Notes from the Field

Community leaders, institutions, and even entire communities can inspire us to do great work ourselves. They can serve as role models, spark new ideas in us, or provide us with a place to place our energy. There are a great deal of community members and places left unsung or only recognized by a narrow population and while we can never show all of the people that deeply affect and serve their communities, we hope to shine a light on and share the stories of some of those people and places and what they mean to their community.

Up Musics River

November 7, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley

Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. Most people have read Huckleberry Finn in high school, or at least they were supposed to. Still, everyone knows that in a country of wild and wonderful rivers, the Mississippi is the uncontested king. Though the Missouri is technically longer, it is just a tributary to the wide and mercurial Emperor Mississippi. Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. That's what makes it so unfathomable.

The Mississippi divides our country in two, at least as far as radio stations go and what other metric is as important? It is a line, a demarcator and demarcation both, between the East and West. It is the earliest national boundary that we had. There was a time when from coast to coast meant from the Atlantic to the banks of the Mississippi.

It is a large river in itself, but positively massive when you judge it by its watershed. While not the largest river basin in the world, it does cover 1,400,000 square miles. The Mississippi is a collection of rainwater from all but three of the landlocked American states and from some coastal states besides. Here is an interesting aside: If you were to overlay the land from the massive Louisiana Purchase on that watershed, it is a near perfect overlap of the western side of the river's water basin. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider that human beings both like and are like water. Both collect and pool in very similar ways and places and neither will travel up-and-overhill unless compelled by great force.

The Louisiana Purchase was indeed a watershed moment in the expansion of the United States. Jefferson, fearing that Napoleon had interests in bolstering his European Empire with an American one, sent envoys to purchase just a little bit of land. Napoleon was all too happy to rid himself of all he could to fund his European conquest. Thus began (or continued) the great American twin traditional reasons for expansion: benefiting from the mass destruction of European Wars and a near paranoid concern of protecting domestic interests.

Despite their intense desire to keep foreign conflict off of American shores, the Founding Fathers failed. Firstly with the War of 1812, and secondly and more seriously with failing to deal with the original sin of America of slavery. It is worth noting that most of America's early military actions were against pirates, slaves, and natives, the very same population that was washed down the Mississippi to be deposited in the great American city of New Orleans.

The Mississippi was as equal and fair a distributor of wealth as you can find in American history. Taking minerals and culture and wealth and trash and strife, all equal particles to the dispassionate and uncaring river, from every corner of the unspoiled Arcadia and washed them into rich and arbitrary deposits. New Orleans is just one of the cities and towns that benefited from the river's capricious gifts, albeit in unequal shares.

Compare that relentless washing hand of the river to the vile and contemptible redistribution of human souls by man. The phrase "to sell one down the river" refers to this very river and to only the literal sale of human beings. The saying suggests what was an awful truth of slavery and what may prove to still be true in America today. Though it is used today as shorthand for betrayal, the subtext is that for black men and women in America, no matter how bad they have it, it could always get worse.

Going up the river from New Orleans, on the famous Highway 61, you will find yourself in a slowly shrinking town called Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez, in its earliest form, was a French Settlement and was once the capital of Mississippi, but now appears to be a necropolis of an ancient and barbarous people. Those that live there now seem only distantly related to them. The city of less than 16,000 people, is primarily known for its many tourable plantation houses. The chief symbol of this city of Mausoleums is the unfinished Longwood.

Known as "Nut's Folly", after its owner Haller Nut, this massive octagonal piece of Orientalism is an empty promise. Only the basement was finished, when work stopped in the significant year of 1861 due to the complications of the country no longer being one single country anymore. You can still walk around it today and see the unfinished upper floors. You may also tour the euphemistically named "servants quarters", a large brick building that seems smaller when you find out it housed 32 slaves. The whole complex seems uncomfortably small at that point. Such is the particular legacy of how those particular people chose to to spend their gifts from the river. The hermit crab-like descendants still scuttle about in the shells of the former estates and seem to live in real admiration of their beauty, while admitting to the horrors that made them possible, as one might marvel at the pyramids of Egypt. Though to what extent the shock at such horrors are feigned is certainly up for debate.

