Tag Archives: Music

I am really a very simple person

I’m posting a couple of versions of this first piece I’ve made since embarking on the River Trip. It’s called “I am really a very simple person.” I’m not entirely sure where it came from, but I’m really glad it showed up!

I made the keyboard version in early January. It goes like this:

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And now I’ve made a sort of shape-note choral version by overdubbing myself singing all the parts. It goes like this:

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While I like things about each version, I feel like perhaps the piece has something more to say that I’m not quite grasping with either of these recordings. So I am really open to finding out what you are hearing in the piece; perhaps your comments will help me clarify where it wants to go.

If you’re a musician and want to play with the piece yourself, you can download a draft score here.

new dates

Internet access has been down here at Montalvo for more than a week, a kind of trippy thing to happen in the middle of the Silicon Valley, you gotta admit(!), so I’ve been remiss in telling you that my Stanford show has been moved to 12 March, and there will also be a show at Montalvo on 26 March. I’ll have more information about these shows as we get closer to the dates, and I’ll definitely keep you posted here.

catching up

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The transition from being on the river to being here at Montalvo, and the various adventures that happened in between the two places, has definitely broken my posting rhythm, and I MISS being here with you! Funny how this blog feels like an actual place to me, different from email or phone or Facebook or whatever other forms of communication we might use together. I want to see if we can continue the conversation here, although my guess is that it will be different now that I’m in one place for a while and writing music again.

Before I do anything else, I want to just give you a short picture of where I’ve been for the last several weeks.

Mac and I had a few more days in New Orleans after my previous post, and we heard lots of wonderful music on Frenchman Street and at the weekend Gumbo Festival in a converted funeral parlor, we went to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church (with Linda Norton) and heard the Treme Brass Band again at the parish Christmas party, visited the African-American Museum and the Port of New Orleans and Brad Pitt’s new houses in the Ninth Ward, hung out with Scotty Heron, who generously sheltered us from the rain for a few nights, cheered for the Saints in R Bar, ate incredible meals and more beignets and coffee than should be legal, and altogether had an excellent time. Here are a very few photos.

On the 14th, I dropped Mac off at the airport and headed back north to Vicksburg, where I stayed with excellent Chris Porter for a couple of days while waiting for the M/V Charles F. Detmar, Jr. to arrive. My friend David Greer had arranged for me to ride this towboat with Captain Richard “Bear” Gettelfinger. It was totally amazing, a completely different way to experience the river than a kayak, that’s for sure! I want to write more about this experience later, but for now, here are a few pictures, along with a million thanks to Bear and his crew, and to David for setting the trip up for me.

I got off the towboat Saturday night back in Vicksburg (we had gone down to just above Baton Rouge and back in four days), watched the Saints lose, went to Episcopal Church in Vicksburg Sunday morning and met the fabulous and inimitable Ms. Ike, and then a whole crew of us went sailing Sunday afternoon on a lake just north of Vicksburg, stopping at the Reverend Dennis’ wonderful artwork/church on the way. (More info about Reverend Dennis here.) We ended up with five women on the boat, a slightly different crew than the eleven men of the Charlie Detmar(!)

My friend Cori Ellison arrived from NYC on Monday night, and we headed west on Tuesday, stopping for two nights (so we could go dancing) in glorious Lafayette, LA with Chris’ excellent friend Marie, about which I want to write more, and then through Texas, where I got a chance to paddle on the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park, totally great, and then west through Arizona, staying a night in Sonoita with Cori’s friend Saba, and finally arriving at Montalvo on 30 December.

I’ve been here ever since. It is exceedingly strange to sleep indoors in the same bed every night, to unpack my books from the trunk of the car and put them on an actual bookshelf, to shower every day, to have constant access to electricity and running water and refrigeration and high speed internet.

It’s wonderful here, a great place to make this transition, and I am getting started on sorting through all the materials and ideas I want to explore for the next many months (years?), but my first priority is to get my voice and fingers working because I have a solo show at Stanford on 4 February, and I have not even been thinking about singing or playing or talking or manipulating electronics for many months now.

