Posted on May 27, 2016
Mostly, we came for the music. Our Southern Music Crawl, how we pre-labeled this recent adventure, took my husband and me on a two-week expedition through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. I now have securely cemented in my cortex both the spelling of these 3 states and their locations on the U.S. map. Prior to this adventure, both tasks were equally tedious and easily dismissed; or, shall I admit, easily handled by spell check and Google maps? Come on now. Unless your grandma lives in Friars Point, who the hell really cares where Mississippi is?
The music we came to hear was not only found in the multitude of honky tonks, bars, clubs and restaurants where we wiled away our Southern evenings but also on street corners, music stores, and naturally, The Grand Ole Opry. As a couple of newly minted Nashville Cats, we sat on more bar stools in two weeks than I have in my entire life. Especially in the honky tonks, with no cover charges and only the expectation to drop some dough into the bands’ plastic fish bowls that were passed every hour, on the hour, it was inviting to spend those hours drinking really fine, locally brewed beer or distilled moonshine (not kidding), munching on fried bologna sandwiches or onion rings or fried chicken. All of this boozy, brassy behavior was enhanced as our bar mates or (often) table mates were hootin’ and hollerin’ to some of the best live music I’ve ever heard…in each club on every night. Walking down Broadway in Nashville or Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans was similar to taking a stroll down the radio dial—if you can remember what a radio dial is. Don’t care for country-western music? Then go next door to hear a Jerry Lee Lewis boogie-woogie cover band. Too chaotic there? Then, how about that blue-grass quartet across the street? But the one dial you will have no control over is the volume. So, just remember you aren’t at these joints for conversation. It’s more about the hooch and the harmonies. Maybe not the ideal spot for a first date. But, that would depend, I guess.
The other music I cottoned to was found in Southerners’ speech. The lilting patterns, the slower-than-molasses-in-June phrasing, the soft-as-summer-breeze tones all lent such a balmy resonance to the most common statements. So what if you can’t figure out what the f*^ck they are sayin’, darlin’. Sometimes, I was a “ma’am;” other times, I was a “baby.” My favorite was “hon.” The majority of time though, I was, “y’all.” And, if my husband was by my side, we were, “y’all, y’all.”
Even the birds sang with an impressive, poignant cadence. Hundreds of birds would wake us from our one-too-many-beers-the-night-before sleep…be it in the cities of Nashville, Memphis, or New Orleans. Of course, in the latter, the birds had Mardi Gras beads around their scrawny necks. In the rural areas, these little creatures would start their symphonies at dawn and sometimes, I could swear I saw a couple of them weaving threads on a gown for Cinderella’s upcoming debutante ball at the country club–Did I mention the moonshine I drank on occasion?
The vacation seemed so full of good music and fine food it was nearly unthinkable to recollect and then process the history of the region. But, you can’t drive very far through Delta Blues Country without coming upon museums and markers that pull you back into a wormhole. The land and its oppressive usurpers and lawful owners helped to cultivate the birth of the blues. Born of this fertile Mississippi Delta land, slaves then share-croppers then poor folk of color and impoverished whites fashioned instruments out of whatever they could find and a world-famous genre was the crop that emerged. Naturally, being a Bay Area native, I thought I had this whole thing figured out: I’ve read my American history, studied the distant accounts of slavery from an academic viewpoint and seen the occasional hard-to-watch and harder-to-comprehend movies about the subject. Who’s going to argue with my conclusion: It was a brutal, incomprehensible period of sanctioned economic and social policies. Nobody wants a lecture from me. But, as I traveled through these areas of the South, the evidence of slavery’s expansive, grotesque, and deeply rooted, ingrained legacy are, no surprise, everywhere.
Who hasn’t made the decision, while on a journey, about where to eat? We base our decisions on a host of criteria…price, parking, availability of Caesar salads. But, at least for me, one benchmark has never before been whether or not a Confederate flag was whipping through the crisp Southern skies (excuse that pun). And, naturally, there were signs (actual and surmised) about presidential election choices. We stayed hungry longer on the road.
