Wednesday, December 12, 2007



I don't remember how old I was. Now I am not so old but you understand that even as a beginner in the game of old man's tales I'm already lost.
Both of us were old enough to get into trouble. But too young to get a hotel room, for which in the state of Tennessee one must be at least 21, I do remember that, the way one accrues useless facts over the years like burrs with their little hooks dig into the fabric of a woolly sweater.
It was John's idea, that we should travel to Othar Turner's house and there we should join in the barbeque party he was known to host, at which he was said to roast a pig on a spit and then his fife & drum band was said to play, somewhere outside of Memphis.
Somehow along the way, during that trip into the warm, worn-out soul of Memphis, marked by all sorts of eccentric polaroid projects, and little journalist notebooks filled up with jottings like BUCKSNORT TROUT RANCH and WILD DOGS ROAM THE STREETS IN SOCIAL HILL, and monkeying around at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and giving money to a crackhead on Beale Street that I thought was the parking attendant, and staying at the Admiral Benbow, the fleabag establishment that was the only place that'd take two minors in for the night, and all manner of mythical trouble that one can run into in those fleeting years when restless imagination collides head-on with adventurous spirit, with it was clear we were never getting to Othar's house. Wrong time of year or something. We did see Al Green perform and preach at his church for Sunday mass. And we did see a shopping cart on fire. At least that's what I wrote down.
And we did go to Junior Kimbrough's music hall/barn somewhere in north Alabama, I mean really deep in a northern pocket of the state. Middle of nowhere. God's Lost Corner. The place full of locals and the band playing electric blues in this low-roofed little hutch in the side of the wall. And we did see a tall, imposing gentleman in a fine suit walk in flanked by two women, and after a while we saw the men in the crowd had gathered round one of these two associates, who sat in a chair and for the benefit of potential clients, smoked a cigar with her vagina.

Othar Turner's music, you understand, is wholly without comparison. It is the kind of sound that seems to have sprung up from the earth itself, connected to nothing. That sounds like it has been around piping and crying out and calling out since before there was anything.

'Everybody Hollerin' Goat', Turner's debut album, came out when he was 90. When he passed away, his 12 year-old granddaughter took over on the fife. That's the line-up I saw when the Rising All-Star Fife and Drum band played NYC a few years ago, the daughter on fife and a bunch of dudes on drums.

Now one unique characteristic of most American folk music is its lack of drums. I don't know why this is. But I think it's made Americans somehow afraid of drums, afraid of rhythm, that's why techno has never really caught on in the populist way that it has done in other Western cultures. It's been missing from our bloodstream. In the old South they took away slaves' drums so they couldn't rebel. But during the Civil War discarded military marching band equipment sometimes found its way into the hands of the slaves, hence the fife and drum.

It is the kind of music that comfortably middle-class suburban kids like myself enjoy using to remind themselves that things can be otherwise, enjoying using as a totem to feed the belief that life's elemental, inexhaustable strangeness has not yet fully withdrawn into the dark.

This album is impossible to describe according to phrases like 'recommended if you like', because it's so primordially joyful, it bypasses taste. Instead I should just say 'recommend if you like being alive'.

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