Monday, May 13, 2013

Shanghai - The Return

I am back in China!  It was a long, arduous flight involving two layovers (New Orleans-Miami-London-Shanghai), two delays, twenty-five drunk French teenagers, a fat/drunk British wino, a full flight, and a middle seat.  However, I am here now and have been here for three days, though the amount of things that have happened in that time make it seem much longer.

On Saturday, the day after I arrived, there was a protest outside of our apartment complex.  A man was out front setting off fireworks for over an hour.  People were yelling (not chanting) and the police came.  It was very different than American protests, conflicts, and police interactions.  I, of course, had no clue why this was happening or even what was happening.  I actually didn't think much of it because I couldn't see what was happening, and people are always setting off fireworks randomly in New Orleans.  One of my Chinese classmates shed some light on the situation for us non-Mandarin speakers-- the owner of the apartment building also owns a local driving range where one of his workers committed suicide last month.  The family feels that they are owed additional restitution payments.  This was their way of putting pressure on the company.  For China,  it's not an uncommon way to behave in this type of situation.  While this company does have insurance, the insurance industry here is not nearly as developed as it is in the U.S. so I don't know that they're going to get much beyond what they've already gotten, especially considering he committed suicide and was not killed due to the job.

The protest




Hello, London

Hello, China

I am here for graduate school, getting an international MBA through Boston University.  This is a one-year program.  I will be in China until mid-August, then we go back to Boston for the remaining fall and spring semesters.  There are 27 of us in the program, and only 7 Americans.  The other 20 are from all over the world-- Mexico, Chile, Peru, Israel, Germany, Thailand, China, Taiwan, and India are the countries represented that I can remember off the top of my head.  My two flatmates are from Hong Kong and Thailand.  As a whole, my classmates are extremely engaging, intelligent, and focused.  It's so nice to be back in school.  I appreciate the mental stimulation and opportunities that a university provides so much more this time around. 

There are three main differences that I have noticed between 2013 and 2007, my last time in Shanghai:

1) My life is immensely easier due to technology this time around.  Smartphones were only just starting to become popular in the US, and they were rather expensive (or, at least, they still had the sticker shock).  I had no cell phone at all last time I was here.  This time, I have an international text and data plan on my iPhone.  I have been able to look at the map, use Google Translate to go between English and Chinese, and text my friend when I couldn't find her house.  AMAZING. 

2) People are speaking much more freely.  I don't know if it's because of the different environment I'm in or that it's actually more open, but the discourse has already touched on all sorts of topics I did not discuss with anyone 6 years ago.

3) More cars.  Moooore cars.  Still more bicycles than cars, but more cars, and bigger cars.  All American-sized sedans!  Not just any cars, either-- NICE cars.  No one drives beaters here.  So many German luxury vehicles!

4) Security.  If you bring a bag on the subway now, it is searched and X-rayed.  It was not like this before.  It appears the Chinese are taking precautionary measures against the terrorist bombings that have happened in other countries.

5) Internet censorship.  Many, many more sites are now blocked.  I can surf freely due to the Boston University VPN but without it, I can't get on Gmail, Facebook, Blogger, or YouTube... among many others.

Many things are the same, of course.  Namely...

Mysteries!  Endless mysteries!  What am I eating?  Ketchup AND vinegar AND fish AND mushroom, you say?  Delicious! 

Best lane food

Mystery fruits and vegetables!

The assistant program director set up a dinner for us at a Shanghai restaurant on Saturday night.  This was the aftermath:


The next day, we were sent to the Shanghai Museum.  Saw a lot of wonderful things.  These were the highlights for me:

Calligraphy

Buddhist sculptures

Chinese minority cultures displays

"Taiwanese boats, latter 20th century" - complete with soft ocean sounds playing in the background

Elaborate Tibetan masks

A huge amount of ancient (2000BC) bronze and jade works

Ming and Qing Dynasties furniture collections



We woke up to news of the 7th Ward Mothers' Day Second Line shooting in New Orleans today (see here).  About half of my classmates and professors knew of it already, which was a bit shocking to me.  I did not expect it to make the (inter)national news, I guess because, unfortunately, shootings in the 7th Ward are not unusual.  It really rehighlighted the differences between Chinese and American cultures for me.  I've lived in violent cities (Detroit, New Orleans) for the last six years.  You get used to being on edge and not knowing what's going to happen, exactly (or, at least, I do) and, most of all, WHO to look out for.  There is a sketchy swagger in the malicious, unstable, and/or wasted.  I knew that I would be able to lose some of that edge when I got here, and I have started to.  Shanghai is EXTREMELY safe.  Violent crime is virtually unheard of.  The tradeoff, of course, is what Americans would refer to as "freedom" and "civil liberties" and even "human rights."  I tried to imagine what would happen if NYC tried to institute bag searches on every subway rider at every stop as Shanghai now does.  The reaction would be riotous.


