September 11, 2010

Back to Tennessee: Day 5

What's that old cliché...?  Something about how all good things must end...?  It's so sadly true.  Today was a day of goodbyes-- to my traveling companions (especially my buddy Lyle), to Lucifer the Pony, to Nashville and Memphis and the land in between.  The only thing I'd be carrying home with me would be my memories and a growing love of the blues.

But perhaps I should just switch gears right now before I become too maudlin over all this...

After four days of cloudy and/or rainy skies, I stepped onto the balcony outside my hotel room to find the last day of our trip had dawned with breaking clouds and hints of sun.  Cruel irony, or Tennessee wanting to send me home with a smile?  Didn't matter.  Either way, I wasn't ready to leave.  But the morning called for two separate trips to the airport to drop off my traveling companions, so departure was staring me in the face. 

After dropping off the friend who met us Thursday night, Lyle and I swung back around to some of the spots we'd visited in Nashville for shots of Lucifer the Pony under the suddenly gorgeous blue sky (a few of which were included in yesterday's post).  Then, when we couldn't think of anywhere else to go or anything else to do in the limited time we had, Lyle very graciously suggested that I just drop her off early at the airport so that I could go ahead and get on the road back to Memphis, where I had to return Lucifer and catch my own flight. 

Having that extra time allowed me to pull out the map and figure out a route of back-roads to take instead of just getting back onto Interstate 40.  There were several roads I could've taken out of Nashville in order to end up on rural lanes but, just for shits'n'giggles, I chose the one that would take me down through Franklin, where Jack White supposedly lives.  Yeah, brand me a fan-girl if you want, but I don't know his address so I wasn't looking to stalk the man.  I had heard that Franklin is a historic town, so that was also a draw.  Anyone who's followed my blog for a while has probably noticed how much time I spend in such places in MD and WV as Shepherdstown, Frederick, Hancock, and Cumberland.  What I didn't expect was how rich Franklin seems to be.  There was one big gated house after another along the road down, a couple of strip shopping centers, a marker for an old Civil War cemetery, and then bam!, a "historic" downtown full of Starbuck's, fancy boutiques, and SUV's.  The place immediately reminded me of Middleburg, VA, except that the roads in and out of Middleburg are lined with horse farms and I saw nothing of the sort in the vicinity of Franklin.  I cruised through briefly, looking to see if there was anywhere besides Starbuck's to stop for a snack, but the yuppie factor began to turn my stomach so I pointed Lucifer back out of town and we went on our way.  For a moment I winced at the idea of Jack in the midst of such an environment, but then I remembered his house full of taxidermied animals and felt better.

What should actually make me wince is thoughts of that sort.  I've written before about my issues with "yuppies", but those issues really don't make much sense.  Jack White's weirder tendencies are one of the things I find appealing about him, yet I look down my nose at more "normal" folks such as those strolling the streets of Franklin just because they strike me as superficial.  Is this a result of the treatment I received in high school, when I was one of only three punk rockers in the entire town and was endlessly harassed by school mates and even by people on the street?  Shouldn't I have grown beyond it by now?  What is it that makes me so judgmental of people who are probably perfectly nice, but with whom I find it difficult to relate?

Another instance that again brought these thoughts to mind occurred at a convenience store at the intersection of routes 100 & 412--  I pulled in to snap a photo of a wildflower field across the way, then decided to take advantage of the facilities in the store.  When I turned the car around to pull it into a parking space, I realized that everyone pumping gas or passing through the parking lot was staring at Lucifer and me.  What must I have looked like, a lone woman stepping out of a jet black Mustang, wearing a t-shirt depicting a flaming baby carriage?  I walked in and was immediately addressed by a good ol' boy sitting near the window, who asked if I was looking for the bathroom.  When I answered in the affirmative, he informed me that it was broken and had been for several days.  I made a comment to the effect that that must make things difficult for the folks who work there.  His buddy across the table laughed and said, "Nah, we just go around back".  I started to ask what they did if they had to do more than take a leak, but then thought twice about it and instead wandered over to the snack aisle, feeling every eye on me as I went.  Heading back out to the parking lot, there was more staring from the area of the gas pumps.  So I decided to give them the show they seemed to be waiting for and goosed the gas pedal as I pulled out of the lot, making Lucifer roar as she sped down the road.

