The Roots of Our Complete Disregard for Authority

My dad’s mom was the first person in her family to marry someone who wasn’t English. My dad’s dad was the first person in his family to marry someone who wasn’t German. In fact, even though my grandpa’s family had been in the U.S. for generations, he was the first generation in his family who spoke only English and it was very scandalous that my grandparents were marrying outside of their ethnic groups.

This is the family story about that German-speaking enclave around Battle Creek, Michigan. The family story goes like this*. During the first world war, German POWs were brought to Fort Custer, just outside of Battle Creek. During the day, they were allowed to go out and work in the community–on family farms or in businesses or wherever–free prison labor for whoever needed it.

And then a disease of some sort hit the Fort–the flu, I think, but diagnoses have varied throughout the years–and the administration at Fort Custer, in an effort to contain the outbreak, asked community families to give room and board to the prisoners who weren’t sick, and those who were ill were then confined to the Fort.

Once the epidemic was over, the folks from Fort Custer went out into the community to ask for their German prisoners back. But, lo and behold, a lot of people couldn’t recall ever giving housing to a prisoner.

“You didn’t notice a guy who only spoke German in the neighborhood?”

“No, a lot of us only speak German. What would be so unusual about that?”

And so, some number of the prisoners were never found.

I sometimes wonder if that story’s true and, if so, what happened to those men. Did some of them make their way back to Germany? Or did they just fade into the community and live ever after as Americans?

*You know the rules; I make no claims of truth to any family story I haven’t actually witnessed.

Church Building

Speaking of the Amish and places once under the Mississippi, I once worked with a woman from Keithsburg, Illinois, which was under water during the flood of ’93.

Driving around Keithsburg even as late as ’97, you could still see water damage on some of the buildings that marked how high the water had been.

My co-worker’s story was pretty heartbreaking, how the Corps knew that the town was going to flood–the levee on the Mississippi couldn’t hold–and so they’d go around town spraypainting lines on telephone poles so that folks would know how high the water would come and move their stuff above it.

And, in a last ditch effort to save the town, they decided to blow the levee along the creek, which was backing up because the river was higher than the creek. They thought if they blew that levee, they could save some of the town, that the flooding wouldn’t be that bad.

The Corps called another meeting and said that everyone should go by the orange lines on the phone poles. And my co-worker said, “I don’t have an orange line.” And no one said anything. So, she said it again, “I don’t have an orange line.”

And then someone said quietly and as kindly as possible–not someone from the Corps, of course–“You don’t have a home.”

She said that, when the time came, they sounded the tornado sirens three times and then there was a wall of water and, for a long time, she thought they were wrong, that her house was fine, because she could still see her back porch. Then she realized that her back porch had broken off the house and was just floating around.

One of the churches in town was destroyed in the flood as well. And after the water receded, trucks full of Amish and Mennonite men came, no one knew from where, and they brought lumber and building supplies and built them a new church, up out of the reach of the water.

"Muddy Water Would Like to Join the Church, But to Do So Would Mean Abandoning His Guitar"

[Okay, I’m going to violate my “no blogging about work” policy one more time because I am so excited and the SuperGenius, the Shill, and the Professor are tired of getting minute-by-minute updates, and so I’m going to inflict myself on y’all. I’ll just say up-front that I think it’s a little dodgy to hawk my wares on my personal blog, so if you resent that type of thing, just skip down to more posts about my crazy family or awesome dog.]

Those of you who’ve been paying attention know that I’ve been feeling both anxious and excited about my dead men and their project, which I have been working on diligently for a couple of years.

Today, the book jackets arrived from the printer’s.

The books themselves should arrive next week or early the week after (fingers crossed that there are no problems).

One drawback to working on scholarly books is that you read this stuff that really affects you and changes how you see something (say, Gertrude Stein) and hardly anyone else gives a shit. Most people can barely get into Stein, let alone Stein scholarship.

But this book, though it’s very scholarly, ought to matter to a lot of music fans.

Here’s the skinny. When Alan Lomax went down to Coahoma County and “discovered” Muddy Waters, he wasn’t alone. He went as a part of a joint project between Fisk University here in town and the Library of Congress. There were a lot of folks from Fisk down there as well.

Two professors–Lewis Jones and John Work–were supposed to collaborate with the Library of Congress and produce a manuscript about the research they did down there. One graduate student, Samuel Adams, was going to use his research as the basis for his master’s thesis.

Anyway, for a long time no one was sure if this material had actually come into being and, if it had, whether it still existed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov did a lot of detective work and found it.

Some of the stuff in the book–like the 160 song transcriptions Work did of the music they recorded down there (including the Muddy Waters recordings)–was preserved only on microfilm in Fisk’s special collections. There was a span of about 6 months when I was pretty sure I knew where every paper copy made from that microfilm was, and was constantly worried about fire because at least half of those copies were here in my office.

