Barry Hannah’s Mixtape

By  |  December 15, 2011

About music he was rarely wrong, our old master, Barry Hannah, Mississippi boy who sometimes flew too close to the sun. He made me a mixtape, one time when I was faltering in life. Technically, it’s not a true mixtape, the kind someone labors long over, casting repeatedly to haul in your soul like a hooked fish. It’s just an average, old, scuffed Memorex, with “Songs That Got Us Through World War II—for Cynthia,” scribbled on the spine in his stork-legged scrawl, a straight rip of the Rhino remaster of 1992, with some extra Harry James tacked on.

Each song is listed on the yellow paper insert, smudged by his fingers. He even scribbled out, but did not affix, a label for the A-side, as he would suddenly lose patience when some project began to feel too close to the quotidian. This was before we acquired the option to carry around the sum total of human music history in our hip pockets, in our telephones. The acquisition of old music of the elders was more difficult then, therefore more mysterious.

World War II is my god, Barry wrote from the vantage point of a young man born in 1942. It meant dashing pilots in jaunty caps, the profile to aspire to, if you wanted to be a chick magnet. He repeated the line in his later years, but as he aged, it meant something more complex, more piquant.

World War II was not my god. World War II ate my childhood before I was born, shot my father out of the sky, returned him a sociopath who would burn his baby son’s hand with a cigarette lighter to warn him about fire.

My early fictions were conversations with Barry about that. The mixtape was part of that. The tape was background research in big-band music, but it was also a lesson in writing, as illustrated by trumpet, from back in the day, when trumpet ruled American music.

 

I don’t remember what my errand was in Square Books in January of 1990, when I first met Barry, upstairs, waiting on his white china cup of espresso to cool. I didn’t know World War II was his god; I thought he was some Southern frat boy my husband had just inherited as new chair of the Ole Miss English department, with the understanding that Barry had to be protected from the Lyceum, the administration, the suits.

I was not long back from my father’s cold Savannah military funeral, oddly desolate after the twenty-one-gun salute. But he had loved the big bands, so I had played a truck-stop cassette of Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Sing, Sing, Sing most of the five hundred miles back home to Oxford, feeling a little stoned on the sheer history I imagined captured there, trumpet wailing like elephants, sly clarinets weaving klezmer into the warp of Gene Krupa’s extravagant drumming. I had a headful of stories to tell. My father was dead. I was free to move about the English language.

I asked Barry if he had any room for me in his creative-writing class.

What do you want to write? he asked.

I don’t know, I said. I just need to get clean.

Well, come on, he smiled, as if it made perfect sense to him. We make some good music in there sometimes.

Tuesday afternoons, upstairs north-corner classroom of Bondurant Hall.

Rapt silence when he entered the room.

The squint, the deep drag on the cigarette: So. Looks like we got twenty. Two of you might actually make it.

Most writers are not much to look at. But writing makes you beautiful.

Answer me with your own music; I already know what mine sounds like.

Name it something, baby. Don't give me this “Opus Number 1” shit.

People lump Beckett with Joyce, but they're different. The attack is different.

I have the mind of a second-rate clerk. You look in my window while I work, I will look like some loser accountant to you.

I don't like that New Age music, sounds like too many old coat hangers in an empty closet, 

We are all just tender babies.

Barry loved being the commandant of rank fledglings. The drill was you tossed your self-serving fictions onto the sacrificial pyre, so he could dutifully ignite the lies. My first story was a riff on a word my father used to describe the boondocks he left us in: radioland. In the markup, Barry somehow showed me how to edit out the Pavlovian, feminist rage, and how to foreground the story's tiny, lacerated little heart. I revised it, put it in his box the next day. Within an hour, I found it back in my box; he'd read it that soon, he was that serious a teacher. Some lines he spared:

I sometimes lie awake in the dark feeling like a Cyclops, wondering if radioland is not some holy huge place where it all ends up, melded into one soft susurration: the protests of the sheep as Noah led them into the ark, the cry that Shakespeare's mother made, and the patter of Navajo code-talkers blending with stray drumbeats from the first time Benny Goodman played Sing, Sing, Sing.

I learned so much between those first two drafts, I wrote him: I am going to read everything you ever wrote. I read a book a week. He wrote in a big, big room mentally, like some old Buddhist with an American-jazz embouchure. If you told him you could hear the various whorls and back-eddies of history in clarinets and trumpets, he believed you. After reading Ray, which terrified me with its tiny white horses hungering in his veins, I wrote Barry just one sentence: I am going to be your friend for five hundred years.

