Editor’s note: It’s
Monday, March 11 Tuesday, March 12 Wednesday, March 13 Thursday March 14 Sunday March 17 Monday March 18. By the way, happy birthday to Rhoda’s dad, who turns 70 today (March 13). Also, birthday wishes go out to Ruth Lebo Leviticus. As our departure day closes in on us like an appointment with some terrible destiny, I’m doing a little housecleaning and getting some of the old adventures up here before the new ones knock them deeper into the waste pit of history. Three months ago, and I can’t believe it’s been three months already, we were making our way out of Texas after a leisurely border stroll. Our ramble had acquired a sense of urgency, as we needed to make it home to the Philly suburbs for my mom’s birthday. This time last year, we were making our way toward Texas to reconnoiter with Blind Charlie for a little SXSW tomfoolery. Anyway, time is, you know, fleeting as a monkey’s orgasm. Time to gather ye good karma.
Dec. 12, I-10 eastbound – A feeling of defeat settles in my bones as we leave Texas after more than a week wandering along the border in Lone Star country. I never imagined we’d spend nine days exiled in Texas without stopping in Austin for a musical fix or Fort Worth to visit with Cowtown Jason Brown.
But we did, and now we can see our way clear to Louisiana. It’s just three days till my mom’s 83rd birthday. I promised we’d be there. It went well for a while, but now I’m scuffling to recover the narrative as we head along Interstate 10 toward Lake Charles. My spirits sag as we pass by the refineries of southeast Texas and southwestern Louisiana. We bypass Lake Charles and head toward Lafayette, the capital of Cajun country.
I need a story I can put my hands on, something to redeem the prodigal squandering of miles. A subject. Someone other than myself and my thoughts. Any fool can write down the nonsense rambling about his own head, but there’s no guarantee it’ll make for good reading. And sometimes it’s just self-indulgent.
I should look up Joshua Caffery, I think. Why Josh Caffery? A simple reason: I can’t get the Red Stick Ramblers’ song “Main Street Blues” out of my head. Mostly I’m being tormented by the line “The promoter’s got an odor like a day-old floater.” It’s a great line, though, redolent with a down-and-dirty, oil-slick, vaguely dangerous bayou feel.
We first encountered the Ramblers at Merlefest in 2003. Jesus the years get away like amphetamine-soaked thoroughbreds. I’d never heard of them, and few experiences on the festival circuit are as satisfying as the unexpected pleasure of a new find. They were young and fresh and captivating in the way they mashed-up traditional Cajun music and Bob Wills-style Texas swing with a dose of Django Rheinhardt thrown for a lagniappe.
In the years since, we’ve seen them quite a few times. We’ve seen them in New Jersey; at Pickathon in Portland, Ore.; and on their home turf at the Blue Moon in Lafayette. Caffery, the composer of “Main Street Blues,” played mandolin for the Ramblers. Now he plays in the acclaimed Cajun band Feufollet. He’s also a writer, an English teacher and a folklorist. His debut book, Ride les Blues, examines the 1934 Lomax recordings in Louisiana. It’s scheduled to be published by LSU Press this year.
Apparently having the odor of a day-old floater stuck in my head doesn’t make me all that unusual. The Google machine turns up quite a few hits. Speaking of which, I love the serendipitous connections the Internet gives you. The first comes from a review of an album by a woman named Mary Flower. It includes a cover of Main Street Blues, and reviewer David Kleiner writes: “This song also has the CD’s most unforgettable line, ‘The promoter’s got an odor like a day-old floater.'”
Went to Youtube to see if I could catch Mary singing the song. It wasn’t there, but I did find a wondrous send-up of the whole Facebook phenomenon. And by God, Mary Flower can play the guitar and sing:
Alas, I’m not calling anyone up tonight. We must plunge onward. We stop at a Pilot, off the I-10 exit for Breaux Bridge, for $2.99 gas. (A little Internet sleuthing reveals Mr. Caffrey lives less than two miles from the travel center.) We’re really going to do it. We’re going to drive straight through the heart of one of America’s most piquant places without doing more than stopping for gas. This affront to decent travel deepens my malaise.
From the evidence provided by the Pilot, you’d be hard-pressed to know you were in Cajun country. The illuminated signboard pimps Arby’s three cheese and bacon turkey sandwich.” Also this: TRUCKS “NO” ENTRY.
What part of “no” don’t you understand, Mr. Trucker? I wonder about two signs that might’ve been: TRUCKS NO “ENTRY” and “TRUCKS” NO ENTRY. Oh well, you can only go with what you got. Inside the Pilot, I walk about dumbly looking for indigenous artifacts. Few elements of Cajunalia. Oh, they got Saints hats and LSU regalia. That means nothing. I could easily be in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. Or even McComb, Miss. Goddamn. What’s wrong with this place?
