Feb 9, 2015

Ode to Typewriter

Monday morning. Coffee and writing and Tom Waits singing, "Forgive me pretty baby / but I always take the long way home."

The books in the picture are from a nice little weekend haul at a local used-book store. The Tom Waits song is from the movie version of Larry Brown's "Big Bad Love," which my wife calls "Big Bad Movie." I understand why -- it's a movie about a writer as a fairly lousy human being. He busts up his family, drinks to the point of fighting, and generally can't get, or keep, his shit together. I love it, still and all, for all sorts of reasons, from the Mississippi setting with its high kudzu count to the soundtrack with R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, Tom Waits and Steve Earle. I especially like that it's a movie about a writer in which the writer actually writes during the movie. Typewriters were harmed in the making of this film!

For the record, though: I do fully disagree with the premise that you have to be a shitheel to be a successful writer (and by successful, I just mean write great books), despite this movie and all the real-life evidence that suggest otherwise, and of course that thing Faulkner said:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.

Jan 27, 2015

They're Red Hot (Small Batch Fiction No. 13)

Hot tamales
and they're red hot
Yeah, she got 'em
for sale

-- "They're Red Hot," Robert Johnson

She came upon a country crossroads. She parked the car and joined a line twelve deep to buy tamales from a little trailer painted pepper-red with yellow writing all about it, quoting satisfied customers, famous regulars, and scripture. Ivy would not have thought there lived twelve people in a twenty-mile radius of this place, but she knew tamales in the Mississippi Delta-style could draw crowds from miles away, from other states and time zones, seats of foreign power. Delta lore held that tamales were the one thing both God and the Devil called good, that if those two ever held a summit to bring about some peaceful accord, they wouldn’t break bread, but instead Saltine crackers, over saucers of the house specialty from Doe’s Eat Place or maybe Hick’s Famous. Well, that was the Delta lore – or maybe just something Ivy’s mama made up, from scratch.

-- from my novel, "Ivy Coldwater"

Dec 15, 2014

Plaints to haints, and other songs of longing (The Soundcheck & the Fury 2014 Music Awards)

... when you listen to a song like “The Prettiest Train I Ever Saw,” recorded in 1947, you hear with shocking clarity the only non-vocal element of the song, the thing that keeps the rhythm: the sound of the prisoners’ hoes breaking into the Mississippi clay.

-- Chuck Reece, writing for The Bitter Southerner about Dust--to-Digital's "Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959"

I'm going down to Memphis
when I get my 'role
Stand on the levee
and hear the big boats blow

-- "I'm Going to Memphis," Percy Wilson (aka Buzzard) and group, from the Parchman recordings

You can bust your feet
You can rock this joint
But oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?

-- Dylan in the basement with The Band, singing "Crash on the Levee (Take 1)"

Crossing into Coahoma County, she came upon a little country crossroads. There she stopped. She did not see Satan, prince of darkness, in his pinstripes and spats, drumming up some of his dirty business, or Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, strumming his blue guitar and singing about hellhounds and hot tamales, dead shrimp and kitchen sex with some dusky gal. She cut the engine and listened to that sad Mississippi morning, to the stir and creak of the coming day. She thought Jesus might then appear, from up the road a piece. But no. She gave him some more time, but still nothing. It would not be like Jesus to keep a regular schedule, like with a train. We know not when the hour, and Jesus was not the Delta Limited.

-- from my novel-in-progress, "Ivy Coldwater"

The older I get, the older I want it. Give me my music aged, like sweet Kentucky bourbon. But give it to me rough, like pure backwoods busthead. Sing it from the hills and hollers. Sing it in the basement, like it's a secret from the world. Sing it on Parchman Farm, and set it to the sound of axes and doom. Sing of women and murder, floods and trains, life and life after. Sing of Tiny Montgomery and Dollar Mamie, of Berta and Stackalee and Poor Lazarus.
Sing the "Disability Boogie Woogie" (sounding like something Sam Phillips might have cut at 706 Union, in Memphis, between Howlin' Wolf and Joe Hill Louis sessions). Sing of the Yazoo Street Scandal and that Million Dollar Bash. Sing about how the only thing you did wrong, was stay in Mississippi a day too long ...