Sometimes, especially if he had achieved the desired alcoholtude, he would cross over into some incandescent country of ruin we were afraid to follow him into. He would say things that had to stay in that room. He would sometimes read aloud fragments of what he was working on, call and response, then set us to noodling along amongst ourselves a little, like middle-schoolers with clarinets and kazoos, alternately shaming us and coaxing us to choir in the common key, which was compassion: What does it accomplish if you tell us a character is bourgeois? We are all bourgeois here. We got our clean clothes, our goddamn educations.

I’m teaching to you right now, -----, because I know you're going through a bad divorce. So everything I’m saying today is for you.

One time I was driving into Fayetteville early in the morning, and I happened to look into the faces of the people on the other side of the interstate, the drivers on the way to their jobs, and man, it was grim.

You’ve got to figure out what is killing you, and you’ve got to win.

You’ve got to do more in your writing than just stand there pointing a finger, identifying the culprits, J’Accuse. Take us somewhere we've never been, baby. Take us on a big ride in your big language Buick that's got too much play in the steering wheel. We already know about earth.

We will not settle for anything less than the stratosphere.

He had a small squadron of Lost Boys who followed him around, and I felt a bit wistful sometimes, watching them all troop off to the bars after class, when I headed home to the quotidian, to make the family dinner. The Lost Boys thought it was cool to be incandescent as you wooed your own ruin. They got the teachings of the tomcat-hour prowls.

I got a different kind of teaching. In those years, he would just show up at our house sometimes, rail-thin, restless, amazingly still ambulatory, considering the exigencies of alcohol.

This is your world here.

Yes.

You’ve got this little girl to raise.

Yes.

I lost my baby girl. I didn't get to see her grow up. Not like I would’ve liked.

Yes.

Well, you could sit right here at this table and write your book, and you can still keep an eye on her from this window here while she plays.

Once, I told him about the big snake in the wild irises down at the pond. How I’d put the baby girl up on the dam and told her to run, run home to Daddy.

I have to go see a friend, Barry said. He returned with a long-barreled silver pistol.

Show me where you saw that snake.

To the pond, posthaste, mostly to get the gun out of the space where the child was playing. I can’t remember any gunshots, but surprisingly soon, he was back up at the house, the gun unloaded. He lined the bullets up on a high bookshelf. I’m putting them here so little hands can’t reach them. The look in his eyes: a serious need not to be misunderstood. Dinner guests came, went. By the time I got the baby out of the bath and into her pajamas, Barry had washed every dish, fork, pot, and pan.

My god, I said. It looks like some Army mess cook has been in here.

Navy, he corrected me, drying his hands on a dish towel.

Within the week, he was down South in a hospital, which came as no surprise to any of us.

I'm glad you’re in a place where you can’t hurt yourself anymore, I wrote him. Maybe America eats writers like air. We have 499 years to go in this friendship.

It’s like summer camp, he wrote back. I have to read with a flashlight.

He returned, fragile in the way newborns are. For many of us, this was our first acquaintance with the real Barry. Without the protective scrim of the alcohol, a lot about him began to make sense. As if the alcohol had helped him blunt the force of who he was, especially to women. If I drifted too far away from the classes, he would call me back, as if my presence mattered to the others.

I teach better when you’re there, he said. Understand: He would tell you any lie he had to, to keep you writing.

I had to stop coming to your class, I said. I was getting this crush on you.

You’re going to make me weep, he said.

Understand: This was the way he was, without the normal safe, crustacean distance between himself and others. It was no accident he was a keen student of the human need for a persona, a carapace. He still showed up at our house, once in a driving rain to drop off two perfect blue alabaster eggs for my daughter. They are in my kitchen window today; I see them when I do the dishes. Another time, The Annotated Alice, inscribed by himself to her. It was about then that he handed off the World War II songs. I can still hear these songs in my baby mind, he said. They were on the radio when I was a baby.

The songs?

He’d have torched such sentimental journeys if they had come from us, his students.

Some of the songs were V-discs, the 78s recorded for the troops during the recording bans of the 1940s, not necessarily playing on the radios of Barry’s babyhood. Some are rootley-toot reveille songs, like The Andrews Sisters’ "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," or Johnny Mercer’s "G.I. Jive" of 1943, a wry take on the grind of military life. The Ink Spots' "I'll Get By," which Irene Dunne sang in the 1943 Spencer Tracey film A Guy Named Joe, is a real gem, with its falsetto trills, its maudlin, talking, baritone blues. Other war songs are ethereal and spooky to the postmodern ear, as when the clarinets flutter like Disney's Uncle Remus's hummingbirds: "There'll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow, when the world is free." There is a strange, anaesthetic, hospital-art quality to many of these songs, no sharp edges, easy on the truth, because people had had enough of true things, thank you very much. Vaughn Monroe, who later became a stock voice in cowboy-movie soundtracks, once coaxed the whole country toward cohesion, laying down the bread crumbs in the war-torn forest, the fantasy of what it would be like when the blackouts ended: "Then we'll have time for things/Like wedding rings/And free hearts will sing."

"Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," another ditty from Savannah’s Johnny Mercer, is in its own way the last hurrah of blackface minstrelsy, but, if you catch its drift, it’s about the evils of ambiguity:

You've got to accent
U-ate the positive, elim
Inate the negative, and latch on
To the affirmative;
Don't mess with Mr. In-Between.

In wartime, this sentiment got them through. By the time they were playing golf in their Sansabelt polyester pants, "accentuating the positive" was code for a willingness to lie, and they mistook this for the moral authority to lie about the body counts in Vietnam.

If you let yourself, you could lose your rock & roll mind over the sheer cognitive dissonance it must have required for anyone to sing along with The Song Spinners on "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer," with its white-folks churchiness, containing the DNA code of future American conflicts on foreign soil, telegraphed into the stratosphere:

What a show! What a fight!
Yes, we really hit our target for the night...
Though there's one motor gone
We can still carry on
Comin' in on a wing and a prayer.

The young musical Turks of the '40s became the conservatives of the Nixon regime. They may have been the "Greatest Generation," but they were not above jailing their own children for taking to the streets to demand the truth about the bombings of Hanoi. By the time I was aware of this music, trumpets had been banished to the outer gulags of happening music, to the Muzak of supermarkets or the elevators of Las Vegas. If you look at the film footage of Harry James playing his trumpet in some of the bands he fronted near the end of his days, it is music of flat affect.

Similarly, the love songs of the great Apple Pie chanteuses were outré by the mid-1960s. Today, their songs register to the contemporary ear like lovely anesthesia administered aurally: "I'll always be near you, wherever you are.../If you call I'll hear you, no matter how far/Just close your eyes, and I'll be there."

Sweet, sweet, druggy lines.

This music is the contraband of our time.

The Apple Pie chanteuses sang out of a sincere conviction that love would win, not the Krauts or the Japs. Conviction is a foreign tongue to our jaded ears. Today, we hear the cloying "Long Ago and Far Away" by Jo Stafford, or Peggy Lee's languorous "Waiting for the Train to Come In," and we hear campiness. This is a mistake. They really meant it. They had no idea yet that free hearts would indeed sing, about domestic servitude in the burbs, or that American G.I.'s had made the world a safer place for the equal-opportunity addictions of Miltown and Valium.

"I don’t want to walk without you," Helen Forrest sings in a wholesome June Allyson kind of way, and Harry James’s trumpet saunters along about two steps behind her, irrevocably attuned, unmistakably passionate. To get that trumpet, he married her, Barry told me when I said something to him about my new understanding of the fineness of James as a trumpet player. But Forrest and James did not marry, and she later said to his biographer that James was a man incapable of feeling love, because of his hard, carny years, except when he was playing his trumpet. James got his start as a circus musician who could double as a contortionist. Not until Barry passed along this tape did I understand that it was James playing the trumpet in 1938 on Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," telegraphing history, prophesying war, the hair of the historical dog that bit me, making me want to write a novel.

But the pièce de résistance on this album?

Louis Armstrong’s "I Wonder" soothes the scar tissue with the sweetness of the trumpet, sustains you with some knowledge of what a man really is, but will not lie to you:

I wonder, my little darlin'
Where can you be this moonlit night?
My heart is aching, but I'm a fool,
To let it go on breakin'. . .
You went travelin', but will it last?
Well, I'm travelin' nowhere fast.

Proof of the mysterious medicine in these songs: My mother did not have much use for music in her postwar life, as if once my father went traveling, she was done with being lied to. But if Louis Armstrong appeared on the television in the 1960s to sing like this, or to play his buttery trumpet like this, she would drop what she was doing to listen, and her eyes would well up.

Armstrong’s trumpet does not lie, and it does not age.

I think Barry would agree with me that you need to listen to these trumpets on this album. You need to eavesdrop on human history. Likewise, you need to hear the sound of a human throat expressing love during hard times in the only ways it knows how. And you need to help anybody who appears to be faltering; just take your little cellphone that goes with you everywhere now and bounce these songs off some satellite to whomever needs it. Book somebody secret passage on that great hospital ship of the mind, art, wherein is housed the old archive of contraband, belief.


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Cynthia Shearer is the author of two works of fiction, The Wonder Book of the Air  and The Celestial Jukebox. Her work has appeared in such publications as TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.  Formerly a curator of William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, she now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and teaches at Texas Christian University.