The requisite group photo op outside of the Shanghai Museum.  BU IMBA '13

After the museum on Sunday, I reconnected with a former coworker of mine from the Shanghai Talk days in 2007, Maggie!  She and her boyfriend were having a barbecue at their house.  They live in a super nice refurbished home in a traditional Shanghai lane.  Her boyfriend is German and she is Chinese.  The neighbors have plenty to talk about with the stream of foreigners that come to their home/office.

Mahjongg players outside Maggie's house

Maggie took me to the fish market near their home.  Some of the vendors were amused to see me there.  Fish heads in photo.

Best dog Lola, 3-year old BBQ guest Jake, and Maggie


We took Lola to the fish market with us and I learned something new about China-- a LOT of people are afraid of dogs.  In the few short blocks we walked, people, old people especially, jumped a mile and a half when this gentle golden retriever came around the corner!  It is extremely unusual to see such a large dog in China.  The Chinese people just do NOT like them at all.  Maggie and her other friend told many stories about being cussed out for having such a big, 'scary' dog.  An old woman went to the friend's dog and began kicking it and screaming at it just for sitting on the sidewalk.  Even if the people did not jump in fright as we passed them, many still took a wide berth and maintained a weary expression.  

Today after class, I braved the Carrefour near our apartments for the first time.  The grocery store truly offers mystery after mystery.  I recognize approximately 25% of the products.  The layout is totally different than American stores.  It seems like the food companies employ people to stand in the store and push you towards their products.  This was super annoying even though I had no idea what they were saying.  They were particularly aggressive when I hit the greens (romaine, arugula) and the olive oil.  On top of that, the Carrefour is also overstaffed.  SO MANY PEOPLE STOCKING!  I was practically tripping over them.  However... many people means a need for many jobs.  Shanghai's population is now 23 million.  This store had a foreign foods section, so I was able to find both black olives AND cheese, two things I thought I would be doing without for the next 3 months.  And these freakishly large items in the produce section:

WHAT.  Biggest carrots EVER.

WHAT?!  CUCUMBERS BIGGER THAN WATERMELONS!

Shanghai's title of BEST UMBRELLAS IN THE WORLD lives, mainly because the women like to stay pale and walk around with cute umbrellas all year, rain or shine.  My new love ($6.50):


Monday, January 31, 2011

Hiatus

Applying for grants from the warmth of New Orleans. Aiming to get back out later this year.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Blanchard

On Monday, November 1, I attended the jam session at the Blanchard Town Hall in Blanchard, Louisiana. Blanchard is a small village just outside of Shreveport. It has one stoplight and is the type of place where, if you blink going through, you've missed it. I have blinked through many of these towns, not knowing exactly where I am going, but am happy I was invited into this one.

Mr. Wordy told me about the country jam session that happens at the town hall each and every Monday night at 6pm ("except the week of Christmas," more than one attendee warned me). Other jams run in the surrounding rural areas different nights of the week; the one the next night was at a small pizza place just north of the city. I was told by multiple people that it's possible to go to one every single night of the week. I walked in a bit late, partly due to my internal live music-viewing clock being perpetually set to "rock musician time," and partly due to not seeing town hall on my first drive-by. The sign's not very big. It was a mistake to have not gotten there early; I should have been more astute with my observation of the local culture in that way.

When I did arrive at around 6:30, it was as though I had walked into a dream. The room was at the night's apex, positively packed with at least fifty people, all elderly, singing "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes" together. The wholesomeness was overwhelming. A large circle of folding chairs contained about twenty musicians strumming away on various instruments (guitars, mostly, also upright bass, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle). Additional folding chairs were set up on the perimeter of the room, and the players entertained a healthy audience of elderly couples, widows, and widowers who also sang. I am amazed at how frequently the groups meet to play, with slightly different casts in each location. It is very exciting to me, as it indicates there is a real wealth of musical tradition in northern Louisiana that has not been much touched by archivists in the way that Mississippi has been mined.

