Frontwards Is Backwards

By  |  January 14, 2016
“Pollution,” collage by Bryan Olson “Pollution,” collage by Bryan Olson

I don’t know if the term “Cosmic Southerner” is something I came up with or if I read it somewhere or heard someone say it, but it’s an idea I’ve carried with me for a long time. When I was a kid, growing up in tiny LaFayette, Georgia, I often visited the visionary painter Howard Finster, who resided in his “Paradise Garden” in nearby Pennville. Finster was the first Cosmic Southerner I identified—he held deep Southern roots and felt a cosmic connection to the universe, which he expressed through his lifestyle and art. In the years since, I’ve recognized this curious intersection embodied in artists I’ve admired, and some I’ve known. Pharoah Sanders, André 3000, and Benjamin from the band Smoke are true Cosmic Southerners. Atlanta’s Col. Bruce Hampton is another.

Every Wednesday at 12:22 P.M., a rotating group of people meets for lunch in one of the many Chinese restaurants along Buford Highway in North Atlanta. They are generally all men, though not always. Some have known each other for fifty years, some thirty-five, some have never met. The one constant is the host, the man who knows everyone: Col. Bruce. He greets guests with the customary handshake (the touching of pinky fingertips), and sometimes an offhand comment about how many months and days it is until their birthday. He is a genius, in many shades of the word.

Though if you ask him, he’ll claim he’s from “Themis, the tenth moon of Saturn,” Hampton has two birth certificates from a small town in Tennessee. His family moved to Atlanta when he was two weeks of age. Now sixty-eight, he’s lived here his entire life. He began playing music as a child and quickly developed a taste for the surreal. His best-known projects are the avant-garde groups Hampton Grease Band and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and he is recognized as one of the progenitors of spontaneous, long-form improvisation in rock music. For this, Hampton gets credited, alongside the Grateful Dead, as a godfather to the modern jam band scene—though he’s had numerous chapters in his career. He claims to own a tape he’ll never publish of a drunken early-morning jam session between B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and John McLaughlin. In 2014, he had a cameo in a Run the Jewels music video, dramatically choking on a hamburger at an Atlanta diner. Sun Ra (another Cosmic Southerner) is his “outspiration.”

Almost every person who congregates at these lunches has some connection to the music industry. As sweet and sour soup, hot tea, kung pao shrimp, ginger green beans, cod stew, and Diet Cokes land on the table, the topic of conversation bounces from tour manager war stories to festival circuit intersections to obscure baseball statistics from decades past. It is hard to imagine a person with greater firsthand knowledge of Atlanta music than Col. Bruce Hampton—or a more generous dispenser of the same. The following stories were excerpted from an interview my wife, April, and I conducted after lunch at Northern China Eatery on June 3, 2015.

 

COL. BRUCE HAMPTON: Did I tell you about Jimi Hendrix? What’s so funny, they lived on Delowe Drive—Bobby Womack, Johnny Jenkins, and Jimi Hendrix—each black, left-handed, upside-down Stratocaster players.

LANCE LEDBETTER: Bobby was the band-leader at the time, right?

COL. BRUCE: Yeah, the Isleys. They all played with the Tams, Gorgeous George, the Isley Brothers, and Little Richard. Then Little Richard fired Jimi for outdressing him. He was just a guitar player, but I dug him because he’d dip down and play weird solos, and they’d get pissed at him. We would go to Misty Waters in Decatur to watch them play. They would be opening for Joe South or somebody like Billy Joe Royal back in ’63. When I met Hendrix in 1970, he heard I was from Atlanta, and all he wanted to know about was Blind Willie McTell. He was obsessed. I told him about the barbecue place, and his eyes were like a kid’s. Pig ’n Whistle was the name of it. We were there every Sunday after church. I saw him, without exaggeration, forty, sixty times, but I did not know that it was Blind Willie McTell. There were four guys out there using two long ropes and one of them was him.

APRIL LEDBETTER: What do you mean by “long ropes”?

COL. BRUCE: He was blind! He would go get the money and deliver the food to the car, and they had a rope tied to the stand and he would take the rope, get the money, and bring it back in. And he lived right on Myrtle Street, and so did I. So I saw Blind Willie McTell when I was ten or eleven and did not know it till I was twenty. It was 1969 when a guy named George Mitchell turned me on to Blind Willie McTell.

LANCE: Who’s the most significant musician from Georgia?

COL. BRUCE: Fletcher Henderson. He’s the most under-recognized Georgian there is. In 1989, I asked Sun Ra the best big bands he ever saw, and he said, in this order: Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. And he said Henderson’s bands were ten times better than the rest of them. So that’s heavy.

APRIL: Do you think Georgia’s music is overlooked?

COL. BRUCE: Always. There’s only four states that produce ninety-five percent of America’s music: Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana. That’s ninety-five percent of the music that’s come out of America.

They talk about New Orleans, Mississippi, Tennessee—and you should, because great music. But they never go, “Hey, Georgia has that!”

In a ninety-mile radius you’ve got: Johnny Mercer, Otis Redding, Little Richard, James Brown, a guy named Ray Charles—that’s just the big five right there. Besides Gladys Knight, Jerry Reed, and my man, Fletcher Henderson. Ma Rainey. Fiddlin’ John Carson, who wrote everything. It goes on and on, as you well know.

LANCE: Why is so much great music made here?

COL. BRUCE: Because of the humidity that surrounds us. You lose your stinking mind and have to go crazy to remain sane! Things are so backwards here. Frontwards is backwards. You know? One and one is two, but what’s one? Southern people are fucking crazy. And if you’re not crazy, you’re driven crazy. And if you don’t have that crazy in you, you’re not any good.


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Lance Ledbetter and his wife, April, own the Grammy Award–winning label Dust-to-Digital. Their latest release, a collaboration with record collector Joe Bussard, is The Year of Jubilo: 78 RPM Recordings of Songs from the Civil War.