Just what was so intriguing to these otherwise perfectly friendly folks?  Was it the car?  Something about my appearance?  Or just the fact that I wasn't one of them, that I was somehow different?  We're all the same underneath our surface differences, but it can't be denied that it's those differences that make things interesting.  Yes, it's good to remember that we're all composed of the same sort of genetic code, all were born of a mother, all have the same basic needs in life.  This is necessary to retain respect for our fellow human beings.  On the surface, though, it's our different interests, habits, beliefs, and styles of dress that prevent the world from being one big homogeneous, boring blur.  The issue comes in how we treat others because of those differences.  Where is the line drawn between mild scorn at someone's yuppie tendencies or outlandish appearance, and scathing hatred over the color of their skin or religious beliefs?  At what point does fixation on those differences prevent us from remembering what relates us?

Despite the lapse in Franklin, I've carried things away from this trip that may very well nudge me to be more accepting than I currently am.  This theme of looking beyond otherness has been so much on my mind the last several days, and it's something that I think I will now always relate to blues music.  One of the moments that most struck me in reading Land Where the Blues Began is Alan Lomax's description of being hauled in to a police station in Tunica County, Mississippi, after being found in a country grocery store recording a performance by Son House and a handful of other black musicians.  When asked the names of the men he was with, he began by naming "Mister Son House..."  Lomax wrote:

... I knew I'd made a mistake before the words were out of my mouth.  The sheriff's red face turned beet color.  His eyes narrowed to pinpoints.

That a white man in the Delta region in the 1940's could have run the risk of being jailed, perhaps even roughed up, for referring to a black man as "Mister" is hard to conceive in this day.  That the black man in question is now revered by white people as one of the founders of blues music just makes the situation even more astounding.  But it serves as a potent reminder that there's no telling what people have to offer, that judging by surface differences can cause us to overlook qualities that we might actually admire and enjoy.

Speaking of Mister House, perhaps it's time to once again shift the gears of this post, this time back to the music that inspired this trip.  As mentioned, House is considered by many to be the "father of the Delta blues" and his music was apparently a wake-up call for a young Jack White.  In It Might Get Loud, Jack talks about House's Grinnin' In Your Face being his favorite song-

I can fully understand Jack's appreciation of this song and have come to share it. I ended up singing it several times along with Mr. House as Lucifer ate up the miles along route 412.

As Jack describes, it's the simplicity of the performance that gives it it's power-- Nothing but that moving voice and the straightforward message that it delivers.  And, despite the difference of Jack's distorted and amplified playing, it's very easy to hear House's influence in his music, especially much of his singing. 

Ironically, Jack doesn't consider himself a singer.  In an interview earlier this year, he stated that he doesn't feel he can carry a tune, doesn't have a good vibrato, and that he's more concerned with finding the character of a song and voicing that.  In his view, this distinction makes him more of a vocalist than a singer.  At the time I read this article, I'd recently picked up the second White Stripes album, De Stijl, which is full of beautifully tender vocals, so my knee-jerk reaction was to disagree with his self-assessment. 

A few months and a whole lotta bootleg live shows later, however, I think can understand his distinction.  In live situations, he does seem to lose a certain amount of control over his singing compared to studio performances.  But he's so obviously moved by the music he plays and that comes through in his delivery to affect the audience.  The performance in this video is the finest example I've found yet of this.  Son House's Death Letter was a staple of White Stripes shows over the years, and Jack often combined it with a segue into Grinnin' In Your Face.  In this instance, his pitch and enunciation are all over the place during Death Letter, but the moment he slings his guitar around behind his back and stands at the front of the stage with nothing but a microphone, belting out Grinnin', his voice suddenly takes on a depth and power that are riveting--

I finally got back onto the interstate near the town of Jackson and realized I was cutting it close to return the Pony and make my flight.  So I floored it and barreled down 40 in a manner that would have had Lyle punching the ceiling of the car over in the passenger seat.  Had to stop long enough for one last batch of photos, though, which got me to the gate just 10 minutes before my flight.  I can't help but think that I may've been subconsciously trying to miss it and stick around for just one more day...

Full album of photos here.

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