Sunday, May 18, 2014
A Belated Mother’s Day Tribute
When I was a wilful child (which was most of the time), when I provoked my grandmother to the point where she lost her temper, she would grab me by the scuff of the neck (or my shirt collar) and would march me to the front porch where she would point to a worn spot in front of the big white bannisters, and she would say, “There!” (Oh, I knew the speech by heart, for I had heard it often.) “That’s where I found you! Pitiful little young’en, just barely two years old, and you was holding a little paper sack with some clean underwear in it.” Then, she would look about with feigned puzzlement, and add, “But where is your Momma? Why did she leave this young’en on my porch? Where is she?” Then, she would pretend to look for her, peering down the dusty little trail that vanished beyond the barn.
“Do you know where she is, Gar Nell? Where is your Momma?”
That was my cue, and I would chirrup “She gone to Knoxville on the Trailways bus, Momma.”
Then my grandmother would say softly, “Who are you calling ‘Momma’?”
I would dutifully reply, “You.”
“That’s right. I’m the only Momma you got. I took you when nobody wanted you, cause your real Momma left you on this porch. Right there!” She would point at that same bare plant. Then, finally, she would say, “So, Gar Nell, you owe me.”
“What do I owe you, Momma?”
“You owe me respect, young’en. You owe me a load of stovewood so I can fix supper. You owe me some evening chores, because I am old and slow, so you fetch the cow from the pasture.” So I did that.
Many years later, a neighbor told me she saw my mother on the morning that she caught the bus. “She had a busted, little cardboard suitcase, and the clothes on her back. She looked frightened.”
My grandmother never forgave her. “What kind of a mother would abandon a two-year-old child? I can’t forgive her.”
Over the years, my grandmother built a hard case against my mother. “She said she was coming back to get you, but she didn’t. No, she married another man, a smily, smirky peckerwood and they had another son and went on with their lives ... like nothing had happened.”
On one occasion, she said, “You know your mother tried to kill herself?” Of course, I didn’t. “It was when she was courting your daddy, and one morning when he arrived to take her to school, Irene’s mother, who was not sane, ordered your daddy to leave. That is when your Momma found her
father’s pistol. In the middle of the old lady’s rant, Irene shot herself. I always wondered why she didn’t shoot her mother. She lived, of course, but her arm was still in a sling when she got married.”
All of that happened over seventy years ago, and a lot of things have happened since. When I graduated from high school in 1953, my mother came to the graduation ceremony. She had bought my class ring and the high school principal gave it to me before the graduation. The next day, she came and stood in the dirt road in front of my grandparent’s house. I was in the bedroom reading (yes, I was always reading) and my grandmother came in and said, “Gar Nell, a woman who says she is your Momma is out here in the road. Now, there ain’t no way that she is coming in my house, but you can go out there and talk to her if you want to.”
Went I met her in the road, I remember that she was beautiful .. as beautiful as the picture that I had of her that I kept hidden in the attic. So, we walked through Rhodes Cove, sometimes stopping to rest. My “real” mother’s parents lived nearby, and finally we walked there and sat on the front porch and talked. We talked for two days and although I went home each night to my grandparents’ house, I returned the next day to talk to my mother. We made plans. I would come to live with her in Knoxville and she
would send me to a university.
It didn’t happen, of course. That summer, I rode the bus to Columbia, Tennessee, where my half-brother greeted with screaming tantrums. My would-be father-in-law talked as though I were not present. “Irene,” he would say, “ask him if he wants some more mashed potatoes.” Or, “ask him if he would like to go to a movie.” My week-long visit was reduced to a single day, and I was delivered to the bus with a ticket for Sylva.
But I had learned that things were not quite what my grandmother reported. At one point when my mother was attempting to explain why she had left, she showed me an ugly scar behind her knee. “My own mother did that,” she said. “Did it with a white-hot poker. She was not sane and my brothers and sisters lived in terror of her. After your father’s death, my mother told me that I was not to bring you home as she would not allow it.” I learned that all of my mother’s brothers had run away from home by the age of twelve.