Why were some restaurants, hotels, bars, cafes in some cities integrated and why were some not? Where I live, I never ask myself that question. I have a lot of beliefs and principles and political views that course through my blood without ever having to think twice about having to justify what I think. I assume most folks around me think like I do. They might not share my political party, but it’s a gut-level assumption I’ve made based on homogeneity. Seems easier that way. I live in a nearly 100% white city in a practically 100% white county. Nobody made me live here, y’all. I chose it for its educational opportunities for our children, for our feeling of safety, for our commitment to liberal ideals along with those of our neighbors, and for our belief that we could worship whatever god we choose (or not to worship as the case may be) without risking becoming a pariah and having our front lawn sport a burning cross instead of a cozy fire pit.
See, the conflicting premise for me is this: When I speak of my trip to the South, folks where I live respond with something like, “The South is like being on another planet.” While I agree that much of any unique region is, well, unfamiliar. The South…be it these three states I visited or the other ones…are in fact not on another planet, nor galaxy, nor cosmos. The South is part of the country in which almost everyone reading this blog lives: The U.S. of A. And, that’s what blows my mind. I can’t chalk up the unrecognizable accents, drinking and driving and gun laws (all of which can be done together, by the way), the integration, the segregation, the economic-booming-versus-busted towns (there are plenty of both), the fabulous cuisine and the enormous-sized folks who consume too much of it, the home of renown writers, poets, and artists and the pathetic state of public school education there. I not only share this planet with the South, I share a president, a senate, and a congress. We pay taxes to the same federal agency and we supposedly speak the same language. Don’t we?
There was one day of our 14-day excursion that resonated with me because of its myriad of complexities. We journeyed in rural landscapes with shoddy roads, running right next to cotton fields. A little farther on, we came upon urban venues, like the town where former cotton gins have been refurbished as the headquarters for Viking appliances. A day as varied as most and rife with contradictions. While trying desperately to find a gas station, we’d instead come upon skeletons of long-ago abandoned pumps. But in the next small town, we delighted in locating the coffee bar serving hand-pulled espresso in porcelain cups for our after-lunch pick-me-up. This day was long and hot, and we were in Mississippi.
After checking into our (surprise!) 4-star hotel in Greenwood, we stretched our legs with a stroll through the picturesque town. It was evening, around 5:30, and the whole place was deserted. Half expecting a tumbleweed to be blown down the center of Main Street, and a pair of phantom saloon doors to keep swinging on its hinges, we ducked into a shop that was drawing its blinds against the shimmering sun – blistering even at this hour. We didn’t mention the nuclear-holocaust feeling with no visible signs of life; instead we chirped to the fashionably dressed saleswoman, “Where can we hear some live music tonight?”
It turns out the proprietor, not much older than 40, and introducing herself as, “Miss Rebecca,” asked us, “Where y’all from?” When we told her, she offered in the most polite and cheerful way that she loves loves loves San Francisco but really prefers San Diego. “Oh, this now is Wednesday evenin’, and Wednesday evenin’ is church-goin’ night. You won’t hear music tonight.” As if she needed to further clarify (but so nicely!) to these Yankees in her shop, “Y’all in the bible belt now.”
With that, my husband decided to spend the next bit of time taking some photographs of the town while I plowed through her extraordinarily bulbous baskets of gingham napkins and seersucker bow ties and really fabulous locally made jewelry. I was feeling at home with Miss Rebecca, doing what I do very well indeed: shop. Wednesday evening or not, a sale is a sale.
My phone rang and my husband on the other end implored me to get over to meet him. He said I would find him at the Cotton Row Club in Cotton Row Alley not farther than two blocks from where I was paying for my Southern gift medley. As I approached the Club, I was greeted by a man about my age standing in front of the door and ready to give me a bit of an introduction into this venue. Dale asked me in such a friendly manner that at first I didn’t pay attention to the details of what he was saying or the more complicated aspects of how this club looked—even from the outside. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Are you Miss Marty [Marty, being the name of my husband]?” “Yes, I am. My name is Naomi.”