What’s wrong with me? I don’t want to belabor the point (but belabor it I will, at will), but when you do a Breaux Bridge drive-by without even entertaining a crawdad quest or a two-step fest, well, perhaps you ain’t no storyteller feller after all.
Postscript: And keep on driving we did. We drove through Louisiana and into Metairie, on the cusp of New Orleans. We had concocted a mission to salvage a bit of the lost Louisiana experience by making a run on the Cafe du Monde on Veterans Boulevard. Beignets and chicory coffee would salve the wounded travelers.
Following the dictates of nothing save vague memory, we made it right to Cafe du Monde as if directed by GPS. I parked the behemoth, and Becky jumped out. She was back in a minute. They had closed up at 11. It was 11:15.
We paused to debate a possible run into the city for a visit to the original French Market location, which opened shop on Decatur Street during the Civil War. The pull of New Orleans, coupled with the seductive lure of fried dough and powdered sugar, was strong. Just not strong enough. We were late. Too late. Our quest would have to be satisfied some other day.
We kept driving. And driving, into and through the night. North and west through Louisiana, unromanticized Louisiana, and on into Mississippi. Past Starkville and Hattiesburg and Meridian, all just collections of light in the enveloping darkness. Somewhere we picked up a radio broadcast of the 12-12-12 concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. We got to hear the questionable wonder of Paul McCartney standing in for Kurt Cobain in an unlikely Nirvana reunion. It was hard to imagine the dizzying speed achieved by Cobain’s remains as they turned beneath the ground in a welter of heavenly disgust.
And we drove. More than 300 miles through the deep south, past so much tortured history. I suppose this happens. Sometimes you just need to get home. We finally laid up in the early morning hours, somewhere near 5 a.m., at a rest area just south of Eutaw, Ala. Music stopped us here, too. The Old Crow Medicine Show song, “Big Time in the Jungle.” Written by Critter Fuqua, it chronicles the story of a country boy who leaves Eutaw for the jungles of Vietnam after a meeting with an Army recruiter. (By the way, the other day I noticed a U.S. Armed Forces Career Center on our way back from Gettysburg. They’re not recruiting centers anymore. Well, guess it’s hard to find a career in the old USA nowadays. But people gotta eat.)
It was a good place to stop for the night.
Yesterday, aka Dec. 11, we spent our final day in Texas. After laying up in Baytown outside of Houston following an all-night drive from South Padre Island, we set out in the morning intent on making something happen in Beaumont.
Alas, not much happens in Beaumont. Well, that of course is untrue. Lots of shit happens in Beaumont. Blind Willie Johnson happened in Beaumont. Kev Russell happened in Beaumont, without whom we wouldn’t have the Gourds.
There’s a particular kind of person, and I confess to being one, who can’t seem to shake themselves free from the Gourdian knot. Beaumont and the Golden Triangle always bring to mind Russell’s beautiful, elegiac “Raining in Port Arthur,” which goes back a bit in the Gourd discography. But here it is, as you knew it would be (the video’s shite, but it gives you a little feel for the Gourdian experience):
Spindletop also happened to happen in Beaumont. It blew sky high on an obscure little hill that once upon a time had tickled Patillo Higgins’ imagination. As the oil-and-gas propagandists masquerading as historical curators will be happy to tell you, it changed the way the world did business.
Patillo Higgins was a one-armed, deputy-killing rapscallion who turned his life around, taught himself some geology and became the “Prophet of Spindletop.” As often happens with prophets, no one took him seriously and more than a few laughed at him. The local newspaper scoffed at him and the townsfolk tagged him with the derisive sobriquet “the Millionaire.”
Then one January day in 1901, the ground beneath Beaumont began to shake and rumble in Biblical fashion. Then the earth gave way with an epic gusher erupted into a 150-foot-tall black geyser. Suddenly, Patillo Higgins went from fool to prophet.
For the Lucas Gusher erupted right on the spot Higgins thought it would be. When all was said and done and the profits were tallied, other people got the credit and the lion’s share of the loot.
We started with a visit to the Gladys Town/Spindletop museum on the campus of Lamar University. This made consummate sense. If you’re going to spend more than a week in Texas, you oughta get your hands dirty with a little oil. After visiting such impeccably produced museums as Palo Alto Battlefield and Judge Roy Bean Law West of the Pecos, we were due for a clunker. And I figured it might be so.
