In 1913, the murder of Little Mary Phagan rocked the people of Atlanta, Georgia, setting in motion a series of events that involved a botched and terribly obfuscated trial; a tinder box of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and “white rights”; and another murder. “Fiddlin’ John” Carson set it all to music.
In the summer of 2014, nearly a decade after I buried my ties to home, and discontent with my restlessness, I set out to make a life in Austin. I carried with me one simple question: was Texas still home to my heart or just the site of dead memories?
This weekend is the annual tomato festival at the Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm, and the farmers lay out an all-you-can-eat buffet of the many varieties of heirloom tomatoes grown there: Cherokee greens, Cherokee purples, zebras, Japanese black trifeles, Ozark pinks, Pruden’s purples, and best of all, sungolds, which are small and firm tomatoes that taste warm and almost salty, like they were plucked from the vine on a hot afternoon just moments before they made it to this table. And amid all this sweet bounty: a square dance.
Little Richard, now eighty-two years old, has reportedly been living the last several years in a penthouse suite at the Hilton hotel in downtown Nashville (the Hilton will neither confirm nor deny that they have a guest named Mr. Penniman). I knew someone who knew someone who had his cell phone number, and in June, I cold-called him.
When Prince sang “Soft and Wet” from a 45 on my record player, the lyrics were hidden beneath the funky beat. My grandparents never knew what I was listening to. Prince and his doe eyes and big Afro and glistening lean body stared back at me from the pages of Right On! magazine. We lived far out into the woods, on a gravel road. My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did. Prince was the sex I knew nothing about. Prince sealed my fantasies about a larger world.
By early summer, Houston is so muggy that all the edges blur. Temperatures slink into the low 90s and stay there. In certain neighborhoods, the smell of weed lingers, lending the air a permanent tang. Slabs, creeping slowly down the street, broadcast a sound indigenous to the city, a sluggish hazy rhythm that couldn’t have been born in any other town.
An Omnivore essay from the Spring 2019 issue.
Due to his health, Leon Redbone can no longer be interviewed. In a way, he’s become a version of the old-time musicians he so admired, about whom little is known: You can only reach them through recordings, archival materials, and the accounts of other people. Longtime friends and band members tell me they knew never to ask about his past. Others say they were sworn to secrecy, and intend to keep the secrets. His own family members say they know little about his early life.