I am absolutely loving getting up and practicing every day, perhaps for the first time in my life. I used to find practicing boring, but I think these many months of paddling or biking for six hours at a stretch taught me something I never really understood before about how the physical and the spiritual (and the emotional and the intellectual for that matter) can be intertwined. Long distance paddling or biking just naturally becomes a meditation: I’m out in nature, I know going to be at it all day so I’m not overexerting myself to exhaustion, and something happens to my mind: I’m focussing, but also relaxed; I’m concentrating on the task at hand, but my mind is simultaneously free to notice stuff.

When she was visiting me in Iowa in late October during the lost gear adventure, my friend Rafaela mentioned something in her wonderfully low key and wise way about Jung’s four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition, and how doing this journey might be allowing me to shift my own internal balance of the four. I heard what she said at the time, but it is only now when I sit down to play and sing each morning that I realize the river has taught me a marvelous lesson without my even being aware it was happening. I am delighted and grateful.

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when the saints

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Mac and I decided it was somehow necessary to go all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, but rather than following the official channel of the Mississippi River, the road for which reportedly peters out in a sort of industrial place, we chose to drive down to Grand Isle. Famous as the location of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is also known as one of the great fishing spots in the world, and has a great beachfront state park, which we had nearly to ourselves.

It truly feels like the edge of the world. All the structures are built on stilts, on shifting sands that will never be stable. You drive for a couple of hours south through land that becomes more and more intermingled with water, until you are on a little spit of land surrounded by water on all sides. The map of this whole area looks like beautiful lacework. It’s the opposite of the Greek islands, which feel massive and immovable, where the warm and clear waters of the Mediterranean feel like your friend and the earth is dry and stony and unforgiving. Here the water is poised to wash away the tentative stretches of sand and swamp at any moment, and you feel oddly protective of every spit of land that can support life, fragile and wet and temporary as it all is.

Mac and I took a walk on the parts of the path that didn’t require waders, and I found a bird skeleton and took the beautiful curve of the main wing bone as a memento of the final official day of this trip.

On the way home from dinner I hit a pothole badly enough to blow out a front tire, so the next day I cleaned and reorganized the entire car while waiting for AAA to come and change it. Spreading everything out to dry in the December summer sun and warmth, tidying the papers and maps and books that had been floating around the car for months felt really great: the first step of Phase 2, somehow!

We got back to New Orleans in the late afternoon, set up camp at St. Bernard State Park just east of town (the area that was purposely flooded by dynamiting the levee in the 1927 flood), and drove into the city and sampled some live music in the bars along Frenchman Street and then headed over to the Candlelight Lounge, home of the Treme Brass Band. A really great night of music and dancing, totally local in the best sense, listening to the music alone couldn’t possibly give you the full sense of the whole scene, the whole feel, which is urban, cosmopolitan in all the ways that make cities so great. Everyone is radically individual, the small-town pressure to conform is non-existent, instead, it is as if every person is carving out a unique space for their own fierce selfhood, so that the coming-together, the community that is woven together by these hundred souls in a little club on a dark street in the old neighborhood, the birthplace of jazz, is made of a hundred different histories and styles and stories and reasons for being there, united in that precise unrepeatable moment in time and space, dancing together to the music that connects us, the music that will never end.

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putting it together

I think most of you know that I’ve pictured this river journey as happening in three phases: the first phase is the human-powered journey I’ve been taking down the river, having adventures on the river and near it, meeting people, camping in parks, reading in libraries, visiting churches, and writing and posting as I go. Starting in January, the second phase will begin. I’m going to settle in at a series of artist colonies and write music in response to this whole amazing journey. I’ll be at Montalvo in California from January through March, at the Hermitage in Florida in April, and at Ucross in Wyoming in May, and then spend the summer up on my land in Vermont. In the fall, I imagine beginning phase three: revisiting the places and people I met on the first journey, performing the music I have made for and hopefully with them, doing residencies that enlist townspeople as fellow performers.

I need your support to realize the total vision for the project, so I’ve set up this tiered list of possible contribution levels. I’ve never done anything like this before, so it’s an exciting experiment for me, and I really hope you will want to participate, at whatever level is meaningful for you. If every person who has visited this Riverblog were to sign up to pre-order the mp3s, I could live for the whole writing period without worrying about bills. If enough of you donate at higher levels, I will be able to do residencies and give free concerts in towns that can’t afford to hire me to play.

