Southern sojourn: Cultural and race relations in the South through the lens of music

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Josh Rosenthal

Rosenthal’s daughters Emma (L) and Hazel with William Faulkner; not interested in ice cream. Oxford, Miss.

In June, I took my daughters on a musical journey to New Orleans, all around Mississippi, Memphis and Nashville. We ate praline bacon, went to Preservation Hall, saw Degas’ house, Fats Domino’s Katrina-waterlogged piano, Louis’ horn. We visited Dockery Farms, the “Birthplace of the Blues,” where Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, Tommy Johnson and Pops Staples worked, listened to and made music. We visited the new Mississippi Grammy Museum, the B.B. King Museum, drove through the Delta, had dinner at prohibition-era restaurant Lusco’s in Robert Johnson’s hometown of Greenwood. We visited William Faulkner’s house, sweated through the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic (saw RL Boyce), hung out at End of All Music in Oxford.

We went to Graceland, the Civil Rights Museum, Sun, Stax, and stood outside the boarded-up house Aretha Franklin was born in. I bought a rare book about Tommy Johnson at A. Schwab in Memphis. The girls cut a record in the Third Man recording booth in Nashville (previously used by Neil Young and Eddie Vedder), and we saw Bob Dylan sing “High Water Everywhere (For Charley Patton)” on Barbara Mandrell’s old property. We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Johnny Cash museum, and caught an in-store by Lera Lynn at Grimey’s. Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns died the day we left for our trip. His name was up on the Stax marquee. Ralph Stanley died while we were in Mississippi. Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore died while we were in Nashville.

I envisioned the trip not only as a musical journey, but as a study in the complexities of race in our society. I wanted the girls to see the South and learn about race relations in the United States through the prism of music. When you are standing at B.B. King’s gravesite, gazing around the surroundings—the bleak, deeply impoverished backdrop for this glitzy museum that is Indianola, Miss.—you can’t help but be moved. The way he rose up out of here to become an international star, especially considering the times he came up in; not being able to eat with whites in a restaurant, or stay in a hotel with white folks.

I tried to overlook the various bad news coming from these states while I was planning our trip. I had serious reservations about dumping my vacation dollars into these pricks’ tax coffers. Rep. Andy Holt of Tennessee giving away an AR-15 as a door prize three days after Orlando. There was a lot of back and forth in Mississippi over House Bill 1523. I had just been to North Carolina in April, where I amassed a nice photo collection of defiant homemade signs on the bathroom doors of various local business establishments.

The teaching moments for the girls weren’t just learned at the Civil Rights Museum, or at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale (where they really show how white country and black blues musicians deeply influenced one another) but in everyday things. Like seeing black and white strangers casually conversing over breakfast at the Hampton Inn in Greenwood. Or a black and a white guy laughing together over lunch in Oxford, Miss. Or the kind people who greeted us in Aretha’s old neighborhood, which is in a tough part of town. I wanted the girls to experience THAT version of the South, where people are kind and civil toward one another. That’s all we saw in our brief time there, for what it’s worth. But sad that we should even be looking for that harmony, right?

The trip reinforced everything I cherish in terms of my relationship to music. In New Orleans, it’s the birth of Jazz. In Mississippi, you go to Dockery and Clarksdale, and you’re in the cradle of the Blues. In Memphis, it’s R&B, Soul, Big Star (or “Pig” Star if you’re eating at Central BBQ) and early Rock ‘n’ Roll. In Nashville, it’s the Ryman, it’s Hank Williams’ Nudie suit, it’s the Loveless Cafe right down the road from Harpeth Hills, where Ira and Charlie Louvin are buried side by side. I’m not sure how to replicate such a road trip anywhere else that could be so musically and culturally rich.

Contact Josh Rosenthal at Tompkins Square label and read The Record Store of the Mind.

“Lord, Why was I born in Mississippi
When it’s so hard to get ahead
Every black child born in Mississippi
You know the poor child was born dead”

At End of An Ear in Oxford, the kind folks at Fat Possum loaded me up. They gave me the reissue they did of Louisville native Denny Lile’s 1972 lone solo LP, which I was not aware of. Drank himself to death at an early age; tragic, but the album is great, and comes with a very well-researched documentary DVD put together by his nephew. Bought an original sealed copy on eBay right away for $40!

Want to get your kids into New Orleans music the easy way? They’ll make you play this one over and over. Be careful what you wish for.

I almost lost my mind when I found an original copy of Lou Johnson’s Volt LP, “With You In Mind,” at End of All Music in Oxford, Miss. – and a white label promo, no less. I’d been hunting for it ever since I read Allen Toussaint considered this song his greatest work.

Something about Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash kind of makes me queasy. The appropriation of modern tunes selected for him, certain collaborations, seemed a bit like puppetry, maybe a tad exploitative. I don’t like Nine Inch Nails, but it takes a special kind of genius to pluck this song for Johnny as a career-encompassing last gasp of greatness. There’s a room in the Johnny Cash Museum dedicated to “Hurt” with the original chair and guitar from the video, and the clip plays continuously. The girls had never seen the video, and were really moved by it. I was too. It was all they really needed to know about Johnny Cash in 3 minutes and 49 harrowing, beautiful seconds.

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