So, my mother lived in Columbia, Tennessee and I lived in Sylva, N. C. We made no further attempts to correspond until ten years ago when I wrote a book and sent a copy to my mother. She sent me a letter with a single sentence: “Can you forgive me?” I went to see her shortly before she died. By then, she had lost everything and was living in one of those nursing homes with eight other widows (It was called “Home, Sweet Home.”) where she had a single bed and a black-and-white television. My unstable half-brother was a reluctant visitor.
On our final meeting, my mother was filled with anxiety, and kept saying, “There is so much I need to tell you.” She told me what her life was like after my father’s death and the painful details are difficult to repeat here. It was an account of petty cruelties that gave me a painful insight into what it was like to be a young widow in Sylva in the 1930’s. Not wanting to return to the home of her own parents, she tried to live in a small apartment and
attempted to keep my father’s old store, called “Hap’s Place” open. She received a lot of unwanted attention from drunks and was finally assaulted one night. At this point, she hit on the desperate idea of going to a “business college” in Knoxville and finding employment as a secretary.
When it was time for me to leave Home, Sweet Home,” my mother grabbed my hand and pressed a locket in it. “This is all that is left, dear,” she said. The locket had photos of my parents, young and smiling.
So, I had two mothers, I guess. Agnes Carden, (who was also my grandmother), and Irene Ashe Carden, my mother. In answer to my mother’s question, yes, I can forgive you, although I have come to feel that I need to be forgiven for being such a wilful child. When I conjure up a vision of my frightened mother standing at the bus station with her battered suitcase, or when I remember my grandmother pointing at that worn plank on the porch, I can finally say, “I forgive you.”
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Going to Pasaquan
Some thirty years ago, Jonathan Williams sent me a copy of Saint EOM in the Land of Pasaquan. It was an amazing book that was filled with radiant photographs of a fantastic place in south Georgia that resembled a southern Land of Oz. Towering giant figures guarded the entrance to a
walled kingdom filled with sleeping pythons, pagodas, watch-towers and meditation rooms filled with murals of exotic figures. The Lord of this magic land was Saint EOM, a man dressed in flowing robes and a turban (and accompanied by two guard dogs with the ability to smell “bad vibes”). Saint EOM welcomed visitors to come inside for tea, fortune-telling and an apocalyptic message about a world betrayed by greed. I wanted to go.
It didn’t happen, of course. Life got in the way and instead of making my pilgrimage to south Georgia, I told stories, taught school and worried about my mounting debts. Occasionally, news arrived. Pasaquan was in trouble and there was talk of demolishing it. Luckily, it was rescued by a dozen foundations that established a preservation fund. Then, in 1986, Saint EOM, who was a man named Eddie Owens Martin, committed suicide. He was in failing health, suffered from dark depressions and was beginning to have serious doubts about his ability to change the world. There was also messages regarding the decline of Pasaquan. Time, freezing rains and the south Georgia sun was taking its toll, as concrete walls cracked and watchful gods faded. If I was going to Pasaquan, I had better hurry.
So, I talked two friends (Michael, the bookseller and Brent, the poet) into making a foolish journey to Pasaquan. It was not a good time, but then, it never is. My health is not good and when I attempted to get a prescription for heart medication, my doctor whisked me off to the emergency ward where I was told I needed to be “monitored” for a few days. Suddenly, I was in a hospital room, connected to a host of beeping machines and drips.
I was told that my heart appeared to be damaged and I needed a few days of observations.
I must reluctantly admit that I have become what the world dreads: a willful and stubborn old guy who refuses tho cooperate with people who want to help him. “No way,” I told a half dozen attendants. “I am going to Pasaquan.” There was much whispering in the hall, but finally, I got my way. I was required to sign some kind of legal document that said that the hospital was not at fault if I dropped dead on the way to Pasawuan. So, I went home and packed a single bag. Michael, the bookseller, told me that he had talked to someone at Pasaquan who said that paradise was closed to the public; however, we would be allowed a solitary tour. Thanks to the preservation people, the entire place is scheduled for a million dollar facelift. When it reopens, it will be an exact restoration of the world that Saint EOM created.