$10 download high quality mp3s of the CD

$20 one download for you, and one free download for another person

$25 pre-release physical copy of the CD

$50 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, and a free copy for another person

$100 pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, two free copies for others, and a totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirt

$250 signed pre-release physical copy of the CD for you, three free copies for others, and two totally cool EVBVD Rivertrip T-shirts

$500 all of the above, plus special thanks on the CD

$1000 all of the above, plus executive producer credit on the CD

$3000 all of the above, plus you’ll be listed as commissioning one of the pieces on the the CD

$5000 all of the above, plus I’ll do a free concert at your home, OR at the school, church, gallery, museum, or community center of your choice

$10,000 all of the above, plus you can guest in as a performer on the recording of one of the pieces OR we can collaborate on choosing/making a text for one of the pieces

Click this button to contribute at whatever level you like.





If you are interested in participating at the $500 level or above, please contact me first, and we’ll work out the details and arrange for your support to be tax-deductible.

Thank you for participating in the river project: I couldn’t do it without you!

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After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!

I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!

Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.

being a girl

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Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.

We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.

But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.

The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.

everybody’s doing it

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I went to church in Clarksdale Sunday morning. No one I had met in town could recommend a particular place to go, so I went over to Martin Luther King Blvd. and chose the first church along the street: First Baptist, which ended up being a relatively small congregation, with just a pianist and a few singers. This is definitely not Al Green’s church, with visitors from all over the world: I would guess they probably haven’t seen a white person at First Baptist in years. The welcome I got was authentically kind; the preacher, learning I was from New York, threaded the Yankees’ win into his sermon, people came up and spoke to me enthusiastically of having lived in Brooklyn or Camden; and at the end of the service, they have a tradition I like a lot: the preacher and deacons get into a receiving line, and the congregation goes down to the front, greets those already there, and then each person joins the line themselves, so that by the end, every single person has greeted every other. There were a couple of people in the congregation who greeted me only perfunctorily, perhaps not so delighted I was there, and it got me to thinking: if I were a black person, I’m not sure I would want to see my white self in my church. If I were a child of slavery and sharecropping and lynchings and all that, I’m not sure how much loving-kindness and openheartedness I would be ready to muster for every white stranger who walks in the door. I am grateful and a little shocked by the warmth and welcome I am given by almost every person here. Church is after all the most segregated institution left in America, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

I spent the afternoon at John and Sarah and Emma’s house: which may be a sort of heaven. They have a big old rambling house right on the other side of the Sunflower River from John’s shop. It used to be a boarding house; in fact, a girl lived here with a collection of glass animals that inspired Tennessee Williams when he was living in Clarksdale. John has painted the house Greek blue and white, and has embedded decorative river creatures in wavy curlicues, and everything about it feels good. I had been working in the study for hours before running across Mara, who also lives there, and is a visual artist currently working with addicted mothers and their children. Everything about this place and these people is so excellent, it makes me feel kind of shy and awkward and self-lacerating. I begin to feel like my whole life has been one of self-absorbed elitism, living and working in the provincial bubble of the NYC new-music scene and its international tendrils, in an abstract self-congratulatory liberalism that actually doesn’t do much to improve the world or give hope to those without it. Yes, compared to an investment banker or a fashion photographer, I feel confident that my life and work have meaning and value, but compared to people like John and Mara, I’m really not so sure.

I didn’t want to leave Clarksdale without getting out to one of the clubs at least once, so I pulled myself away from Mara and Sarah (John was upstairs putting Emma to bed), and went over to Red’s, where Super Chikan’s son was doing a low-key solo Sunday night show, singing his original songs, and accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard. The songs were built from Casio drum patterns with funky bass lines and simple comping — the lyrics were about his girl being his best friend, about being glad to have had the parents he’s had: totally heartfelt and artless in the best sense. The audience was a couple of tables of locals, some of whom would get up and guest in on one song or another, and some very dear visiting young people from Australia.

The whole scene felt like a tiny glimpse into a community where basically everyone I’ve run across is making art of some kind: music, paintings, dance, whatever. And it isn’t separated from the rest of life, it’s not like there’s a professional class of artists and then a bunch of art-consumers. Everyone is making things. Who would have thought: Clarksdale is the Bali of America!

already the river

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John had invited me to join him on an all-day paddle he was scheduled to do Saturday with a father and son, so I was awakened early from the hammock I had set up behind his shop and overlooking the Sunflower River, with John offering me coffee and oatmeal and introducing me to Ellis Johnson, a younger brother of Super Chikan Johnson, one of the outstanding blues players flourishing in Clarksdale. Ellis himself is more dancer than musician, he said, and he is also a fisherman, and he told me about the huge turtle he caught the other day.