When the song was over, some eyes went straight to me, standing out again as a stranger in a place where everyone knows each other. This time, my most obvious demarcation was not my race but my age. I was the youngest in attendance by at least thirty years. The woman I sat down next to engaged me in conversation, and after that the women in front of me turned around and engaged me in conversation, and after that, the man sitting behind me came up and introduced himself. "A Yankee!?" he quickly and good-naturedly exclaimed as soon as I opened my mouth. Each one proudly shared that the fiddler sitting directly across the room (one of the older men in the room) was the former house fiddler for the Louisiana Hayride. His aging form held the fiddle about mid-chest level, and he still played extremely well. His presence piqued my interest a great deal due to my cyclical obsession with Hank Williams. The Hayride is where Hank really broke out as a musician, and what I consider to be many of his best recordings happened during his Shreveport years.

I waved to Mr. Wordy, my friend from the Primitive Baptist church, who was playing guitar. He seemed very happy to see me and took me to the kitchen to try to load me up on the potluck of desserts and coffee. We shared our mutual happiness at seeing each other again, and then he tried to give me money. "Everyone at the church just wanted to collect a little something to help you with your project; to help you on your way," he said. I was really touched by this, hardly believing that they had done such a thing after I left the post-service luncheon the day before. Such kindness extended by virtual strangers after weeks of stress and uncertainty. I refused, of course, insisting that there was surely a needier cause than me that the money could go to.

I met his occasional dinner companion, Martha, and we returned to the main room together. I put the recorder down amongst the musicians and away from myself, it having been made clear that I was going to be doing a lot of chatting. The ladies started back up with me. We covered all the usual South bases, including my marital status. "Good!" the woman on the right exclaimed upon hearing that I'm single. For me, the most interesting part of the conversation came when one woman shared that she had gone on a date with Hank Williams in 1949.

"Well, I didn't know that!" said the other ladies.

"He was a wild one!" she said. I laughed. The other women did not.

"He was between wives then," she continued. "Or at least, I'm pretty sure he was! Maybe it was just a separation, I'm not really sure. I thought he was divorced. I had gone to the Hayride one night; I was just a young girl then, and he came down after he played and asked me to come out with him so I said 'yes.' I had been looking at him up on stage all night! He picked me up at home in his car and was drunk. He was really drunk and driving like a crazy man. I went with him, anyway, but after awhile I said, 'Hank, my mother wants me to come home!'

Left: Hank's date
Right: "Good!"

"He married a Shreveport girl not too long after that. Billie Jean." The other women all nodded and made agreeable noises.

"I heard she was real wild, too!" I said, though I was quite sure our definitions of wild were different. What with that shocking red hair and all, how could she not be? This statement did not go over well and I worried that one of the women knew her, or that she was perhaps even in the room right then. Clearly, none of them were gossipers.

They glossed my faux pas over politely, instilling me with an adequate amount of shame, and then said, "Well, you know, she still lives right here in Shreveport." This was said with some pride.

While we spoke, the songs were continuing. I wish I could have been listening a bit more closely, but it would have been rude not to engage with everyone when they were so eager to talk to me. I am looking forward to going back through the recording to see if I got anything of quality from this night. I fear I missed the best of it by arriving half an hour late. The main issue later in the night, as people slowly trickled out, was that the song selection got slightly more obscure after the favorites were covered early, and fewer people knew the words. This sometimes resulted in the song selector singing onward strongly while others floundered through verses with the genre-defying "I-don't-know-the-lyrics" refrain of "la la la la da da da mmph hmmph haaaa aaaaah" then coming back in on the chorus. We'll see.

As the night wound down, Mr. Wordy got up and indicated to Martha that he was ready to leave. "Sitting in the chair like that for too long hurts his back," she explained to me. I spoke to him before they left, confirming my visit to his home at 11:30 the next morning before I left for New Orleans. Originally, I was going to come over at 10 but then he remembered he had promised to take Martha to go vote in the morning so we pushed it back. The women I chatted with for most of the night invited me to come to McDonald's with them for their weekly ice cream.