Dale continued, “Welcome, Miss Marty, to Greenwood’s private male-only drinking club.” “Thanks so much, Dale,” I demurred. I was agitated because Marty was nowhere to be seen; I became concerned about Marty and a bit annoyed that he hadn’t sufficiently warned me about what I would find here. Oh boy, I thought, I’m standing in front of a male-only drinking club and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure what a drinking club, male or female, really means. Surely, he’s not going to invite me to come inside.
“Boys!” Dale proclaimed to the 45 or so men whose heads had now all turned in my direction as I crossed the threshold. As is the well-worn custom of Southern gentleman, each and every seated man stood up. Based on my empirical, first-hand research of the exquisite manners of Southern men, I felt oddly revered. Never opening a door myself the entire two weeks we were in the South (except when alone with my husband), I was beginning to get used to the treatment. But the sound was rancorous as all these men pushed back their chairs in unison to rise and greet me. “This here is Miss Marty from SAN FRANCISCO!” And, then just as quickly, most of them turned back to their conversations—and their Bourbon. In paper cups. The small tavern was a shit hole, really. I imagine that their wives were home with their own cocktails, sitting in their screened porches or in one of 10 or 11 palatial rooms each of which was layered in chintz and sprinkled with a preponderance of tasseled pillows. The opposite of a shit hole, in other words. The men had been talking basketball. What would the women be chatting about, I wondered.
While I never was offered a seat, I was encouraged to acknowledge the poker table that I was now leaning up against. It was pointed out to me this was from the Civil War or was it from some guy’s garage? I forget. The wood was chipped and mauled as if the players used the edge of the table to claw their way up from the floor after being shot for cheating. To the right of the room, there was one of those soft drink machines with a brightly lit façade picturing bubbles and ice. But instead of push buttons displaying Coke, or Pepsi, or Sprite this one had handwritten labels of Bourbon, Rye, and Whiskey. There were two much younger men behind the “bar” and one black dude who was working hard to quickly refill drained paper cups.
“Would you care for a drink, Miss Marty?” a gentleman in an elegant orange pin-stripped shirt asked me. “Oh, thank you.” I replied checking out my limited options. “But, no. I can’t stay, really.” They insisted. So I complied and asked for Bourbon…with soda. “Miss Marty, I don’t think we have soda.” They didn’t, but it made no difference because no one actually served me a drink.
By now, Marty showed up and then the men started to approach us with such curiosity it was palpable. But, damn they were all so amiable. One guy, turns out he was the mayor, was so excited to confirm that we were from SAN FRANCISCO that he couldn’t wait to ask us if we were fans of the Grateful Dead. Not certain what the mayor wanted to hear, we changed the subject. Quickly. Although I wonder what the Mayor’s favorite Dead song would have been…“Ripple?”
Dale, my first friend, whose belly arrived before he did as he again came toward me said, “Miss Marty, I can assume we are from different sides politically. But, it is so good to be able to discuss our differences with each other, in a civilized way, and learn from each other. Isn’t that so?”
I couldn’t argue with that. It’s just that we never did discuss anything political. I missed a chance to do so, and I’m sorry. The opportunity would have been to hear what Dale and his pals had to say and to say to them what I really believe. To learn what they thought and why they presumably are voting differently than I am—this is what, in my state of disorientation, I prevented from happening. I was trying to lean in, but I was outnumbered and intimidated by a culture that was becoming more complex to me by the moment.
We both, Marty and Miss Marty, thanked our hosts and went to find dinner. It was a remarkable meal that included fish I had never before tasted with exquisite vegetables and fresh pasta served with a mushroom broth that blew my mind.
The young African-American waiter took my order after explaining to us that he was part of a restaurant-training program where the owner is partnering with the local community college to teach kids like him about the front-of-the-house restaurant business. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked me, pen at the ready.
“Oh, yes please!” I replied. “I’ll have a Bourbon and soda on the rocks. Can you make mine a double?”
Lock and load,