Songs of ache and itch. Songs that wish and wink. Blue stomps and nursery rhymes on a bender. Plaints to haints. ... There's a tunnel from Parchman Farm, in Mississippi, to Big Pink, in New York -- for there are many tunnels, more than you can possible imagine, in the Old, Weird America -- so it's fitting that Dust-to-Digital's "Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959" and Dylan and The Band's complete "Basement Tapes," were released at roughly the same time, in the same year. My favorite records of 2014? These aged, ancient wonders ...

Yes, there was some damned fine music actually recorded and released in 2014, as well. You just had to know where to dig. Below are my "great 28," led by a classic in the making, one for the ages -- Sturgill Simpson, out of Kentucky, sounding like an existential Waylon Jennings (or one of the boys in the basement), singing, "So don't waste your mind on nursery rhymes / or fairy tales of blood and wine / It's turtles all the way down the line."

The list ...

1. "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," Sturgill Simpson
2. "Jim Mize," Jim Mize
3. "Water Liars," Water Liars
4. "If The Roses Don’t Kill Us," Christopher Denny
5. "Small Town Heroes," Hurray for the Riff Raff
6. "Wine Dark Sea," Jolie Holland
7. "Blind Water Finds Blind Water," Adam Faucett
8. "Runaway's Diary," Amy LaVere
9. "Everlasting Arms," Luke Winslow-King
10. "English Oceans," Drive-By Truckers
11. "Here Be Monsters," Jon Langford & Skull Orchard
12. "Most Messed Up," Old 97's
13. "Wild Animals," Trampled by Turtles
14. "Rock 'n Roll Blues," Luther Dickinson
15. "Prospect Hill," Dom Flemons
16. "Night Surfer," Chuck Prophet
17. "The River and the Thread," Rosanne Cash
18. "...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin," The Roots
19. "Half the City," St. Paul & the Broken Bones
20. "Dark Night of the Soul," Jimbo Mathus
21. "Popular Problems," Leonard Cohen
22. "Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth," Otis Gibbs
23. "The Littlest Prisoner," Jenny Scheinman
24. "Benji," Sun Kil Moon
25. "Lazaretto," Jack White
26. "Swimmin’ Time," Shovels & Rope
27. "The No-Hit Wonder," Cory Branan
28. (tie) "Common Ground," Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin; "Tarpaper Sky," Rodney Crowell; and "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone," Lucinda Williams; "Dereconstructed," Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires

Dec 7, 2014

One Hand Loose (Small-Batch Fiction No. 9 and 29)

I'm a tip-top daddy and I'm gonna have my way
Keep away from the corners, hear what I got to say
Hold a-one hand only, get a-ready for a ride
Give me one hand loose and I'll be satisfied

-- "One Hand Loose," Charlie Feathers

She didn’t know about sharing a joint, the etiquette of such. She didn’t think you could just tear it in half. She guessed you’d just pass it back and forth, and maybe their hands would brush, in the exchange. Maybe one of their fingers would get burned and the other would kiss it. That’s how it would begin – the start of them – and so they’d have to make up another story, one not involving an outlaw crop, to tell to their children when they asked how the two of them met. She was, she thought, getting far ahead of herself.

-- from my novel, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

A dark man in a cream-colored suit appeared, and then they were dancing, and the house orchestra played one wild rag and then another, and then slowed it down for a torch number – a leaving song, a sad lament – and he had his hand on the small of her bare back. She couldn’t get a look at his face, for hers buried in the crook of his neck. He smelled like whiskey, gun powder, train smoke, typewriter ribbon, gumbo with fresh okra, the Gulf of Mexico. He spoke, but not words; it was as if he were humming in some foreign tongue. Ivy felt trade winds upon her neck. He kissed her there. She smelled spice routes and summer rain, and trouble, of a sort.

-- from my novel-in-progress, "Ivy Coldwater"

Nov 12, 2014

'Cussed and discussed, boycotted, talked to and talked about'

Wednesday afternoon. Coffee and writing and old stringband music by the likes of the Arkansas Barefoot Boys and George Edgin's Corn Dodgers, Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the great Lonnie Glosson ...

