I can’t leave well enough alone, so here are some final thoughts on my trip.
It has been suggested that I add a bibliography for what I have written about my trip. I will do that (below), but I certainly do not lay claim to a definitive, exhaustive bibliography on blues or the civil rights movement or “The South.” I leave that to others.
It has been suggested that I publish this as a book. I wonder if people still read printed books, which I imagine they then put on bookshelves for that time when they have people over for dinner and nonchalantly point to a book and say “Oh, that little thing? That’s a book I read. You haven’t heard of it? You should read it.” I have never published anything, but I promise to look into it, including but not limited to big bad Amazon self-publishing. I wanted to paraphrase actress Butterfly McQueen and say that I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no book, but thought that might be inappropriate. I’m leaving it in, though, and will balance it with these quotes attributed to McQueen: “I hated that role. I thought the movie was going to show progress black people had made, but Prissy was lazy and stupid and backward,” “I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid,” ”I’d rather play a maid than be one,” “I don’t think you should strip people of their prejudice - that’s all they have, some of them. We should just leave them alone until they mature,” and “I’m an atheist….I’m puzzled that so many people can’t see through a religion [Christianity] that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry.”
It has been suggested that I put more of myself into the narrative, so here’s some human interest stuff: It was late in the day in Selma, after we had walked over and under the Edmund Pettus Bridge (we met a guy under the bridge who spoke like he had a mouthful of marbles), when we discovered that we had mistakenly booked a hotel reservation in Selma, California instead of Selma, Alabama. I realized the error when my wife Patty told me the hotel was on Pea Soup Andersen Blvd. Pea Soup Andersen’s is a storied restaurant chain in Central California with two locations along US Route 101 in Buellton and Interstate 5 in Santa Nella. It was founded in 1924. Neighboring Solvang is the “Danish Capital of America” that is popular with tourists, and I knew enough about Andersen’s and Solvang from my childhood to know that something was amiss. The hotel we had booked was nowhere near Selma, Alabama. ANYWAYS……we threw ourselves at the mercy of Expedia or hotels.com or whatever and managed to successfully get our booking refunded, but we now found ourselves late in the day in the shadow of said Edmund Pettus Bridge, determined not to let the sun go down on us. Before we left LA on this trip, my wife Patty had researched accommodations that would provide easy access to a ferry that goes from Camden across the Alabama River to the Gee’s Bend quilting collective in Boykin - we could stay in Selma, Montgomery or Camden. At the time, however, we were not sure of our exact itinerary in that area, so we went with the ill-fated reservation in Selma and hence our current predicament. Patty did recall, however, a conversation with the proprietor of a motel in Camden and she wracked her brain to remember the name of the motel and/or found the outgoing call phone number in her phone from the few weeks earlier. We called the number, a man answered and he calmly responded a) sure, they had rooms, b) sure, whenever we got there is fine, c) sure, if we wanted to stay two nights that would be fine, and d) yes, it’s only $100 per night. So, 40 minutes later on Alabama highway 41 we found ourselves at The American Inn on Camden Bypass, a proudly 2-star establishment owned by a voluble Indian gentleman, with his son on break from school in Galveston manning the front desk. The pool was filled in with dirt and guarded by flamingos. I really recommend this place. 205-682-4555. And, bonus, it is just across the highway from a quite decent Mi Mexico restaurant.
The next day we were excited to take the ferry to Gee’s Bend in Boykin, but discovered that a normally quick drive to the ferry was compromised by traffic signal work at the nearby intersection of Highways 10 and 28, rendering the intersection completely impassable. This necessitated a detour of heroic proportions, but by the grace of the motel’s housekeeper, who lived at the motel and was also a mail carrier for the town and had just shown up back at the Inn, we were guided via back roads to the ferry. Thank you Goddess Good Fortune. Let’s just say it was a bit of mind fuckery to plop down in the middle of pick-your-stereotype Alabama, in the historic shadow of Jim Crow, at a motel owned by Indians across the street from a Mexican restaurant. The South, like the rest of Amurrica, is, um, nuanced.
A bit about Gee’s Bend. Gee’s Bend is named after a planter, Joseph Gee, who was the first white man to stake a claim there in the early 1800s. The Gee family sold the plantation to Mark Pettway in 1845. Most of the approximately 750 people who live in Gee’s Bend today are descendants of slaves on the former Pettway plantation. The majority of residents bear the surnames of the white people who once owned their forebears — Pettway, Young, Bendolph. We met Mary Ann Pettway, a no-nonsense, savvy businessperson and manager of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Her quilts now fetch a LOT of money, but she still does all the work by herself. She had just returned from New York, where she had given a workshop. The whole thing is kind of a rags to riches-lite story. There’s a disconnect between the modest dwellings and country (read poor) vibe, along with the history of racial oppression in the region, and the fact that today there’s a bunch of outsider money and support, including Jane Fonda and Questlove. Also, there were 39 cent stamps issued in 2006 that featured the quilts. All of this has helped improve the material life of many of the quilters; they have been able to renovate their homes and add modern appliances and the Ye Shall Know the Truth Baptist Church is called by some ”the church that quilts built.” But as of 2007, while some of the quilters may not have needed to buy their groceries on credit anymore, their grandchildren were still bused 100 miles round trip to the middle school and high school because the school in Gee’s Bend was closed back when desegregation came. Again, at least in 2007, there were still no health-care services to speak of in Gee’s Bend; you had to drive more than 50 miles to a dentist or doctor or pharmacy. As of 2018, efforts to incorporate Boykin as a town were ongoing but my first hand observation is that there’s still a ways to go.
