Tag Archives: river

Welty Country

Eudora Welty documented Rodney in her 1930s photographs for the WPA, in several of her early stories, and in her 1944 photo-essay, Some Notes on River Country. Here are a few excerpts from her writing that apply directly to Rodney, and also to the Archives of Exile project I’m working on with Richard Steadman-Jones.

from Some Notes on River Country:

A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.

I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.

***

Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things — regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.

from the story At the Landing:

Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

well-spent

L’acqua che tochi de fiumi, è l’ultima di quella che andò, e la prima di quelle che viene; così il tempo presente. La vita bene spesa lunga è.

Leonardo da Vinci, Note 1174

here’s my translation [eager for improvements from my Italian-speaking friends]

The water you touch in a river
is the last that has passed
and the first that is coming;
so with the present moment.

The well-spent life is long.

Bayou Farewell

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Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)

*

The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)

*

The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)

*

For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)

*

Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)

*

If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)

*

“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)

*

If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

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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Journeys in New Worlds

from Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography)

“an account of my peregrination” is what Elizabeth House Trist called her travel diary, written for her friend Thomas Jefferson as she journeyed from Philadelphia to Natchez in 1783-84

[Latin peregr?n?r?, peregr?n?t-, from peregr?nus, foreigner; see peregrine.]

[I tried to keep all the spelling the way it is in the original]

*

29 December 1783

[The old people] have but one Son who is married and has a house full of children. They have given all up to this son and have a room in the House; he maintains them. It gave me pleasure to see so much harmony subsist among them. The son’s wife told me they had lived together fourteen years, and she never saw the old people out of temper. They are very religious presbeterians; prayers before every meal and after; but their conversation chearfull and happy. I believe if there are good people in the world, they are to be found at this place. My heart overflow’d with benevolence, for it could not be envy to see an old couple that had lived Sixty years together endeavoring to please each other and to make every one as happy as themselves. A true picture of rural felicity: God continue to grant you his blessing, my worthy old man and Woman. p. 204

[Pittsburgh] Grants Hill is a delightfull situation. I think I would give the preference for to live on [the hill] as you are more in the World. The river is more confined, but the Objects are not so deminitive below you. p. 213

I dont like this river. The passage is attended with much more danger than I had any Idea of.  p. 226

[15 June 1784] Every one thinks their troubles the greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune. p. 226

[18 June 1784, at the Chicasaw Bluffs] I some times conceit — I am got to the fag end of the world; or rather that it is the last of Gods creation and the Seventh day came before it was quite finnish’d. At other times, I fancy there has been some great revolution in nature, and this great body of water has forced a passage were it was not intended and tore up all before it. The banks are now about 50 feet high, very ragged, and every here and there great pieces of the earth tumbling in to the water. Often great trees go with it, which fill the river with logs. Some places along shore there will be great rafts of fallen timber. The water is as muddy as a pond that has been frequently visited by hogs. Alltogether its appearance is awfull and Melancholy and some times terrific.

[19 June 1784] This is a Passionate sort of a climate, quickly raised but soon blows over.

[30 June 1784 Great Gulph, 75 miles from the Yasou] A Mullato Woman nam’d Nelly was exceeding kind to us, gave us water mellons, green corn, apples — in short, everything that she had was at our service. Her conversation favord rather more the Masculine than was agreeable. Yet I cou’d not help likeing the creature, she was so hospitable. She gave us the history of her life. She may be entitled to merit from some of her actions. But chastity is not among the number of her virtues.

*

Pervading the earliest expressions of the autobiographical impulse in America, we find, according to Patricia Caldwell, “the important alliance between migration and conversion,” a consequence of the passage across the ocean that made the first white settlers in New England a unique people. The narratives testify to the continuing validity of this association between spatial movement and psychological transformation to later generations of American life-writers.

William L. Andrews’ Introduction, p. 9

The Control of Nature

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here are some selected bits from the chapter on the Atchafalaya in John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature:

“It has a tendency to go through just anywheres you can call for.”
Why, then, had the Mississippi not jumped the bank and long since diverted to the Atchafalaya?
“Because they’re watching it close,” said Rabalais. “It’s under close surveillance.”  [p. 9]
*
“The greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun,” he said.
“The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backward.
The third greatest arrogance is trying to hold the Mississippi in place.
The ancient channels of the river go almost to Texas.
Human beings have tried to restrict the river to one course —
that’s where the arrogance began.”
–Oliver Houch, law professor at Tulane. [p. 11]
*
“The river used to meander all over its floodplain. People would move their tepees, and that was that. You can’t move Vicksburg.”
–Herbert Kassner, PR Director, New Orleans District, ACOE [p. 32]
*
“If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result, in view of the immensity of the interests dependent on my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast water of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river — its scourging and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits — is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
–James B Eads, quoted on pp. 38-39
*
“The Corps of Engineers is convinced that the Mississippi River can be convinced to remain where it is.”
–Fred Chatry (chief of the engineering division for the New Orleans District of the ACoE)
*
“The Corps of Engineers — they’re scared as hell. They don’t know what’s going to happen. This is planned chaos. The more planning they do, the more chaotic it is. Nobody knows exactly where it’s going to end.”
–Raphael Kazmann, hydrologic engineer, LSU emeritus
*
Tarzan of the Apes once leaped about among the live oaks in the park [at Morgan City.] The first Tarzan movie was filmed in Morgan City. The Atchafalaya swamp was Tarzan’s jungle. Black extras in constumes pretended they were Africans. [p. 84]