I've worked like heck, and been worked like heck, folks
I've been drunk and got others drunk
Lost all I had and part of my furniture
Because I want to go around now
and spend what little I earn,
and go beg, borrow and steal,

I've been cussed and discussed, boycotted,
talked to and talked about,
lied to and lied about,
held up and hung up,
and I'm doggone nigh murdered

-- "Arkansas Hard Luck Blues," Lonnie Glosson, a 1936 talking blues from the Dust-to-Digital compilation "Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers & Hoss Hair Pullers"

Nov 3, 2014

Oh Death Where is Thy Sting? (More hymns, elegies, and cemetery polkas)

The day was hot. Mourners crowded the house and spilled out onto the dock, where they stood and talked. It was so hot, a bird dropped down out of the sky and walked in the shadows of the mourners to cool off. There was lively talk, gossip, sometimes laughter. A typical Southern wake.

-- Lewis Nordan, "The Sharpshooter Blues"

You need a little something to save your soul
Come on down to Cemetery Road

-- "Cemetery Road," Fred Eaglesmith

She was gone, twenty-odd years dead and buried in the Tennessee dirt with her Tennessee kin. Old Willie could have told you, in minutes and kisses and kitchen-table toddies, in chides and spats and the odd retort, how long it had been, exactly. God, but he missed her – the mouth on her, her spitfire nature; the simmer and slow burn of her, too. They were nothing alike; he was the sweetest man alive, altogether a gentle soul, and she could cuss the sweet off of Jesus. She was, he said, the spike in his holy water.

-- from my novel "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

1. "Oh Death Where is Thy Sting?" Rev. J.M. Gates
2. "Cemetery Polka," Tom Waits
3. "Prayer of Death, Part 1," Charley Patton
4. "Cemetery Road," Fred Eaglesmith
5. "O Death," Bessie Jones
6. "Hymn No. 101," Joe Pug
7. "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Ramblin' Jack Elliott
8. "Country Cemetery," Tift Merritt
9. "The Death of Sis Draper," Guy Clark
10. "Mexican Home," John Prine
11. "Funeral Song for Mississippi John Hurt," John Fahey & His Orchestra
12. "Funeral Road Blues," Charlie Parr
13-14. "Blessed Assurance" and "Let the Mystery Be," Iris DeMent

The air's as still
As the throttle on a funeral train

-- "Mexican Home," John Prine

Nov 1, 2014

There will be mud

It's the first day of November. Do you know where your copy of "Bleak House" is?

... Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

-- From "Bleak House"

Oct 31, 2014

Tom Waits for Halloween

From the S&F archives ...

If we had a few more Halloweens a year, I might be able to turn enough little kids onto the music of Tom Waits that our man would someday sit atop the pop heapscrap wearing a crown of triple-platinum.

Alas, I get one night. I get Halloween.

Every year on the dark night, I put the boombox out on the front porch stoop and play Tom's "Bone Machine," the scariest of the master's works. It opens with bones a-rattle and our man singing in the chorus,

And the earth died screaming
While I lay dreaming
of you

So the box booms and sends Tom's raspy wheeze across the land -- well, my street, called Summerfield Lane -- and little ears perk and hear it, and a little voice says, "That ain't 'Monster Mash,' is it, sister?"

Couple of years ago, one kid lingered to dance on the front porch stoop as the music bellowed and the bones rattled and my hopes for America's youth soared on blackbirds' wings into that darkest of nights.

Oct 19, 2014

Song of the Bottle Tree (Sunday-morning mix, previously unreleased)

A song called him South that last time. The song said, “Go to Eula.” Where she could be found, the song had not said and Malcolm did not know. But the song was in his head; his lungs sounded it and his ears perked and heard it and his bones took limber heed. He strummed on.

The song passed back to the strings of the old guitar and the song passed to the morning breeze and the morning breeze sang it back.

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," John F. Blair, Publisher

I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I ain't got enough room to even raise my head

-- "The Levee's Gonna Break," Bob Dylan

Let this be a warning
Says the magpie to the morning

-- "Magpie to the Morning," Neko Case

We've got the sun, the sun to thank

-- "Sun Song," Laura Veirs

Just this Morning
Heard my favorite record on the radio
Just this morning
Heard my favorite record on the radio
Just this morning
Side A
Just this morning
Side B

-- "Just This Morning," The Silos

Jesus wept, Memphis slept. They both awoke the next morning, not so very much worse for wear.