Mr. Wordy and I really had a nice time at his house on Tuesday. He sat and played a few songs for me, the strongest being the ones he knew from memory instead of those he may have been trying to impress me with by playing out of the book. I tried to steer him to his memory but he seemed to prefer the book. He would be an interesting person to write a profile on, and part of the reason there has been such a long time between posts is I couldn't decide in my mind this week if I wanted to write a profile on him or a more general summary of my experiences at the town hall. I may still do so at a later date and transcribe some of the recording. He had 12 siblings and grew up on a large farm. He still lives on the property where he grew up, though the house is now in a different location after his childhood home was decimated by a falling tree when a tornado went through when he was fifteen. In that home, he said, there were two large beds when you first walked in, one on each side of the room. The kids shared these, and his parents slept in the back room. The property is smaller now, having been sold off slowly through the years. He continues to harvest a healthy garden, though. Wanting to share a treat with me, he took me for a ride on his golf cart to go to the back of the property and sample fresh persimmon off the tree.

Truly one of the kindest people I have ever met

It is difficult to describe the sense of caring and faith the people of rural Shreveport afforded me. There was no suspicion, and a great deal of support and interest in what I am doing. But not in an academic, pretentious way, or self-serving/proud way-- this is the most welcoming group of people I have ever encountered. They were all remarkably friendly and not a single one displayed any shred of a false pretense. I was originally going to write "happiest," but that's not really correct. As a whole, they had clearly endured their share of hardships. Many spoke of deceased spouses, wayward children, and siblings who died in childhood. The difference, to me, really seems to be their faith, and their focus on what really matters in life-- connections with family, friends, and community. Through it all, they maintain their religion and look to it as a constant in what, at times, is a world of sorrow. The camaraderie and steadiness of life their faith affords them makes me kind of jealous. It's just not a world I am privy to, nor really understand. That's not to say there are not drawbacks, because there certainly are, but entering into that world briefly made me consider the lifestyle in a way I never really had before.

I am in New Orleans now, a stark contrast to my days in Shreveport. The bars here are open 24 hours a day and drinking on the streets is legal and common. Much more on New Orleans soon.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Yazoo City and the Primitive Baptists of Shreveport, Louisiana

I arrived in Shreveport, Louisiana last night after a meandering drive through Yazoo City and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Yazoo City is a rough town trying to reclaim its small Main Street charm. Two blocks of Main Street yielded a drug store, an insurance agency, a general practitioner's office, a furniture store, a newly opened cafe (though closed on Saturday afternoon), three brightly painted loft entrances in a row, and at least ten abandoned storefronts. Speakers pipe happy, old-fashioned music that gives the whole street an Edward Scissorhands-like feel despite the closures.

video
Can you hear the music?

Walking more than a block off Main Street yielded a much different vibe. No fewer than three men hissed and beckoned for me to get into their cars as I wandered between three gas stations in search of pretzel M & M's. "Hey, girl," they said in low, threatening tones designed to be heard only by me. "C'mere." It was always a demand, never a playful flirt. I hightailed it back to my car and out of town after that fine display from Yazoo City's male species. The town's roughness is physically conspicuous, as well-- broken windows and tired buildings line the non-rehabbed blocks of Main Street, some of which may be a result of a tornado that ripped through last spring. As with all others towns I've been to on this trip, the little money that is there mostly flows through the chain stores and restaurants that were plopped along the highway.

Unrehabbed Main St.; Yazoo City

This Halloween morning, I attended church with the Primitive Baptists of the Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in the countryside of Shreveport, Louisiana. The church is small, and the building they use today was erected in 1847. I woke up at 8am to drive there, not sure what time the service was but definitely not wanting to miss it. Most services this far south are at 10:30 or 11am; this one was at 10:30. In Tennessee, they were typically at 9:30.


Since I know many of my friends are as irreligious as I am, I will steal this bit from Wikipedia and put it here: "The word 'Primitive' does not mean 'backward' but, in the context of this division among Baptists, it means 'original.' These churches attempt to retain or restore what is seen as primitive (or original) patterns of Christianity, such as baptism by immersion, family integrated worship, a cappella singing, close (but not closed) communion, and feet washing."

In other words, their services have not changed much in the last 200 years. This lack of evolution is aided by the fact that it is a dying religion in many parts of the country. At this church, there were ten parishioners (excluding myself) today and one minister. The pastor was 94 years old and the oldest parishioner haltingly told me he will be celebrating his 98th birthday soon. I asked him what the best year of his life has been, and he said "Twenty-one." Conveniently, this is also the age he was in a photo of the parishioners outside the church from decades ago that hangs on the wall in the church kitchen. The rest of the crowd featured five people in their mid-to-late-60s, two in their late 70s, and two in their late 80s (approximations for most).

Baptism by immersion - I would love to record one of these!

