An essay from the Seventh Southern Music Issue, 2005.
I walked back from the mall through a hammering twilight cloudburst clutching a wet paper bag. As laughing rednecks veered through puddles and blasted arcs of oily water over me, I thought grimly, “This better be worth it.” At home, I peeled the sodden paper off the plastic wrapper of Johnny Winter And: Live, peeled off my wet clothes, and collapsed naked on the bed to listen to the album.
When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
A feature from Issue 61, “Best of the South” 2008.
Thick strokes of early-evening crimson smeared across the rolling mountains of Rabun County as I drove up Highway 23 from Atlanta toward Clayton. The whole world looked like it was burning up right behind the horizon line. It was the nine-degree, molar-rattling middle of January in North Georgia, and I was on my way to visit the Chattooga River, fifty-seven miles of fierce backcountry water and etched stone where the film of my father’s first novel, Deliverance, was shot in the summer of 1971.
We were in the garden of refugees, Eh Kaw explained: what was his, as well as Semoeneh’s, was also mine. Their Baptist faith compelled them to share whatever bounty God bestowed. Eh Kaw felt blessed that he and dozens of family members and countrymen were planting yards in rural Georgia. Nothing in his past had predicted such fortune.
Certain sections of our border wall have become bi-national art spaces. Politicians plaster campaign posters; immigrants inscribe their names, home villages, and dates of crossing. Muralists and graffiti artists layer image upon image.
A story from our 18th Southern Music Issue: Visions of the Blues.
All day long the song has kept him thinking, a few clumsy lines scribbled on hotel stationery like black rivers rushing across the page. What imposters his words are. Music pays him to be. Music plays him to be. He sets the pen down on the table and tears off another chunk of hash. Having spent the better part of the day doing just this. See, the beautiful dried hashish in his hand. He puts it in the tall dazzling bong and lights it. Those sharing the table with him inside the café take turns, lips pressed against the long tilted rim of the pipe, then an intake of smoke, causing the bowl to start gurgling. Lazy smoke hovering about the room like gray birds. Four of them sitting at a round table with a mosaic top and heavy iron legs. His skull is filled with feathers, little sleep last night, but he swears that when he finishes this song, this moment will be in it. All of Tangier.
Ethnomusicologists have continued to do necessary and significant research, both in the field and beyond, but it’s difficult to muster up a modern analogue for Lomax. No other single figure is as invested in the American musical canon, or as influential. In part that’s the result of a global shift towards self-mythologizing: we all maniacally catalogue and broadcast our lives now, ensuring our legacies to both transcendent and humiliating ends. Who needs Lomax when we have YouTube?
One of my tasks as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive is to manage its YouTube channel. Several years ago, I noticed a particular strain of commentary recurring on the five clips that compose the recorded output of an utterly obscure and equally affecting singer-guitarist named Belton Sutherland, whom Lomax met in rural Madison County, Mississippi, in 1978.
But I am reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, handed to me by her friend Lee Smith. The cover is white—wintry, and the story is set on Cape Cod, which I only have visited in winter. My images of a bleak landscape and silvery light already overlay the text. More sea than land, more sky than sea.
The 2016 news cycle published many articles and images of Eastern Kentucky as both white and poor. However, the town of Lynch, an historically African American community in Harlan County that was established in 1917 by the U.S. Coal and Coke Company, stands strong.