-- from my novel, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

Oct 11, 2014

Magic of the melancholy (Accidental Saturday Night Roller Rink Mix)

Tell me, is it the crack of the pool balls, neon buzzing
Telephone's ringing, it's your second cousin
Is it the barmaid that's smiling from the corner of her eye
Magic of the melancholy tear in your eye

-- "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" Tom Waits

That woman was Saturday night at Tuesday noon. The wind couldn’t catch her, but the man tried. He bought her drinks, held on tight. She made him crazy, put schemes in his mind. He robbed a store for her – hell, would have robbed a church, if she’d asked.

-- from the next one, "Ivy Coldwater and the Search for the Southern Dogface"

A Saturday-night playlist ...
1. "I Wish it was Saturday Night," Dave Alvin
2. "Meet Me on the Corner," Motel Mirrors (Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith)
3. "Almost Saturday Night," Dave Edmunds
4. "Goin' to the Party," Alabama Shakes
5. "Saturday Night Rub," Phil & Dave Alvin
6. "Shake Your Hips," Slim Harpo
7. "Mississippi Saturday Night," Old Crow Medicine Show
8. "Rollerskate Skinny," Old 97's
9. "Every Saturday Night," Young's Creole Jazz Band
10. "Shake Your Shimmy," The Midnight Rounders
11. "Saturday Night Hymn," Al Miller's String Band
12. "Steve Forbert's Midsummer Night's Toast," Steve Forbert
13. "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" Tom Waits
14. "It's Midnight," St. Paul & The Broken Bones
15. "Accordion Song (Accidental Saturday Night Kitchen Mix)," Eliza Carthy

Sep 13, 2014

Sadness sawed in two (More songs about war and that other thing)

Two hundred miles from turning back
Two hundred from ever going home
A man can be so easy lost
When he’s on the mountain road
Oh, Shiloh

-- "Shiloh," Magnolia Electric Company

Ivy passed from Mississippi into West Tennessee, bound for Shiloh’s fields of battle. She took the long, slow way getting there. It was farm roads and country lanes, mostly, and old fiddle tunes on the box – sadness, sawed in two and then made whole, in reel time. The singers sang about sweethearts and home, and they sang about that old soldier’s joy.

-- from a novel in progress, "Ivy Coldwater and the Search for the Southern Dogface"

A playlist ...
1. "Bright Sunny South," Doc & Merle Watson
2. "Shiloh," Magnolia Electric Company
3. "Soldier's Joy," Dixie String Band
4. "Girl in the War," Josh Ritter
5. "Soldiers Get Strange," Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
6. "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)," Drive-By Truckers
7. "Soldier's Joy," Holy Modal Rounders
8. "The Gentleman Soldier," The Pogues
9. "Just Before the Battle, Mother," Steve Earle and Dirk Powell
10-11. "Drone Operator" and "What Did You Do During the War?" Jon Langford & Skull Orchard
12. "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," Okkervil River
13. "Road to Peace," Tom Waits
14. "Beautiful Dreamer," Cowboy Jack Clement
15. "Soldier's Joy, 1864" Guy Clark
16. "Soldier's Joy," Gib Tanner & His Skillet Lickers
17. "Soldier's Joy," the North Carolina Hawaiians
18. "Soldier's Joy," Nashville Washboard Band
19. "Soldier's Joy," Laura Veirs
20. "Two Soldiers," Bob Dylan
21. "Tour of Duty," Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

We’ll laugh like little children telling secrets
Probably cry like old women drinking gin
Because I’ve done my tour of duty, now I’m home
And I ain’t leaving here again

-- "Tour of Duty," Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Aug 23, 2014

River days and driftwood dreams

... he said there was nutriciousness in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in his stomach if he wanted to.