I got a chance to talk with Elder Wordy (real name Marty Kent) at significant length before church started because I had gotten there so early. When he arrived to open the church, I got out of my car and we introduced ourselves to each other. He had a bit of a hard time understanding me due to his age (late 80s) and my accent. Without fail, he called me ma'am, said yes'm often, and interjected "ma'am" instead of saying "What?" or "Excuse me?" when he didn't hear me fully. I'm not sure where the origins of his "Elder Wordy" moniker come from, but I have a hunch it might be from his excellent conversational skills. We rarely lacked a thing to talk about in our hour alone. He frequently mentioned the loneliness that has invaded his life after the death of his wife of fifty-nine years six years ago (she is buried in the small cemetery behind the church, along with nine of his twelve siblings), and hinted to his guilt that stems from occasionally going out to dinner with a local widow, a fellow church member. I found out that he attends a folk music session that occurs every Monday night at the Blanchard Town Hall and plays mandolin and banjo for folk and gospel songs. He also leads the singing that occurs at the start of every service. I hope to record him on his own, but still need to think of a polite way to invite myself to his house to do so.

Which leads me to the best part of the week... their numbers were few and the voices were, in many cases, waving, but the hymns they opened the ceremony with were FANTASTIC. It was nearly everything I had dreamed. They sang many traditional songs, and a few others I did not know. After everyone got their chance to choose a song, the pastor began his sermon. At his age, he may have expended the majority of his energy for the day on this spirited sermon. It began quietly and a little hard to understand, but he got quite passionate about it and engaged in the heavy breathing style associated with the Baptists. Much of his sermon was related to a generic promise that God will take care of His own. One example that was particularly noted by me is when he referred to the time he fell off a horse when he was young and "I was laying there when a nigger walked over to me and said, 'I thought you was going to be dead the way your head hit that ground!'" ... Yes, this is on the recording.

Taking secret pictures in church is hard.

Later, he meandered into the evils being perpetrated in Washington over the last few years (i.e. Obama years). He stated that the current administration is denying people the right to worship God, and that our country was blessed to have the Founding Fathers with foresight to create our good Constitution, but that Washington has blatantly disregarded it for years (meaning Obama years) and might as well tear it up. There was no further evidence presented on this, though he did preface the entire rant with "I know some of you may not agree with me, BUT..."

It was really nice to be amongst a crowd who appreciated my vintage dress and shoes without a smirk or casting me a mildly jealous eye (this is not meant to disparage anyone; I get jealous of a lot of my friends' clothes!). None of them batted an eye when they saw my outfit. I didn't realize how rare that was until I was hanging out with people in their 90s! Age seemed quite ambiguous for most of the parishioners. They each chose to see me in the light that they could most relate to. Elder Wordy saw that I was young, and asked if I was recently retired. Another man, one of the people in their early 60s, told me he thought I was 18 or 19.

I will be attending another Primitive Baptist service next weekend if I can find one, in hopes that the turnout will be at least slightly larger so I can get a stronger recording.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Southern man

I've seen some cool things in Clarksdale.

Charlie Patton "Pony Blues" 78 - one of only six known in existence
Original Muddy Waters & Chuck Berry Chess 78s
Muddy Waters' log cabin
Sam Cooke's old home


Cotton blows off the plants and gathers on the sides of the roads here.


Sam Cooke's childhood home is about a mile from where I'm staying, at the corner of 7th & Illinois. I walked the long way through the countryside to get there, then cut back in through the neighborhood. It's rife with churches back there. Baptist, mostly. Got a lot of looks while I was walking; a lot of pickup trucks stop. Men sitting three deep in the front of the truck, each asking me how was I doing and if I want to kick it with them. When I first entered the neighborhood, I passed an elderly woman slowly walking down the street with a cane. Had another conversation with a nice verging-on-elderly man who raced off his porch to greet me as I walked by, wanting to know if I had just moved into the neighborhood. He was dressed in a wonderfully dapper suit, was drinking juice and listening to a local R & B station on the radio. We had an engaging conversation which ended with me telling him I was going to New Orleans and him saying that I better be careful down there and do I believe in Jesus? Because there's a lot of black magic down in New Orleans and if I just keep my heart set with Jesus, I will be fine.

I don't know what this area is called, but every time I go into one of the shops downtown and chat up a clerk, or to one of the numerous art galleries here and meet the owner, they all say, "Well, I don't go to that part of town," and seem very interested in how my motel stay is going.

