A Big Muddy Meander With a Beat You Can Dance To

There’s an interview segment in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s epic film of The Band’s farewell concert, when he asks Levon Helm to talk about how the rural Southland that raised him up shaped American music. Helm, the good old boy Arkansas polymath-singer-drummer extraordinaire, drawls: “That’s kind of the middle of the country, you know, back there. So, when bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country. Bluegrass. Blues music. Show Music.”

Scorsese — Eastern urban chic embodied — tentatively ventures: “What’s it called then?”

Levon shoots a brief incredulous sidelong glance off-camera and then smilingly answers what he clearly considers the dumbest question he’s ever been asked: “Rock ‘n Roll.”

I’d hoped to visit Levon Helm’s hometown of Marvell, Ark., after I made my way to the bottom of the Natchez Trace Parkway, but Hurricane Gordon blew me off course, nixing my visit to Vicksburg and points south, driving me away from the gulf. That’s okay. I was bummed to miss Vicksburg but it’s good to be reminded that we are not bigger than the weather.

Gordon lashed me as I drove due west from Starkville, Ms., slamming sheets of rain against my driver-side window as it tracked north. I finally shot clear of the leading edge of the storm in Yazoo, Mississippi, crossed the Big Muddy into Arkansas a couple of hours later, and then turned north on Route 65, the Delta Blues Highway, up towards Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

Two days earlier, visiting the excellent Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, I was reminded of how much our American musical heritage is owed to a rather compact and fertile crescent of the Southland. Within about a 500-mile oval whose perimeter loops through Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana can be found the birthplaces of: Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst, Ms.), B.B. King (Itta Bena, Ms.), Pop Staples (Winona, Ms.), Johnny Cash (Kingsland, Ar.), Elvis (Tupelo, Ms.), Levon Helm (Marvell, Ar.), Leadbelly (Mooringsport, La.), Sonny Boy Williamson (Glendora, Ms.), Bessie Smith (Chattanooga, Tn.), Big Mama Thornton (Ariton, Al.), Muddy Waters (an unincorporated rural patch just south of Vicksburg), Kitty Wells (Nashville), Charley Pride (Sledge, Ms.) … and many more than I have space to name. Not one of those points is more than 400 miles from any other.

Mississippi’s license plate slogan might well be: You’re Welcome.

In Johnny Cash’s day, guitars were handed down like family Bibles and the songs that eventually sprung from the men and women picking those guitars were children of the tight webs of culture and family that characterize the South. Cash grew up poor and never lost his workingman’s sensibility. He sang songs about the lower-crust: the thwarted factory worker, the soldier home from war with crushed limbs and broken spirit, the Native American stripped of his land and his pride, the highway patrolman who chases his law-breaking brother to the state line and is relieved the law compels him to turn back (“nothin’ feels better than blood on blood”). He wrote and sang earthy songs about desire, betrayal, rejection, rage, sex and obsession. And he wrote about faith – about the possibilities of both salvation and God’s wrath. He wrote patriotic songs, too, but I doubt very much that he would find common cause with today’s flag-waving yahoos.

The Johnny Cash Museum offered a linear tour of The Man in Black’s life: dirt-poor kid embraced in a big loving family; soldier who joined the service to escape poverty; discovery of a gift, itinerant performer, chance meeting with the Sun Records’ Sam Phillips and the Million Dollar Quintet – Cash, Presley, Perkins, Lewis … and amphetamines; country and western and then pop chart-topper; out-of-control-speed-ballin’, bird-flippin’ rebel; Folsom Prison Angel; collaborator and genre-crosser with kindred spirit Bob Dylan; movie star; television host; on-and-off crusader for Christ.

Somehow it all led to Cash becoming the embodiment of what many believe makes an essential American. A life-long Johnny Cash admirer, I didn’t take much convincing of that perspective but if I did his museum would’ve done the trick.

The last exhibit on the way out of the museum was a video that accompanied his 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” produced as the singer’s life wound down. Cash, hands palsied, skin mottled, lustrous dark hair of his prime thinned and faded white, voice cracking, sits at his piano, a rotting banquet spread across its top, and sings of remonstrance, regret and mortality (“I wear this crown of thorns/Upon my liars chair/Full of broken thoughts/I cannot repair”) while June Carter Cash looks down upon him sadly, wistfully, from their home’s staircase. The expression on her face is the realization that decay and death doth come to us all, even legends. That video raised goosebumps. As I stepped out onto Nashville’s Broadway, I felt as though I had just had an encounter with the Old Testament.