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!

fighting bishops and control structures

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I spent a few days in Natchez camping at the state park just out of town and alternating working at the library and the cafe during the days. Natchez is one of those towns that revels just a little bit too much in its own beauty, if you know what I mean. If it were a person, it would not be able to pass a mirror without admiring itself. But it was a great place to hang out these gray rainy days: comfortable and well-equipped places to be indoors, an attractive downtown to wander around for an afternoon walk, and an empty and peaceful park not far from town where I could hang my hammock for cozy nights. Although one night my headlamp caught the eyes of some biggish creature who wanted to come out of the ravine near my hammock to check out the dirty dishes I had left out to be rinsed by the rain. I was already zipped into the hammock, so I yelled and kicked at the tarp and made enough ruckus to scare it away. I finally feel like I am officially no longer solely an urban person, ’cause I was happily asleep a few minutes later.

On Wednesday, I crossed the Natchez bridge and made my way down the roads closest to the west side of the river: I was too wimpy to bike in the cold and wet, so I drove very slowly through this lightly settled area: it’s the place where the Red and the Atchafalaya join the Mississippi, and the Corps of Engineers has a network of control structures designed to prevent the Mississippi from joining the Atchafalaya instead, which would leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans orphaned. I remember reading about it in John McPhee’s book, The Control of Nature, but to actually see this Herculean and (according to many scientists and engineers) doomed effort was pretty intense. (You can read more about it and see some pictures here.)

And then I suddenly came upon St. Stephen’s Church, a gorgeously maintained little Episcopal church and cemetery that would perhaps look more at home in an Old or New England town than way out in this strange forsaken place dotted with a billion dollars worth of hulking dams, miles of sugarcane, and signs for Angola Prison on the other side of the river. The church was consecrated and named for the first martyr by “the Fighting Bishop,” Leonidas Polk, whose name came up as long ago as Columbus, Kentucky. (It was he who invaded previously neutral Kentucky, which then asked for Federal troops to defend the state, which ended up putting it in Union hands for the rest of the war.) Polk seems to me an inexplicably complex character: almost completely incompetent as a general, but beloved by his men nonetheless, he was also a rich planter who owned five hundred slaves. Five hundred slaves. I’ve never read a sermon justifying slavery by a person like Bishop Polk, and I think it would have to be kind of fascinating to watch the moral contortions.

something’s coming

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Mary Rowell flew in to Jackson Wednesday afternoon, and we stocked up on groceries and headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway Thursday morning in glorious weather, set up at Rocky Springs State Park and explored the remaining bits of the town — two safes too heavy to move, a wonderful old church (still in use), and a couple of foundations are all that remain of a once-thriving village that was destroyed by a combination of the Civil War, yellow fever, and poor agricultural practices. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal outdoors using two pots, two plates, about six pieces of silverware, and liberal amounts of aluminum foil, since most of the food got cooked in the campfire. It was totally great: one of the most fun Thanksgivings I’ve ever had!

The next day I biked down to Port Gibson while Mary drove back north to explore Vicksburg, and we met up and picnicked on leftovers in downtown Port Gibson and then wandered around checking out the town Grant called “too beautiful to burn.” Then we headed out to Grand Gulf, where there is another military park and a beautiful campground up on a bluff, and we climbed an observation tower to watch the sun set over the river. I am really enjoying biking the Trace: it’s a beautiful road, but I am so very sorry I am not paddling the river. I ache with an almost guilty longing for the dangerous lover I desire but cannot have. (hmmm, does that maybe sound a bit familiar?!)

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Saturday, Mary and I drove instead of biking, so that Mary could have a chance to see more of Mississippi before leaving. We traveled crazy back roads with overhanging trees and Spanish moss to visit the ruins of a castle in the wilderness, and the first African-American college, and the incredible town of Rodney, which is a different species of ghost town than Rocky Springs in that there are still houses standing there, but perhaps not for long. We also stopped off at Emerald Mounds, and the Church on the Hill — the whole area is full of amazing sites, a person could happily wander for weeks.

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We arrived in Natchez in time for a late lunch at a cafe looking out at the river, and then we drove down 61 to Baton Rouge, where Mary had to fly out at the crack of dawn Sunday. I had considered going to Jimmy Swaggart’s church Sunday morning, but I was already a bit cranky from getting up at 4:30 to get Mary to the airport, so I was not up for listening to gay-bashing right-wing Christianity on the first day of Advent. Instead, I drove back up to Natchez and got settled at the State Park and got out my bike and drove down the last fifteen miles of the Parkway and to the Indian Mounds outside of town.

Biking back up the Natchez Trace Parkway in the dusk was one of those perfect moments that happen sometimes: just the right balance of comfortable exertion and natural beauty and excellent light and simple joy. Even though I can feel myself beginning to wind down from the journey — there’s not that much farther to go before New Orleans, and I can feel my heart yearning more and more to give myself over to settling down for a while to write music — I really love being out here. Something serious has shifted inside me: I have emptied myself further than I ever have before. I have never taken this big a risk with my own creativity, and I am sort of amazed that I am not really afraid. I have no idea what is going to emerge from me musically, and I am really excited to find out what it’s gonna turn out to be. I feel like I’m winding down one journey and beginning another, which is going to be at least as much of an adventure as the one I’ve been traveling all these last months.

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.