I went to the "Ground Zero" blues club last night; one of three main venues in town. I feel very popular at the clubs because the men here are like vultures. As soon as I walked in, the doorman informed me that I didn't have to pay the cover charge, and that he would be buying my drinks. He bought me 3 and gave me one for the road in a Styrofoam cup with a top and a straw. Mississippi is casual like that, apparently. Especially since, as he explained to me, he is well known around these parts by the police and everyone in town as an upstanding citizen and that we won't be bothered by them if we were to take a ride to the after hours club together. I really wanted to do this because the place he was proposing to go is one of the very last true juke joints in the state and only open on Thursdays. However, it's tucked well into the farm country 35 minutes away. Considering all factors put me on the fence, though. I made a concession to my dad and didn't go. This is one of those times it would have been much more convenient to have someone with me.

Abraham was very open and wanted to impress me. He told me how he's been at Ground Zero since day one, and how well co-owners Mr. Freeman (actor Morgan Freeman) and Mr. Luckett (local politician) have treated him.

After Abraham bought my first drink, another man came up and asked me to dance. After declining on the basis of having not worn my dancing shoes, I met a bunch of the local art dealers and musicians. Three people recognized me from my brief stint at the show I went to on Tuesday. One does not stay a stranger long in Clarksdale.

The fellow I talked to the longest last night, besides the door man, owns a gallery on Delta Avenue, right downtown. He grew up on a farm near Clarksdale, then went to Ole Miss and abroad to teach English and art in Asia and is now back. After I told him about my project, he told me to come by and listen to an album he has of female inmates at Parchman (which is only 40 minutes away). I went today and fell straight in love with the record. I didn't realize until I heard it and read some of the liner notes that the Mattie May Thomas recordings off of American Primitive were from Parchman. It's a really amazing record and he made my week by giving it to me. Most of the recordings were done in the sewing room of the prison.

Mississippi is fruitful in that I've made a lot of contacts for booking and publicity, but unfruitful in terms of my real reason for being here. The people I am looking for are nonexistent, extremely spread out, extremely old, and extremely suspicious. There is a very hearty blues community in Clarksdale, and they claim to play "hill style" blues (as opposed to old style, meaning slide), gesturing to the surrounding countryside as they explain, but it is all electric and all full bands. I've found one youngish person who I am very interested in but he's on tour. It is clear to me that the elderly blues players are not going to be immediately taken with my particular brand of muted enthusiastic chirping. Trust issues run deep, and while the most visible folks in the blues community here (shop owners) may respect what I am doing and say as much, they are apparently unwilling to stick their necks out for me even a little bit. My confidence is going down with each occurrence of this and I become less insistent and less creative at finding ways to push my agenda. Bad.

I notice I am the only young woman at the clubs. I think my age is causing confusion for some of the people I'm talking to.

I found out the Riverside Hotel, which I talked about in the last post, is also where Ike Turner wrote "Rocket 88." I drove by it again today and, now being more familiar with the layout of the town, noticed it is right in the heart of the black neighborhood downtown. Each of these little towns in Mississippi have railroad tracks running straight through them and the "wrong side of the tracks" remains a relevant adage in most places. My walks make it very clear where the blacks live and where the whites live.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Clarksdale

I love Clarksdale.

The population as of 2000 was only about 20,000 people, but this is definitely a place I could see myself living for a little while. I do not understand it here, and I want to. Clarksdale is straight in the heart of the poorest of poor Mississippi. The most visible source of economic viability in Clarksdale is its blues history. The towns all around here are much smaller than this; I drove through some towns with signs that said things like "Pop. 623" to get here.

There is still some real fallout still going on here from the days of segregation, and a very noticeable divide in the behavior between generations. The young are like the young everywhere-- oversized clothing and endless hiphop blasting. The elderly are much different; much more reserved, with a distinct air of cautiousness.

Clarksdale has a strange sort of vibe, something is a bit off-kilter or creepy about it as a whole. It's hard to describe. The people are generally quite pleasant. I walked into a corner store today and three elderly black men were sitting amongst the remnants of their lunch. They all three immediately nodded their heads and greeted me. I heard one of them say to the others, quietly, "Now there's just what I needed to see!" The two chuckled in response. I guess my dress is shorter than they're used to around here.

Three times now I've been waiting in line behind a mother with a young black child (talking young, like six or under) and the kid gazes at me without smiling even after I wave or smile at him or her. His mom will finish her business at the counter and they walk away, and I see the child scurrying to catch up, pulling on his mom's hand and pointing at me with wide eyes.