So we went - the bookseller, the poet and a nice fellow named Justin who takes marvelous photographs. We endured four hours of Interstate traffic relieved only by a Cracker Barrel stop and arrived in Buena Vista, a remote little town surrounded by kudzu-choked pine thickets and bathed in the aroma of wisteria and the local Tyson’s chicken plant. We found Pasaquan six miles away, dozing under the Georgia sun.
It was exactly as I thought it would be. No surprises and no disappointments. The entire place seemed to be gradually vanishing, as Pasaquan’s radiant colors became more muted each day. The imposing statuary was cracking, surrounded by fragments of Sherwin-Williams coated concrete. We were assured that all would be as it once was, and indeed, restoration had begun on one of the wall murals. The work was
reassuring ... as though Pasaquan was receiving a blood transfusion and its former healthy glow was already returning. I could only hope that at some point perhaps, we would hear Saint EOM’s war shout and he would emerge from his meditation chamber to welcome us the place where “the past and future converge.” (According to Saint EOM, that is the meaning of the word “Pasaquan.”)
I confess that I was not a good traveling companion, and it speaks well of the character of my companions that they did not cast me out on a remote Georgia road and leave me to find my own way home. Yes, I was sullen and spiteful when I was not allowed to participate in the conversation on the way home. So while my companions rattled on about their adventures: fights, concerts, artistic achievements, I was reduced to removing my cochlear implant and dozing fitfully in the back seat where I finally listened to the council of Eddie Owens Martin, the old trash-talking drag queen from New York. He cut the cards and smiled at me. “It is going to be alright, you old fool. Stop fretting. Take a nap. Drink a beer. Life is wonderful if you don’t expect too much.”
After several weeks passed following the trip to Pasaquan, I had a disturbing thought. When the renovations are complete and the public is invited to return, I am sure the visitors will be amazed by the awesome diversity of Pasaquan. All of those gods, pythons and pagodas glowing in technicolor! Ah, but there is one vital part of Eddie’s fortress against the greedy world that cannot be restored, and that is Saint EOM himself. I am sure that visitors will enjoy the wonder and magic of the place, but if Pasaquan is to truly be resurrected, it needs Saint EOM. Let us hope that ther preservation foundation will realize this and employ an actor ... one that is old and eccentric, but willing to don Saint EOM’s exotic turbans and flowing robes. Give him two fierce dogs (Alsacians) and let him patrol his paradise, invite his visitors to tea, tells fortunes, rant against the corrupt world. Only then can Pasaquan be resurrected. Come to think of it, I could probably do it myself.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Monday, February 17, 2014
New York: Penguin Group
$12.00 - 85 pages
Early this morning
when you knocked upon my door
And I said “Hello, Satan,
I believe its time to go.”
-“Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson
I have always been fascinated by the folklore attending the too- short life of Robert Johnson, “King of the Delta Blues Singers.” For me, he was another doomed genius like James Dean, John Keats and Hank Williams -men who flashed across the night sky like the momentary radiance of a shooting star and then they were gone forever. Robert Johnson was 27 when he was either poisoned, shot or stabbed to death near Greenwood, Mississippi. Documents are scant and accounts of his life are mostly oral, gleaned from the memory of aging friends (mostly musicians) with colorful names like Son House, Muddy Waters and Johnny Shines.
Of course, everyone repeats the legend about Robert’s midnight meeting with the Devil at the crossroads (#61 and #49) just outside Greenwood in a community called Three Forks. I found a half-dozen variations of his meeting with Satan on youtube. I especially like the scene in “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou” in which George Clooney and his cohorts pick up a black man with a guitar at a lonely Mississippi crossroads (circa 1930). Robert introduces himself as “Tommy Johnson” (something he did frequently for he admired his famous relative.) Robert tells Clooney that he has just completed his bargain with Satan. When asked if the Devil was red, scaled and had a tail, Robert says, “Oh, no, sir. He is just as white as you folks.” He adds, that in exchange for his soul, the Devil told him that he would teach Robert to play the guitar “real good.” The Devil accomplished this feat by simply taking Robert’s guitar, tuning it and handing it back to him.