While the aforementioned stops were free of charge, Spindletop soaked us $5 apiece, with Max getting in free. Jackie and Jennifer, transplanted Mississippians both, were friendly enough and did their best to answer my questions. A group of school children tittered and chatted and checked their iPads while being shuttled from from the barbershop to the saloon and to the garage and on until the tour had been concluded.
A perfunctory air permeated the enterprise. Maybe the fact that it was a recreated town in an artificial location had something to do with the lack of historical immediacy. The site of the Spindletop gusher sits about a mile south of the Lamar campus.
Maybe I expected too much. The six-minute film was underwritten by Mobil – and I confess it was interesting to learn Mobil, Texaco and Sunoco all had their roots at Spindletop.
Beaumont went from a 9,000-person lumber town to a wide-open, every-man-for-himself lunatic asylum throbbing with 50,000 residents in a matter of months. And that should be damn interesting.
Not sure what’s wrong with this place. It just fails to breathe with the living history of thousands of forgotten workers risking their lives in the pursuit of shadowy dreams. The Spindletop set-up offers nothing like the vignette about long-gone driller named Charlie which I picked up on a walking tour of old derricks outside the Oklahoma History Museum.
Charlie’s sad fate was recounted years later by a fellow driller with the improbably wonderful name of “Dog-Tired Simms.”
“Charlie liked his jug,” Dog-Tired told an interviewer. “It was his ruination. Charlie got drunk, got sloppy, and the next thing you know the boiler blew up, raining iron, tool dresser and Charlie for 15 minutes by the clock.”
That’s the standard by which I judge oil museums. The Charlie Standard. They got no Charlie here. What they do have is the six-minute propaganda film that passed for a documentary sketch of Spindletop’s history.
The bloodless voice informs us:
“Spindletop was important for many reasons. The Lucas gusher was the biggest geyser of oil ever seen in the U.S. The Spindletop field produced more oil than any other field – over 17 million barrels in 1902. The oil developments started at Spindletop created the modern oil industry and fueled a revolution – Spindletop set the world in motion.”
Still, Patillo Higgins managed to provide a little color, as did George W. O’Brien and of course Mr. Anthony F. Lucas. But there’s little passion or color or humanity in the story. Or maybe I was in a bad mood.
Jackie and Jennifer could offer little more than the company line: The Spindletop explosion revolutionized the way the world operated. Got it.
No first-hand accounts or anecdotes about the workers who risked their lives working for Lucas, the Hamills and the money men.
We learn when the well exploded, “hurling four tons of drill pipe skyward and knocking the crown block of the derrick,” men ran for their lives. That makes sense. We just don’t hear much from the men themselves.
I guess, more than anything, the lingering industry advertisement the producers worked into the film left a sour taste in my mouth:
“In its own way, the petrochemical industry has proven to be a boon to southeast Texas, pumping millions of dollars annually into the area’s economy. This industry has been a mainstay in Texas for many years …”
“The distant rumble of the gusher that changed the face of the world forever.”
We stopped at the Beaumont Public Library. A visit to the public library never fails to lift the spirits. I scuffled about on the Web in an effort to assemble a quick-hitting Beaumont tour, while Max and Becky made Christmas ornaments upstairs. Motivated by an email I received from Lauri a month or so ago, I decided we should make a pilgrimage to commune with the ghost of Blind Willie Johnson.
Johnson is a little-known American musical giant. He was a gospel singing bottleneck-guitar wizard. Today he’s a will-o-the-wisp, a deeply fascinating character whose legend has been shrouded in the mists of time. All he left behind were 30 songs, recorded for Columbia from 1927-30. He died a pauper in a 1945, in a Beaumont house that had been ravaged by fire. The house was not refurbished, and he slept atop a pile of newspapers which covered his water-soaked bed.
His “Dark Was the Night-Cold Was the Ground” is the soundtrack for the 1984 Wim Wenders film “Paris, Texas.” The slide guitarist Ry Cooder has called it the “most transcendent piece in all American music.”
Recorded in a Dallas motel room, Johnson’s song now dances on the outer fringes of the solar system, hurtling about the “Magnetic Highway,” looking for the exit to a nebulous region scientists call interstellar space. Voyager I, launched by NASA on Sept. 1, 1977, has traveled farther from earth than any of man’s creations.
“Dark Was the Night-Cold Was the Ground” is the penultimate piece on a gold-plated record that NASA included on Voyager I. It is an interplanetary message in a bottle, a Rosetta Stone of sorts so future civilizations might know something about us. The final piece is a Beethoven string quartet.