But now, the book is about to roll off the press and I am relieved and excited and worried that no one else will find this as cool as I do. If you are a fan of Delta blues or Fisk University or rural African American culture, I don’t see how this book will fail to blow you away.

Of course you can read Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began for his memories–fifty years later–of what the study was like. But these are accounts written shortly after the trips were taken, before anyone knew who Muddy Waters was. Hell, right before he was even Muddy Waters, and still calling himself Muddy Water. There’s also great stuff in the book on rural African American church culture, which I got a big kick out of because of my relation to the Reverend.

Marketing put excerpts up on the website and you can peruse them to get a feel for the wealth of material in the book. Don’t tell Marketing I told you this, but if you order it from Amazon, with their discount you can also get Muddy Waters’ Plantation Recordings (the actual recordings Work and Lomax made, including the interviews Work and Lomax did) and both together are the same as the list price for the book.

Anyway, I’ve worked on a lot of projects that I’ve loved (in fact, one luxury of my job is that I don’t work on things I don’t love), and I’ve worked on a lot of things that I’ve been very proud of, even if the rest of the world didn’t share my enthusiasm, but I’ve never been so honored to work on a project as I am to have worked on this one.

I feel honored and lucky. When I first opened the package from the editors and saw those hand written transcriptions and saw names like “McKinley Morganfield” and “Alec Robertson” at the tops of the pages, I felt like I’d stumbled on buried treasure.

The most amazing thing about this stuff is that it, of course, lacks all the nostalgia most writing about this period in the Delta’s history has. These men are genuinely excited to hear Morganfield perform, but they’re hearing him fresh, without the weight of his future fame shaping that experience. Work, for instance, spends more time talking about this crazy, blind preacher. And it’s not that Work guessed wrong–that the preacher would be more important than the blues singer–it’s that he’s trying to capture a world about to be lost, full of folks who distribute broadsides and preachers who sing to their congregations and women who teach their kids to play humpty-stump.

Morganfield is the future, and Work knows it.

It’s good to be reminded that the blues are not ancient. That once upon a time, not so long ago, a classically trained musician and arranger went down to the Delta and struggled with the language used to describe the guitar solos the blues players were performing, so new and innovative was the styling. That in 1941, Muddy Waters was the voice of young men, who moved off the plantation and into town and then into the city where they plugged in and exploded all over history.

I am so lucky to be involved in my tangential way. I’m going to cry when those books get here and all the pages are in order.

Car Games

In case you were wondering how two people keep from going insane with three obnoxious kids and a smelly dachshund in the back seat while they pull a trailer around rural America, one way is to play car games.

Sadly, the only car game our family plays is Zip. The rules are thus: You cannot not play Zip. Getting in the car with any member of our family is consenting to play Zip. You can think you are choosing not to play, but really, you are just conceding that you’ve lost.

Playing Zip is easy. Every time you see a horse, you must be the first one to say Zip. You want to be the person with the most Zips at the end of the car ride. If you see more than two horses at a time, you may say “Blanket Zip” and one of your opponents must count the horses. If you are said opponent, you may think of cheating–saying there are only 23 when there were really 28 horses;–do not cheat. My dad will know. I don’t know how, but he will, and you don’t want to be caught cheating at Zip or you will be in for years of public ridicule.

That being said, there are always ways to finesse the rules. You may make up a bullshit rule like “white horses count for 10” or “donkeys count for 1/2” and if those rules go unchallenged, you may keep score that way. Those are not actually the rules. White horses count for 1 just like any other horses and donkeys don’t count at all. Making jokes about mules resembling your mother-in-law will get you slapped. Otherwise, there is no violence in Zip. You may also “neglect” to tell your opponents that you’ve taken this route before and thus know where all the horses are. This may, however, also get you smacked, but it is not condoned by the rules.

Anyway, before my grandma died, I went up to my parents and then drove over with my dad to see her. It was a beautiful day and so we decided not to take the interstate (who wants to drive I-80 to the Indiana border if they don’t have to?) but to meander through Indiana. Of course, we were half-heartedly playing Zip. I was winning, and gloating, a little, when my dad said that he needed to stop at a Walmart in the next town.

Feeling cocky, I decide to break my rule about going to Walmart with him, and agree. We pull in and he says, “I think I feel something weird with the front tire. Go around back and see if the tire service can get us in to look at it.” I don’t feel anything strange, but it’s his van.

And when I pull around to the back side of the Walmart, he shouts triumphantly “Blanket Zip” and there, in front of us, are a hundred Amish carriages with at least one horse a piece. He looks over at me, smiling devilishly “Do you want to get out and count them?”

“No, Dad, you can just win.”