I don't know what this means. What is remarkable about me? White? Dark hair? Different type of dress? (I have never felt like much of a sophisticated dresser, but I feel like a real city slicker here, even with wearing clothes that have been rumpled in the suitcase for a month).

But it does personify what is strange about this part of Mississippi. WHAT IS WITH THE LOOKS? There are so many very polite people, but they stare for soooo long. It makes me feel everyone is very suspicious.




I'm staying at a motel that's less than a block from the storied 61/49 crossroad. Though I did want to see this, just to say I have, staying so close to it was entirely circumstantial, as this happens to also be the cheapest motel in town. Good for me, unless the devil happens to frequent this area. Which it kind of feels he does. It probably sounds hokey but this really is a strange town. The motel, like the one I stayed in last night and the night before, is run by a married Indian immigrant couple. The office smells heavily of curry and I have the impression these couples work solely for the benefit of their children; to send their children to college so they can create a better life. I walked out of my room twice tonight to get something from the car, and both times I caught the woman exercising in the emptiness of the U-shaped building, pacing and raising her hands up and down with each step. I couldn't figure out what she was doing until I saw it was the owner's wife, but it made me nervous because she was looking so crazy.



I think I have alluded to this in a previous post, but poor country is a different thing than poor city. In the city, even in Detroit, there's almost always someone around, and behavior is more predictable. The chronic alcoholic asleep on the curb with his ribs and hipbones defining his entire silhouette and the neighborhood crackhead with his bright pink eyes tend to be predictably unpredictable in the city (at least during the day). The country has a similarly desperate tinge about it, but with less of a sense of how the truly down and out are going to behave. Though I guess the thing that really gets my heart rate up in both locales is the same-- the solitary figure slowly roving down a dark street. There is a man who thinks he has nothing to fear. The neighborhood streets are much darker here; most do not have street lights. I keep to myself as much as possible while away from the safety of shows and stores, and try to make it seem as though a man is with me. Motels are prime picking for evil minds. I've heard them talking in the parking lots at night.



In other news, I went to the Delta Blues Museum this morning, and happened to drive by the Riverside Hotel, the place where Bessie Smith died after having her arm torn off on Highway 61. It's a small, tired looking building that doesn't seem to have changed much in the subsequent decades, aside from raising their rates to $10 more a night than every other motel in the area. The museum was really fantastic and had a lot of cool artifacts, including a very nice exhibit on Muddy Waters, the highlight of which was the actual log cabin he resided in when Alan Lomax paid him a visit. They also had one of the six known copies of Charlie Patton's "Pony Blues" on display. Maybe the most valuable thing I've seen in person. Certainly the most valuable record I've been near.

I also caught a show at an art gallery tonight. I felt lucky finding a show on a Tuesday but it didn't turn out to be much of anything. I met a woman from Baltimore who travels with her husband all over the US to attend blues festivals. We had a ten-minute conversation in which she told me her in-depth theory as to how popular music is leading to the downfall of American civilization. A blues fan who's way too serious about music-- what a shocker.

She did tell me, though, of the festivals they hold in the area every so often which bring all the old, old, old folks down from the surrounding hills and into town to play. What is this secret network and how do I find them... This is the other half of the reason I think I would really like living here. I want to meet these people, and I don't think I can actually get the type of recording I'm looking for without really knowing them first. And that is going to take more than a week because they are hard to find, they are spread out all over the region, and it takes more time than it does up north to build trust.

I need funding.

The woman I met tonight warned me of the time she hugged an old black bluesman because she was so happy to meet him, and how quickly he stiffened up, not knowing how to react, as though I would do the same. Foolish... You can't do that to a man who lived through Jim Crow. She was nice enough, but geez.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Now, I'm not a racist, but..."

Como, Mississippi is a small town about 45 miles south of Memphis. Main Street consists of the United States Post Office, City Hall, the library, two restaurants, two Baptist churches (one for blacks and one for whites), an abundance of parking spaces, and a recording studio. Como is on my radar due to it being the hometown of Fred McDowell, commonly known as "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, but known around here as "Shake 'Em," owing to his most popular song in the region. McDowell died in 1972 but Como is now a marked site on the Delta "blues trail" due to his accomplishments. The townspeople of Como seem generally uninterested in their main claim to fame. As with everywhere else in the US, rap is definitely the preferred music style amongst black people under the age of 50.

