Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Mississippi Cradle of American Music IV

New Orleans is where the Bible belt comes unbuckled. I realize this on Bourbon Street when a black transsexual offers me his unconscious, whiskey-drenched sister for a ten-dollar blowjob or a twenty-dollar screw. Suddenly an all-white jazz band appears. Clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, banjos, trombones, and drums pummel the tragic siblings with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Race, rye, and religion are constant themes on the Mississippi. In the American Odyssey, Huck Finn and sidekick Jim float downriver to escape racism, alcoholism, and fundamentalism. One thing is as clear as the water is muddy: they went the wrong way. Now I, Huckleberry Lyn, am heading upriver along the “birth canal” of American music.

As Jews escaped slavery in Africa spreading the holy rite of Passover, Africans fled from slavery in America spreading the sacred rite of blues-based music. As Eric Clapton globalized Crossroads, Jesus globalized passover on his road to the cross with a surprise dinner announcement that he was the ultimate sacrificial lamb and slavery to one's own sin is the ultimate bondage—even worse than the oppression of others. Reggae prophet Bob Marley phrased it well in Redemption Song: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” American music is, was, and always has been about freedom.

Exit the French Quarter of New Orleans to what was once Storyville. Here jazz was born and named for the jasmine perfume aura of the local whorehouses. I step into a bistro for red beans and rice with turnip greens. My food tastes like history—an edible incarnation of bygone days and neighborhood spirits. In nearby dirt alleys, the hungry, seven-year-old son of a prostitute once dragged around a coal cart. Jailed by age eleven for firing a pistol in New Year’s Eve revelry, the boy was taken from the only family he’d ever known to reform school. Solace took the shape of a silver trumpet. Though as entitled to bitterness as anyone ever was, Louis Armstrong set out to give the world a hug instead.

Satchel-mouthed “Satchmo” single-handedly invented improvisation and swing time. His “West End Blues” has been called the most perfect three minutes of music ever made. When his sheet music fell off during recording, he introduced America to the scat. He crooned “La Vie En Rose” with enough romantic charm to make cats kiss dogs. His canonical rendition of “What a Wonderful World” has done more to combat global misery than World Vision. Plus, forty years after redefining music, the aging master still bumped the unsoulful Beatles down the charts to make “Hello Dolly” number one in the nation.

Despite his triumphs, when Louie returned to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, community and religious leaders banned his racially integrated group from performing. Heartbroken, he scrapped plans to be buried here in his hometown. Though his favorite song was “Sleepytime Down South,” Armstrong chose to spend his eternal rest up North. Haunting lyrics still reflect his great soul and his suffering: “My only sin, is my skin. Why must I be so black and blue?”

On my drive up the Mississippi, cypress-crowded basins give way to oak-dotted plantations. Palatial estates recall one of the last medieval societies. Within their walls, white knights and damsels lived by a code of honor and chivalry. Alas, this didn’t extend to the surrounding fields where fellow humans died under a code of barbarism and slavery. Gone with the Wind? One can only hope. Near Natchez, the road forks at D’Evereaux Drive, where people were once yoked together like cattle and auctioned off. I park and stand a while. When the biblical villain Cain asserted he wasn’t his brother’s keeper, God responded, “Listen! Your murdered brother’s blood cries out from the ground.” The blood of slaves has long cried out from the dirt on which I stand. Such cries carried on Natchez blues radio WMIS directly cross-river where rockabilliest Jerry Lee Lewis was born.

While trying to become a preacher at Southwestern Bible Institute, Jerry was asked to play the song, “My God is Real” during worship. He pounded it out boogie-woogie style and was promptly expelled. They didn’t want God that real. Lewis then applied his “great balls of fire” to something less original in the Deep South: tickling both “the ivories” and “the ebonies” as pianist and patron at Nellie Jackson’s Natchez bawdy house, then marrying over half a dozen women, including his thirteen-year-old cousin.

Traditional religion had no place for black music. Yet there was plenty of room in the fold for the white sheep of the family, Jerry’s other cousin: Jimmy Swaggart. (Before Jimmy and Jerry were scandalized by sex and rock-n-roll, federal agents arrested their fathers for distilling the local drug of choice, corn whisky.) Lewis did eventually get to preach his own prophetic message, There’s a “whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.” Just as Plato wrote, “A society’s foundations shake when musical style changes.” Here on highway 61, the world got “all shook up.”

Far past Memphis and approaching Saint Louis, the threadbare road joins parallel black threads, until finally merging with a big, tangled knitting-ball of freeways. This city is gateway to the North, where the Blues is a hockey team, not a way of life. In this freer metropolis, over a century ago, black composer Scott Joplin could emerge as the American Chopin and even produce operas. His astonishing ragtime classics, such as “The Entertainer,” “Easy Winners,” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” blend raucous frolics with deep sentimental longings, symphonic elegance with chromatic hints of down-and-dirty blues.

Joplin took black syncopations into the cultured salons of the world, demolishing the long-held truism that music was a hierarchy of virtue descending from the European to the darker races. Even so, the Sedalia Maple Leaf Club—a respectable black-owned fraternal organization for which Scott named his masterwork—was perpetually harassed by local churches for allowing liquor, playing cards, and (worst of all) interracial dating. The biblical witness that Jesus distributed wine, Moses married an African, and Apostle Peter used games of chance didn’t slow their zeal to shut down this musical heritage site. Apparently, waltzes can be “devil music,” too.

The rhythmic waves of American music rocked the length of the Mississippi until they produced the legendary Chicago blues. Masters like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker inspired later disciples like George Thorogood and Jim Morrison. From there, the music that began in Delta cotton fields has gone in every direction, now playing in Antarctic research stations and extraterrestrial space stations.

Slaves who dared not make a run for the freedom of nearby woods have liberated vast segments of humanity over and over again with the blissful sounds of their art. What can we say but thanks to the hands that once worked the Mississippi cradle and now rock the world? Since rockets have now transported their songs to the heavens, is it so hard to believe that angels likewise transported their prayers? Go with God, brothers and sisters. We will not forget you. Like the carpenter is in the wine, so the cotton picker is forever in the music.


  1. A rich tapestry of music!

    Rev. Swaggart's got a reserved seat in hell when the time comes.

  2. For me, the black people are more that their skin, because are humans and are intelligent, workers, in the personal i like the voice of black people, are strong voices. Also I think that they are good people, and their music is spectacular.