How elusive is Blind Willie Johnson? Go on youtube to check out one of his songs, and you’re likely to see a photograph of the great Georgia bluesman Blind Willie McTell. And at least Blind Willie McTell got Bob Dylan to name a song after him. But he’s not rambling about mysterious byways of outer space and keeping company with the likes of Beethoven and Chuck Berry.
More than a few people, however, have been compelled by Johnson’s haunting genius and frustrating evanescence and have set out to unravel his story.
Yeah won’t somebody tell me, just what is the soul of a man? Again, the photograph you see is of Blind Willie McTell. The performance is by Blind Willie Johnson.
Perhaps to partially answer the question, we set out on an absurd and unguided Blind Willie Johnson historical tour. We found the marker where his home and church, the House of Prayer, once stood at 1440 Forrest St. It rests on the property of the Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church. There’s nothing to see here.
Next we set off in search of his gravestone. Two of Johnson’s most devoted researchers and questers, Shane Ford and Anna Obek, erected the monument at the Blanchette Cemetery on Beaumont’s south side in December of 2010.
No one has found incontrovertible evidence, but the consensus guess is that Johnson was buried in a potter’s field hereabouts. We stumbled about until we found what certainly was the graveyard on Hegele Street. The cemetery is larger than I had imagined, and the sun is sinking fast. We’d have a hell of a time finding it out in this humble neighborhood that’s hard by the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
I rushed about in scattered fashion, autumn crunching under my feet. Cracked, listing and fallen gravestones, many anonymous, littered this poor man’s field. I found the marker but felt no joy in the moment.
I just felt like a goddamn fool.
I stood there in the twilight, above ground which may or may not the remains of a great musician whose name would mean nothing to the overwhelming majority of Americans. Sure, I had known his name for decades, but I couldn’t really have told you all that much about him. Had you been there and asked, I might’ve even had a hard time telling you just why he’s so important, and just what made him a wonderful musician.
To the point, I’ll underscore a wonderful piece, written by a guy named Michael Hall, about the search for Johnson’s legacy. It’s great reading. It appeared a couple years back in the Texas Monthly, and was called to my attention by the aforementioned Cowtown Brown.
Hall’s story includes this testimonial from Austin slide guitarist Steve James:
“He’s the very best. A friend of mine and I were listening to one of his recordings, and we stayed up all night, slowed down the turntable, played it over and over. We figured out he got twelve separate pitches by striking the string once, all inside one measure. I’ve been trying to do that for twenty-five years, and I can do seven or eight. There’s a saying guitarists have when we try to play Blind Willie: ‘I’m getting as close as I can.’”
So there. Make of it what you will.
It doesn’t make me feel like any less of an idiot about our little Blind Willie Johnson quest. A black man was grilling in the backyard of an adjacent house as I stood by Johnson’s, well, distinctive guitar-on-cross marker. I wondered why I forced us to come here. I also wondered what was on the mind of the two women who’d joined the man by the grill. One of the women cast a wary glance in our direction.
Maybe this: Crazy white folk, what they hell are they doing out in that graveyard with that little boy at this time of day? Who gives a damn about a blind dead old singer that nobody ever heard of? What’s wrong with them?
And, you know, good question. What is wrong with me? Maybe it’s the romantic, good, old-fashioned, liberal racist in me, but I can’t help but wonder if the grave of a forgotten blues genius should look like this …
I don’t know what those women were thinking, or what the man was thinking, because I didn’t have the courage to ask. I’m easily intimidated, and brilliant when it comes to rationalizing reasons not to bother people with my private obsessions.
And so I chalked up the Blind Willie Johnson quest as just one more failure of the imagination. The whole episode recalled the 2003 escapade where Becky and I stumbled around a Mississippi graveyard at midnight looking for Charley Patton’s grave in Holly Ridge, Miss.
We stumbled giddily across a soggy, undulating field. A cotton gin roared next door. It was the middle of October, the busy season in cotton country.
Only this time, our hands were forced. We never would’ve found the great Delta bluesman’s resting spot had it not been for the kindness of a truck driver who had just delivered a trailer full of cotton. We had an amiable chat, and he pointed us in the right direction. Later we toured the innerds of the cotton gin. It sounded something like hell on earth. It throbbed as if the entirety of the Industrial Revolution had been shoehorned into a single building. My ears ring in the recollection. I’d never been in a louder place.
I made a halting effort at a shouting interview with the night manager. I have no idea where or in what notebook the notes I scribbled that evening are now.
And yet the search for Charley Patton remains capable of eliciting a smile nearly a decade hence, while the Blind Willie Johnson tour leaves me shaking my head.