On Friday, I finally left the boarding house in Memphis to head into Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock was to be my sanity break. I was committed to spending a week in Memphis, birthplace of rock'n'roll, after having paid the weekly boarding house fee. Knowing the history of music in Memphis, I thought I would be able to find a few old timers to record, or a youngster with an appreciation for older styles and traditional tunes. Unfortunately, blues in Memphis leans very heavily on bass, electric guitar, and a few tired chord progressions. Out of the 100+ bands I glimpsed on Beale Street, I didn't see a single musician displaying anything that would sound special outside the confines of the band. Together, they were fine. Separate, they would have been soulless and monotonous. I'm not claiming to have exhaustively searched Memphis, but I did what I could in a week.

When I left Memphis, I was unsure as to whether I was going to head straight down into the Delta, or go to Little Rock where the Entrance Band was playing. I decided to give myself a break and go to Little Rock to see some vaguely familiar faces after dealing with that damn crackhead all week. I know the folks in that band, but not that well. I figured they might also be happy to see a vaguely familiar face in the middle of Arkansas. I think it was the correct decision to go because we all had some nice chats, I briefly reengaged myself with a genre other than straight roots, and I met a very nice woman at the bar next to the venue who let me sleep on her couch and made me an omelette with fresh basil and string cheese the next morning. It was delicious.

I have gotten quite a few quality recordings on this trip, but being in the midst of it and not being sure where I'm going to sleep tonight, or tomorrow night, is creating a significant amount of stress for me. I am trying to roll with the punches as much as possible but it's hard to impose on people. Finding sleeping quarters is becoming increasingly difficult the farther south that I get. Last night, I met with the fellows who run the recording studio on Main Street to see if they have any recommendations for locals I should record. They were playing a gig at the restaurant four doors down, so I followed them down there and met all their wives. EVERYONE down here is married, and married young. The men were less than forthcoming with their recommendations and thinly veiled their suspicions about my motives. The women were much more forthcoming and friendly, but significantly worried about how I am going about this project (alone, female). Their concern is disconcerting to me, and I am still trying to place how much of it is valid and how much of it is racism. And, while friendly, I have also caught many of them giving me short, suspicious glances as though as a single woman in her mid-20s, I am surely there to sleep with someone.

I had a nice conversation with a local songwriter last night while we were at the restaurant show. In the middle of it, perhaps four or five drinks deep, after I had told him of my experiences in North Memphis he said, "Now, I'm not a racist." I braced myself.

"But as far as I'm concerned," he said. "Niggers is niggers and white trash is white trash. Just some uneducated people, you know how they go. I don't care what color they are, it's just the type of person. You need another drink?"

He bought me three drinks last night. One nice thing about southern men is they're much more forthcoming with the free drinks. I've had more bought for me in the last week than I have in three years in Detroit.

He was very interested in my project and invited me to stay in their living room last night. So, I did, I think much to the chagrin of his wife. When we got home, they fed me takeout from the bar. "How do you know we're not going to murder you in your sleep?" she drunkenly asked me in their kitchen after prancing around for a bit.

I REALLY hope to catch up with the number one recommended guitarist tomorrow. I tried to catch him today, but he and his wife were not home either time I went to their house. He is 87. I asked bass player and the singer's wife last night if Fat Possum has already snatched up all the area talent and they both immediately said, "Oh, no. Goodness, no, not at all. There's a lot of good folks unrecorded." That was great news for me, but now it is a matter of finding them and actually getting them to sit for me. I feel that I am close but I will be very disappointed if I leave the region without much to show for it afterward. Time is strange on this trip because the immediate circumstances are often up in the air (where am I staying? where can I shower? what should I do with this interim 5-hour period?) but the days are flying by when I look at the calendar, see it's October 24th and I have not yet recorded any Mississippians. I'm planning to hit New Orleans in the first week of November. It seems simultaneously too near to and quite far from now.

Heading to a couchsurf in Oxford (home of Ole Miss) tomorrow. 45 minutes away in cotton country is not too far. I've been taking the back roads as much as possible since interstates all look the same, generally, and I want to see this part of the country as the people who live here tend to.

In all my travels throughout Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, I've noticed that the towns are generally really down and out economically. There are empty storefronts EVERYWHERE-- cities, towns, and villages. America's changed from how it was decades ago and there doesn't seem to be any economic reasons for a return to the independent business model. For the most part, the only businesses actually staying in business are the chains near the interstates. Mississippi is rife with Family Dollars, Dollar Generals, and Citgos. Tennessee was sprinkled with BPs (at least half the gas stations there seemed to be BP), Walgreens and Church's Chickens.