Further down the fabulous Natchez Trace Parkway, I sidetracked into Tupelo, Ms., to visit the boyhood home of Elvis Presley (a museum dedicated to him has preserved his home and even the outhouse where The King, then a mere lad, took many a dump). I’d envisioned walking down the main drag of the “Historic Downtown” and finding sites where Elvis played or prayed or drank or went to school, but Tupelo is pretty much a dusty nothingness with a few shops and, at 1 in the afternoon, not one open restaurant. I didn’t bother going inside the museum; my walk around town told me all I needed to know about what inspired Elvis: Tupelo looked like the ideal town to get away from as soon as possible.

As I tracked across Mississippi, I listened to the “Singing News” gospel channel, WFCA, a blend of happy banter, implortations to come to Christ, damnation of Democrats, cornbread recipes and old and contemporary Christian music. The plaintive female voice behind one song described being mere clay in the potter’s hands as she faced the fire of life’s trials. Her song had surely been forged in the kiln of tortured metaphor.

That tune was punctuated by the announcer’s thought for the day: “You’ll never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.” Well, you can’t legally buy pot in Mississippi or I might have pulled over right then and there and bought a joint and sat to con-tem-plate.

A topical song called “You Asked Him To Leave”– lamenting the striking down of mandatory public school prayers — cursed Madelyn Murray O’Hair, and asserted that school shootings are biblical chickens come home to roost. Apparently, it is not the presence of guns that causes school shootings, but the absence of prayer. “God wasn’t allowed in your school today, but you wanted it that way … didn’t you?” the tuneful interlocutor accusingly asks a hypothetical survivor of a devastating school shooting (maybe just a tad too soon?). Another song extolled the virtues of adoption: “A couple tried to have a baby of their own, but God knew better … he knew a little girl who didn’t have a home.”

Put me in mind of Steve Miller’s legendary Texas/Facts-Is stretch.

I listened to WFCA for hours, but I didn’t listen to mock it. The religious songs that didn’t lay it on too thick were pretty, and they featured skilled musicianship. And when they played a classic like “The Old Rugged Cross” – well, even an atheist can get behind that one as a part of our shared musical DNA. I have a young friend who was raised in a very traditional bible-oriented tradition. He’s not so sure about the faith part now, but he grew up singing praise songs, and his family’s life revolved around the community of the church. It doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. In fact, it seems to have done him a lot of good. He’s a fabulous musician and sings like a bird; he discovered those gifts singing in his church.

People here take their faith seriously; it shapes them. And it’s shaped a good portion of America’s best music – Aretha Franklin, laid to rest last week, was a preacher’s daughter who sang of the glories of Jesus. It’s the people – North and South – who wield crosses as cudgels that turn me off. There wasn’t much of that on WFCA 108, but there was a familiar mashup of God and Mammon that prophesied a Biblical path to financial freedom. Smooth-talking pitchmen proffered schemes to leverage faith into fortune, or at least an end to the satanic abyss of credit card debt. The incessantly-advertised “God’s Seven Secrets to Financial Success,” which warned that financial institutions have paved the road to perdition, posited that while we have a friend in Jesus, we do not have a friend at the bank.

As I approached the Mississippi River, I began to toggle back and forth between WFCA and Mississippi Public Radio (yes, there really is such a thing). The big story on both stations was the New York Times op-ed that explained how senior administration officials were thwarting the president to protect the country from his amoral madness. On public radio, the voices were straight-laced, but you could positively hear the NPR commentators’ smirks as they predicted (for the thousandth time since January, 2017) the imminent demise of the Destroyer of Worlds. On WFCA, the infamous op-ed was proof of a bureaucratic conspiracy aimed at derailing Put-upon Potus’s crusade to punish Mexico for having the nerve to be closer to the Equator than us … or something.

Along I drove, caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue State.

Elitist-yet-somehow-all-inclusive Northern urban liberals can be a little too snotty for my taste sometimes. Right on par with blustering Southern Bible-thumpers. We all have more in common with our countrymen than we know. Whether drawling a demand that one accept Christ or preaching the urgency of becoming “woke,” the true believer has an answer for everything, a writ of certainty of the sort even Christ dared not venture. In modern times, neither the left nor the right can rightly be labeled the one true friend of freedom. Nor it’s one true enemy. The true enemy of free souls is orthodoxy. Which seems to be our leading industry these days.

I’m all for a tariff on that.

Ah, but that is all of the earth. Music is above it. As I drove north through the Arkansas delta I could positively feel that sonic stew Levon Helm described with such eloquence.

What’s it called then?

Rock and Roll.

Amen Brother Levon.

Can I get a witness?

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