-- "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain

And I was thinking ’bout my river days
I was thinking ’bout me and Jim
Passing Cairo on a getaway
With every steamboat like a hymn

-- "Monster Ballads," Josh Ritter

A Saturday-night playlist ...
1. "Steamboat Gwine 'Round De Bend," John Fahey
2. "The River," Audra Mae
3. "She's Got Jordan River in Her Hips," Clifford Jackson
4. "Everybody Knows (The River Song)," O.V. Wright
5. "Somewhere Down the Crazy River," Robbie Robertson
6. "The River Hymn," The Band
7. "Down to the River to Pray," Alison Krauss
8. "Big River," Johnny Cash
9. "Big Wide River of Love," Petunia & the Vipers
10. "Little River," The Tallest Man on Earth
11. "The Lonesome River," The Stanley Brothers
12. "High Water Everywhere, Pts. 1 and 2," Charley Patton
13. "High Water (For Charley Patton)," Bob Dylan
14-15. "Moon River" and "Monster Ballads," Josh Ritter
16. "Lost on the River," Hank Williams
17. "I Walked Out in the River," Otis Gibbs
18. "Everybody Knows (The River Song)," Naomi Gibbs & the Gospel Queens

“Why, I heard a story one time,” Ivy said, “of a man who went to sleep in his bed in Cairo and woke up clinging to a piece of driftwood in the Mississippi River, just on account of that’s what he was dreaming about.”

-- from the next one, "Ivy Coldwater"

Aug 16, 2014

Ode to August 16 (Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, and a reason to believe)

Evidently, in August 1938, Johnson was playing at a dance in Three Forks, some fifteen miles out of Greenwood, as Honeyboy Edwards suggested. He and Honeyboy had been playing out there for several weeks running, by Honeyboy's account.

-- from "Searching for Robert Johnson," by Peter Guralnick

He must have chosen the wrong woman in Three Forks. His death certificate, finally discovered by Gayle Dean Wardlow in 1968, lists no cause of death, but supposed eyewitnesses have told that Johnson died after drinking whiskey laced with strychnine. Some have said that Johnson crawled on his hands and knees and barked like a dog before he died...

-- from the chapter, "Robert Johnson's Satanic Verses," in Frances Davis's "The History of the Blues"

I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying and ordered a Jack Daniels, straight from Tennessee, just like Elvis Presley's first 45s.

-- Greil Marcus, upon hearing the news, writing in "Dead Elvis"

You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can get a Greyhound bus and ride

-- "Me and the Devil Blues," Robert Johnson

I straddled that greyhound
and rode him into Raleigh
and I went across Carolin'

-- "Promised Land," Elvis Presley (singing Chuck Berry)

We’re going to Memphis, the sacred muck, the shining jewel of all sad backwaters. We’re going to Memphis, great lost city of sound. You can walk on whiskey in Memphis. You can bang your blue guitar.

-- from "Long Gone Daddies," John F. Blair, Publisher

But I've reason to believe
we all will be received

-- "Graceland," Paul Simon

Aug 9, 2014

The Jukebox Repairman (Small-Batch Fiction No. 99)

You can bust your feet
And you can rock this joint
But oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?

-- "Down in the Flood," Flatt & Scruggs

The jukebox repairman sat at the bar, drinking black coffee thick as sludge, and the old man stood behind it, washing highball and pint and shot glasses, and then setting them on the nubbed rubber mat to dry. The silence in the place was far too noisy and suited neither of them – the creak of the plank-wood floor as the old man shifted his weight while he washed the glasses, the metal wheeze of the barstool as the jukebox repairman leaned forward to sip of the sludge. The low hum of refrigeration and the resigned sigh of the heating unit seemed to be speaking to one another; there seemed to be the makings of some truce between them. There was the blink and flicker of the lights overhead and busy fritz of neon in the front window. There might have been a cricket, somewhere in the crevices of the old joint, shivering and covering its ears.

“Can I get you something for that coffee?”

The old man’s coffee, it was said, could raise the dead and rob banks.

The jukebox repairman drank his black, but preferred liquid to sludge, and so he said, “Sure, some cream if you’ve got it.”

The old man said, “I meant a little shot of something.”

“People put whiskey in their coffee?” The jukebox repairman was not much of a drinker; at the age his contemporaries first discovered drink he was holed up in his bedroom, listening to records as if for clues. His first love had been an old Etta James album cover, the “Tell Mama” LP, from his father’s collection.

-- from the story, "Tales of Ancient Grease"