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.


Elizabeth said...

After 4 or 5 drinks, I probably wouldn't remember what had been said; congrats on your abilities to remember drunken conversations. Also, good luck in Mississippi! I miss you.

cch said...

Oh, I was only 3 deep, though he did buy me another when I was only 1/4 of the way through the last, forcing a double fisted effort. He was at least 4-5.