Tim, a prep-school fundraiser, and his college-age son, David, showed up and got outfitted, and then we all headed out to Quapaw landing and put in. It’s my first paddling since above Memphis, and it’s hard to articulate how happy I am to be back on the water. It’s a strange reality that as the boundary between water and land gets more porous down here, with all the back channels and bayous and swamps, getting to the river from land actually gets harder and harder, so my bike rides don’t really bring me close enough to the river to fully satisfy my river jones. It makes sense: the bottomlands are a no-man’s-land where it is not practical to imagine permanent roads or houses. The river side of the levees are in a sense already the river.

Paddling with John, who knows this river the way I know the streets of New York City, is really a wonderful experience. We did all sorts of things I would never have been able to do alone. Instead of freaking out about the big stuff floating down the river, for example, we took advantage of its speed and power. We tied off to a huge tree that was plowing downstream and just effortlessly coasted down through the windy stretch. I was finally truly rafting the Mississippi! A giant barge and tow were coming downstream at the same time, and watching it pass us at an excruciatingly slow pace — since we were traveling nearly as fast — reminded me of that endless circus trailer in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.

We stopped at two different blue holes to eat and explore, and then John began to take us into back channels, wending through groves of trees. I could happily paddle back through thickets finding oxbow lakes and odd back bayous for many days to come. I think what I like the very best about this lower river is these liminal spaces, neither land nor river, exactly, but some curious inseparable hybrid of the two.

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John took us through one final back channel right near sunset, and we paddled into the setting sun surrounded by birds and the departing light. I didn’t want the day to end, but paddling up a good ways and then across the main channel in the dark was tiring enough that I was happy when we finally landed and Ellis pulled us out and took us home to Clarksdale.

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goin back to friar’s point

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I didn’t leave the River Museum in Tunica until long after it had officially closed, so I ended up staying in Tunica overnight, since, as in most gambling towns, the motels are super-cheap. The next morning I got in touch with John Ruskey, one of the masters of the Mississippi, a musician and painter and the proprietor of the Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale. Most of you probably know Clarksdale as a famous crossroads of the blues, there’s a Delta Blues Museum here, and Morgan Freeman is one of the co-owners of the Ground Zero Blues Club. For river people, John Ruskey is another huge draw for Clarksdale. When I had my adventure in Fort Madison, John — who I had not yet met — wrote to reassure me that the river code precluded theft, and he was of course right about that. I’ve been looking forward to meeting John for weeks, and when I woke up in Tunica and looked at the map, I realized it was finally time!

John was heading out to gather a log (one of his projects is to craft dugout canoes with schoolkids in Helena, how cool is that?!), and I told him I was thinking of biking to Friar’s Point, so he invited me to park my car at his shop and left me a map with directions for a good route. I rode out to Friar’s Point through fields that go on for miles with vistas of sky and clouds that make me think this, too, should be called Big Sky country, along with Montana. Friar’s Point is a tiny little town on a sort of promontory of one of the meanders of the river. David told me that Conway Twitty’s father used to pilot the ferry there, but my main reason for wanting to bike out there was the description of the girl in Robert Johnson’s Traveling Riverside Blues, one of the hotter songs ever recorded.

David had told me there was a museum in town, by appointment only, but when I got there it was open. I walked in and was greeted by a man named Sonny Pharis, who showed me various treasures among an impossibly varied array of stuff. I particularly liked this pitchfork, and these old gas pumps of a sort I had never seen (pre-electric), but there was much much more: old dentist chairs and miscellaneous medical tools, Indian artifacts, booty taken from the Nazis in WWII, a collection of very fancy hats.

Sonny told me he wished he could go with me on my journey, and I would have been happy for him to join me. He was a lovely man, and he made me remember Stephen King’s beautiful short story, Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut. (For the moment, you can read it here.) As I was leaving, Sonny told me he would remember me forever and asked if I would do the same. I will remember you forever, Sonny. For sure.

On the way home, I rode past the Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters grew up and where Alan Lomax first recorded him in 1941. I am probably just imagining things, but I begin to feel as if the music is growing right out of the ground. There’s something really powerful going on around here.

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