Moving a bit north up Highway 61, and quite a few years past 1861, near the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, you will find the Delta Blues Museum housed in an old railroad depot. Outside of the museum, there is a town that seems tailor made to host a Blues museum. Like many American towns, Clarksdale, MS resembles a slowly dying fire, diminishing in intensity and size, but not yet burned out. Though this small fire heated the crucible that was the birthplace of musicians like Sam Cooke, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Rick Ross, Nate Dogg and many others. It is a fire that, like in many American Towns, caring citizens are committed to keeping lit.

Inside the Delta Blues Museum, you can see the artifacts of the men and women who forged the Blues. Their suits, their guitars, and, in the case of Muddy Waters, their homes are lined up for inspection. Inside what used to be a railroad depot, you can stand in what used to be the main room of a rude cabin, in which the man who used to be McKinnely Morganfield grew up. When looking at the wax statue of a re-invented man in a flashy suit and big guitar becomes just a tad too artificial to stomach, you can retreat to the far wall that displays the letters of incarcerated men. Sometimes rambling, sometimes cogent, each misspelling, each sentence with unique diction tells the story of some human being or other in trouble of one kind or another. The pathos of the words pushing past the image of the gnarled knucklebones grinding to work in the heat, past the image of a shrunken boney dirty drunk howling out from behind missing teeth, to the heart of shared humanity. If we have nothing else in common, we have all felt sad. That is the Blues.

Only in a country like America can misery be liquidated, and only in the hands of the creative underclass could it be spun into gold, as has been done time and again in jokes and songs and other American arts. And yet, only in America could that gold fall disproportionately into white-gloved hands. Continuing further up river, closer to the present day, you might find yourself on Beale Street in Memphis. Though you might be forgiven for mistaking it for Bourbon Street, so long as you never say it to a local, for all the faint smells of the more impolite human bodily functions. Beale is nevertheless an historic street. It was one of only a few streets in America which businesses were owned primarily by African Americans and as such, like Bourbon, was a musical incubator.

African American musicians began performing on Beale Street as early as the 1860s but the it wasn't until the 1920s that Memphis Blues became a known style. Blues is like Barbeque; everyone swears that theirs is the best but I can't really tell the difference. And just like Barbeque, the Blues takes the worst cuts of life and makes them into something tasty and worth chewing on. It is a meeting place that brings together the rich and the poor. As the the official Beale Street website romanticizes, these spaces are the places where "Stetson hats mingled with overalls."

Though in these rare spaces, where people were not separated, neither were they equal. It is exactly these same two articles of clothing that appear in Otis Redding's "Tramp" when Carla Thomas chastises Otis for wearing "overalls" instead of "continental clothes, or Stetson Hats." The difference between Muddy Waters and McKinneley Morganfield was just as simple as the money for a new suit. Otis and Carla recorded that for Stax Records 2 miles south of Beale Street, in Memphis.

If you travel north of Beale Street by a couple blocks you might find Sun Records, the place where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Howlin' Wolf all recorded. And with them, a whole other wrinkle enters into the racial history of popular music. It was one of the birthplaces of Rock and Roll, which was called rhythm and blues when Black Artists invented it twenty years before that, and country when poor crackers tried their hand at it ten years later. Each new style and sound artificially categorized into a new group with a fashionable name, but to me it is all Rock and Roll.

It is impossible to ignore that both Stax and Sun Records were started by white men (and a woman) who got rich off of the work and culture of black men and women. Both record companies did a great deal to break down racial barriers in the music industry and in the larger culture outside of that as well. But there is no denying that popular music was then and remains inextricably tied to both race and class in this country. But Rock and Roll, or its more amorphous appellation Popular Music, is not about thinking so much as it is about feeling. And a Rock and Roll song feels like freedom even when it is about slavery. Popular Music is about hope, even when it is about suffering.

All Rock and Roll is the same Big Dumb Lie. It is a joke that gets caught in the throat jumbled up with the hacking laughter of someone still surprised by the punchline. All of Rock and Roll, albums, songs, bands, however you want to atomize it, is a flower that blooms, bears fruit, and rots in the self-same instant. Rock and Roll is a tesseract, undulating in three dimensional space, impossible and rhythmic. Like the Mississippi River, there is some sort of essential identity put on it, though it has never been the same river twice. Sure, everyone knows what the Mississippi River means. It means nothing - nothing but what you put on it. And even this, it shakes freely off fairly quickly.

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