These are political problems, fueled by racism and a monopoly on power. While women are and have always been at the forefront of the fight for civil rights, at the end of the day it’s been about women simply trying to keep warm or create a cottage industry to support the family. Case in point, I possess two embroidered tablecloths, both manufactured at home and from around the turn of the 20th century, one made by my wife’s great grandmother in the Philippines and one from my great grandmother in what is now Hungary. Women play a major role in sustaining the world's economy, although their work often goes unappreciated and unacknowledged. There’s a 1981 song from a Canadian band Martha and the Muffins called Women Around the World at Work: “In a hundred wars across the earth. Men and guns are thought to prove their worth. Women stay behind and grow the food. Placing soldiers in a dangerous mood. Women around the world at work. Working, working.”
Here’s something more about Birmingham, Alabama. It is nicknamed Magic City as a result of its explosive growth from 1871 on, which happened because the soil around there has the three necessary elements to produce iron: limestone, coal, and iron ore. So, it became the Pittsburgh of the South and Sloss Furnaces was the engine for all this growth. Sloss was shut down in 1971 and is now a National Historic Monument, a labyrinth of old pipes and smokestacks and rivets and abandoned pig iron foundries, breathtaking Fritz Lang Metropolis-like views at every turn. You can climb all over it and even though money has been put in to stabilize the structure, it still feels endearingly, mildly dangerous to explore, like looking at an old ad with a picture of a baby and the caption “No flies on me. Thanks to DDT.” Plus, there are reminders of the racial history, the use of African-American convict-laborers that were purchased in collusion with local sheriffs in a system called peonage. The current administrator of the historical site moved to Birmingham from Connecticut 20 years ago and is cautiously optimistic about the social progress Birmingham has made. Downtown Birmingham has CAP - City Action Partnership - where “CAP safety ambassadors are excited to welcome you to Birmingham’s City Center! As we patrol on foot, Segways and bikes, our visibility and attention often deter bad behavior and activities. We look for opportunities to help people and tidy up our district as we’re out and about.” A little Orwellian, but to be fair, their website does admit “The city wasn’t so magic for everyone, though, and by the 1960s, Birmingham was the epicenter for the nation’s Civil Rights Movement (which you can learn all about in downtown’s Civil Rights District).” I will say this, I called the CAP phone number and they came and fixed my flat tire for free. Without irony, southern hospitality is real.
Here are some titles for further reading. I found them helpful before, during and after my trip.
Imani Perry. She’s the best. Just read her books and HER bibliographies. Two books raised my awareness to The South as a scapegoat for the rest of the nation: “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon Line to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” and “May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem.” I thought of the song “Rednecks” by Randy Newman, where he describes a TV audience laughing at Lester Maddox, the racist governor of Georgia: “Well he may be a fool but he's our fool. If they think they're better than him they're wrong. (I don’t know what’s going on, but I haven’t listened to Randy Newman’s music for a while and this is the third time I’m mentioning him in this piece.)
Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow, Up Jumped the Devil, the Real Life of Robert Johnson. As a Robert Johnson fan who thought he knew everything already, I learned more, not the least of which is do not under any circumstances drink whiskey tainted with mothballs. And don’t mess with married women. I had a brief Facebook exchange with Conforth and thanked him for the excellent book; he was glad I liked the book and said it took only 50 years of research to complete. Kudos to my wife for buying the book despite my arrogance.
Robert Johnson recordings. I don’t think King of the Delta Blues “Volume 1” or “Volume 2” means anything in the age of Spotify. Just sit in the music and soak in all 29 songs, like a Baptism.
I want to read up on Alan Lomax and Harry (Everett) Smith.
Lomax was an ethnomusicologist, best known for his numerous field recordings of folk music of the 20th century, with his father John. Among the artists Lomax is credited with discovering and bringing to a wider audience include Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters.
Smith is remembered for - among other things - his influential Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 on Moe Asch’s Folkways label and drawn from Smith’s extensive collection of out-of-print commercial 78 rpm recordings. From the Internet: “The Anthology brought virtually unknown parts of America's musical landscape recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s to the public's attention. For more than half a century, the collection has profoundly influenced fans, ethnomusicologists, music historians, and cultural critics; it has inspired generations of popular musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jerry Garcia, and countless others.” Smith is called a polymath, with talents as an artist, experimental filmmaker, bohemian, mystic, record collector, hoarder and student of anthropology.
WEB Dubois. The Souls of Black Folks. Seminal work from 1903 that clearly articulates the - unfortunately - same societal and racial issues that African-Americans still deal with today in terms of survival in white society.
LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka). The Blues People. 1963 deep dive into the roots of blues and other African-American music forms that trace roots back to Africa.
King: A Life, by Jonathan Eig - I heard that this new Martin Luther King, Jr. biography is good, but I haven’t read it yet.
Kelsey Klotz. Dave Brubeck’s Southern Strategy. Article in the publication Daedalus, April, 2019. I stumbled across this online at https://direct.mit.edu/daed/article/148/2/52/27289/Dave-Brubeck-s-Southern-Strategy . Interesting discussion of Brubeck’s cancellation of shows in the South in 1960 because venues wouldn’t allow his black bass player, Eugene Wright, to perform. Brubeck leveraged his whiteness to support integration efforts, even as he simultaneously benefited from a system that privileged his voice over the voices of people of color.
Gee’s Bend. There’s a lot out there on the Internet. I came across this article, from 2007: https://kathmanduk2.wordpress.com/2007/08/20/the-women-of-gees-bend/