally – the situation as the writer sees it. Instead of telling readers the city should improve its maintenance programs, walk them down the street with you and show them those same details that drew you to that conclusion – the roaches around the drains, the trash collecting on the fences, and so forth. Based on that argument, I’d send them forth.
A good book by a man who seems tough and tender, humble and wise, I read most of it on an overnight train ride.
Speaking of trains, how about Hunter Harrison? A first ballot Hall of Famer for sure if the Hall of Fame is “railroad CEOs.” Hell they’ll probably name the hall after him. Hunter Harrison from the time he was a teenager only ever worked for one kind of company: railroad company.
Harrison’s thing was “Precision Scheduled Railroading,” which apparently revolutionized a kind of sleepy industry.
Harrison created approximately $50 billion in shareholder value in his time as a CEO.
says the book jacket, telling you something about how we’re keeping score. Harrison was an absolute fanatic about railroading. He ran Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and died on the job running CSX.
I’m not sure if I’ll finish this book, it’s interesting and I’m learning a lot, but I’m just not sure I’m that interested in this guy. So far the part that sticks out in my mind is Harrison’s semi-mentor, Thompson.
Thompson was William F. Thompson – a.k.a. “Pisser Bill”
says the book. I thought the nickname might be kind of a metaphor or something, but no, a few pages later Pisser Bill was at the trainyard and saw something he didn’t like so he pissed all over the place.
This book was worth the price for that alone.
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.
Not sure the photo captures the majesty of seeing it in person.
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!
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
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.
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.
“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.
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 language, Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw–Choctaw trade language, Yamá) 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:
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”).
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.
Haitian ethnologist Milo Rigaud published a transcription in 1953 of a Voodoo chant, “Crabigne Nago”. 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!
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?
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 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:
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.
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.
Here’s something weird we saw, near Natchez:
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.
Lost Horizons is the second studio album from the British electronic duo Lemon Jelly, released on 7 October 2002. Released by XL Recordings and produced by Nick Franglen, the album generated two charting singles in the UK, “Space Walk” and “Nice Weather for Ducks”; the latter has often been called the album’s stand-out track. The album, which is built around a mix of organic instrumentation and idiosyncratic samples, was met with largely positive reviews by music critics, although it was somewhat criticised due to its near-constant mellowness.
DEADLINE: What parallels were there between Silvio and Miami Steve? You can see the affection between you and Springsteen onstage, and in the stories Bruce tells between songs about the old days.
VAN ZANDT: The common dynamic is, as a best friend you have an obligation to tell the truth and you’ve got to know when to do that and how to do that, and it’s never going to be easy when it’s bad news. But once in a while, hopefully rarely, but once in a while you’ve got to be the one to bring the bad news because nobody else is going to do it, so you’re obligated. That’s your responsibility as a best friend. Sometimes they will get mad at you and then, as happened on the show, you see occasionally Jimmy will be screaming at me over something and that’s how it is in real life.
It’s just one of those things that goes with that job, that relationship, in being the only one who’s not afraid of the boss because you grew up together and that puts you in a special category that is very, very useful and very helpful to that boss whether they like it or not. No boss likes to hear bad news or hear they made a mistake. You can’t do it every day or even that often, but when it’s really, really important, you pick your moment and you’ve got to take the consequences and you just have to live with that. That’s the job. And ironically, right after we filmed, Bruce decides to put the band back together that same year.
from this Deadline oral history of The Sopranos.
it’s possible attempts were made to record this song onto an audio cassette.
Thought this was fun. via Jia Tolentino’s twitter!
found that playing Smithsonian Channel’s The Pacific War In Color while KUSC our local classical station was coming out of my old radio created a cool effect.