In this compact little book, Peter Guralnick takes the material in a dozen biographies, “blues” histories, and oral interviews and distills this information into what could be called the essence of what we know about Johnson. Born illegitimate to Julia Majors Dobbs, Robert was her eleventh child. Reared in poverty, Robert lived with his mother and step-father in an atmosphere of constant tension. When Robert displayed an early interest in music and began to show up at dances and balls where he played the jews harp and harmonica, his step-father objected, telling the youth that he was “playing the Devil’s music.” Eventually, Robert left home and began a “rambling life” in which he lived with a multitude of relatives. Friends from this part of his life invariably commented on his character: genial, generous a bit “reserved” or shy and determined to be a musician. Most of Robert’s friends comment on his rapid success describing how Robert went from a passable guitar player to an astonishingly adept musician in a very short time. They also recall that by the time Robert was seventeen, he had been married, widowed (his first wife died in childbirth) and married again. In the company of older, accomplished musicians, he began traveling as far afield as Ohio and Missouri. He also developed an amazing number of “lady friends” who provided him with food and board. It wasn’t long before he made some enemies because of his “way with the ladies. As late as 1970, when Johnson had been dead for almost forty years, friends recalled the reports of men who carried grudges because their wives and girlfriends took up with Johnson.
Noted blues singers all commented on Robert’s ability to charm women. As his lyrics demonstrate, his songs were often bold, sexual invitations to the women. “You better come on in my kitchen,” he sang, “It’s going to be rainin’ outdoors.” Son House and Muddy Waters remember that Johnson sang this song in a kind of “sexual growl.” Even in this age of license, some of Robert’s song lyrics border on the offensive. “You can squeeze my lemon, til the juice runs down my leg,” he sings in “Traveling Riverside Blues.” To me, these lyrics add considerable credence to the story about an irate husband decided to poison this smooth, nattily-dressed blues man. According to the story, the stricken Johnson died in agony, “crawling on the floor and howling like a dog.”
Despite a reputation that spread throughout the Mississippi Delta, we would probably know nothing about Johnson today if it had not been for a folklorist named Mack McCormick who began doing research some thirty years after Johnson’s death. In some instances, he tracked majorsources like Son House and Muddy Waters to Chicago and Saint Louis, and located an impressive number of women who remembered Johnson as a man who was not at ease around white people and was given to abrupt departures. Time and time again, friends remembered that he would be with his friends, laughing and talking and he would suddenly rise and walk out the door. Gone. No farewells. It might be months or years before he returned.
A second event that saved Robert Johnson from obscurity was a recording engineer who managed to get Robert into a studio. H. C. Speir, a white man who ran a music store in Jackson, Mississippi. Johnson heard about Speir and knew that he had made a number of Mississippi musicians famous. When Speir head Robert play he immediately sent him to a talent scout name Ernie Oertle. In turn, Oertle took Robert to San Antonia to be recorded. It was a memorable trip with Johnson playing in juke joints and dance clubs all the way. in San Antonia, he was an astonishing hit, but it was also noted that he had some “eccentricities.” He refused to play with a group of Mexican musicians and developed a habit of turning his back to other performers so they could not see how he chorded his guitar. The recording engineers said he recorded all of his famous songs (29) in this week-long session, although folklorist McCormick says there is at least one original song that has not been accounted for.
For a brief period, Robert had everything he had ever wanted. He loved expensive clothes and they are in evidence in few photographs that exist. He was sought after and was even contacted to appear in Carnegie Hall in a concert which was advertised to take place on December 23rd, 1938. Robert didn’t live to make that show. What is left is not so much a mystery as a void. Mack McCormick has been writing the definitive biography for forty years, called The Biography of a Phantom. He recently announced that it would never be published and there is considerable speculation as to why. McCormick has always been forthright in interviews. A popular explanation is that McCormick has some valuable material which is worth a great deal of money. Should he publish this material, he would be immediately sued by a host of folks who have become wealthy by acquiring the rights to any and all Robert Johnson material.
I am convinced that we will never know one singular piece of information.
All of the musicians who knew him invariably commented on the fact that Robert and his music had a “haunted” quality and that Robert was “driven.” By what? Why is the subject matter of so much of his music concern demons and hell-hounds? Maybe you don’t need to strike a bargain at a midnight cross-roads. Maybe you can make that bargain in your own heart. I think Robert Johnson did that.