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.