Friday, October 14, 2011

American Dreaming - tales about the Southland

Alex Demyan and
Exactly one month ago today I was setting off for a brief excursion through what Paul Simon called "the cradle of the Civil War", indulging in the music, culture, history and hospitality of the American South.

The trip - though criminally short - was nevertheless long enough to reinforce my belief that for all the exotic, fascinating and culturally diverse destinations the world has to offer, I am still drawn to - no, absorbed by - the United States, its people and its places.

A week earlier What Would David Bowie Do? had been on American soil for a business trip, and between this visit and the journey down south, spent an inordinate amount of time arriving at, passing through or departing from various US airports. It was an experience which served only to demonstrate what fascinating observatories of local life they are.

New Orleans' delightfully named Louis Armstrong International Airport (known locally as “Satchmo”) provided a perfect sample of the rich potpourri of the resident and the transitory, its waiting areas, walkways and lounges like a microcosmic fishtank sourced from the greater ocean of American life.

Amid all the usual departure gate hub-bub was a regular fixture at any US departure lounge: the Willy Loman. Conspicuously pacing up and down, feverishly pitching his wares via an apparently invisible Bluetooth headset, he appeared insanely animated in front of an indifferent audience. Next to me sat the sweet old gran heading home to visit the grandkids; across the divide, the single mum struggling with children and luggage; and - yes, fans of Airplane! - elsewhere at that departure gate was the obligatory nun. Can anyone remember the last time they saw a nun anywhere other than an airport?

I've been an annual visitor to the United States for almost 20 years, and lived there for two of them. I'm sure some will regard me as being of the barnyard for lacking breadth of horizon, that I should be spending my vacations backpacking through the Himalaya, exploring Mayan temples by kayak or in-line skating up the Ho-Chi Minh Trail. And while it's true that American travel doesn't present any greater challenge than deciding between the bewildering choice of drive-throughs and motel chains, the country isn't any less rewarding, enriching or invigorating a visit.

America has never failed to live up to expectations: my first ever visit took me to Los Angeles where - like Stevie Wonder's "hard town Mississippi" rural refugee - I couldn't help saying to myself, "Yeah, just like I pictured it".

You have to remember that I grew up in gloomy, grey 1970s Britain. LA - represented by Charlie's Angels and CHiPs - was America: a blue-skied paradise populated by big cars, perfect teeth and flawless beauty. Jaclyn Smith was her name.

I knew this was somewhere I wanted to visit, even be part of, and I eventually got my wish. Subsequently, and exhaustively, I've explored the better two-thirds of California - from San Diego to San Francisco, Venice Beach and Carmel on the coast east into and out of the deserts to the majestic Sierras, the jaw-droppingly beautiful Yosemite and the glorious tranquility of Lake Tahoe. I even know the taxi back-doubles to reach Los Angeles International Airport.

California was only the beginning: I branched into the Pacific Northwest - once known for Twin Peaks, Nirvana and Big Foot, and now, dreadfully fey vampires - coming across a bizarre mock Bavarian village in the Cascade Mountains and Greenpeace chasing Indian whale hunters around Neah Bay, the remotest tip of the 'lower 49 states'; I've been bitten to death in South Carolina and bored to death in southern Texas; I've hiked the steel canyons of Manhattan and barrelled through the sandstone canyons of Utah in a 4x4, blaring out The Clash, just in case an Osmond was lurking behind a tree. I've covered a lot of ground, but in truth I've barely scratched the surface.

Ever since Christopher Columbus misprogrammed his GPS and discovered India to be closer to Cuba than expected, America has been about aspiration. On my recent trip from Memphis to New Orleans, however, I received a timely reminder that aspiration continues to duel with adversity.

The South, today, may not be as dirt-poor as it was when share croppers came in from the fields to Memphis to find their fortunes - or the sanctuary of a Beale Street juke joint - but it still struggles. Mississippi and its southern neighbour Louisiana boast the poorest communities in the United States. Downtown Memphis, in particular, is marked by its vacant storefronts, its homeless and a noticeable lethargy, even in the middle of a normal working day.

And yet this is the corner of America from which pop music as we know it today was founded. The rhythms that emerged from its cotton plantations to fuse with gospel and folk, evolving, in Darwinian fashion, into blues and jazz, became the rock and roll that established music as the predominant youth culture of the last 60 years.

At risk of committing Lennonesque blasphemy - dangerous sport when it comes to the Bible Belt - there are parallels between the South and the Holy Land. To visit the original haunts of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, BB King and Robert Johnson (the founding member of the 27 Club) carries the same sensation of walking amid mythic history as visiting Nazareth, Galilee and other places of biblical history in Israel, as I was fortunate to do last year.

Memphis is Jerusalem and Clarksdale - a long, straight, hour-long drive away down Highway 61 (yes, that Highway 61) and into Mississippi, is Bethlehem. The crossroads where Highways 61 and 49 meet is Manger Square. Here, the story goes, Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil for the ability to play the guitar. I won't dwell on the symbolism of the crossed guitars which now marks this junction, save to say it's a dilapidated symbol at an intersection few would want to linger at.

The blues spawned by the Mississippi Delta may have eventually found its way into British bedrooms in the 1960s, where it was indulged by white, suburban middle class boys, but the region bears little benefit today of the excess and opulence it gave rise to. Apart from the Delta Blues Museum and an arts center co-founded by local resident Morgan Freeman, Clarksdale has little else. Down at that crossroads you become conscious that time has scarcely moved on in the 80 years since Johnson's apocryphal satanic encounter.

As it was for those early blues pioneers, Memphis remains the area's aspirational magnet. Beale Street today might be a theme park version of the street it once was, but amid the bachelor and bachelorette parties staggering up and down its main drag of an evening, authentic, live blues can still be heard.

BB King's, at the corner of Beale and 2nd, is now part of a franchised chain, but the Memphis original is a must-see, if only for the quality of live acts it hosts every night, but also out of homage to its patron, who does still make appearances when, at the age of 86, he has time while remarkably still touring.

King, born in share-cropping farmland 130 miles away in Indianola, Mississippi, came to Memphis as a 21-year-old and picked up guitar-playing sessions on the legendary local radio station WDIA. It was while DJing and playing blues for WDIA that he acquired the nickname 'Beale Street Blues Boy' - B.B.

If you happen across the angular building at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, on the corner with Marshall Avenue, go in, do the tour, and get to squeeze into the recording studio where, on July 18, 1953, an 18-year-old local truck driver walked in off the street, paid $3.98 to record three songs. The songs included My Happiness - a gift for, it is claimed, his mother's birthday.

He walked out with a 10-inch acetate disc of the recordings and that may well have been that. Fate - and producer Sam Philips' receptionist - brought Elvis Presley back to Sun Studios, where he recorded and released That's All Right in 1954 and sparked a global cultural phenomenon of seismic proportions.

In 1957, at the age of just 22, Presley moved in to Graceland, just nine miles south-east of where Sun Studios still stands today. The first thing that strikes you about Graceland is just how modest this cod-colonial pile is by mansion standards. Newly-minted English football players would consider it tiny. It is as much a shrine to the King of Rock'n'Roll as it is to what passed for rock star interior design in the era Presley lived in it.

Visiting it today, one sees a house frozen in time, with 70s chintz and patterns which would, today, come with a health warning. Graceland's modest size is tempered by the fact that its estate boasts a large shed full of Presley's cars - a mix of the gaudy and the opulent - as well as not one but two airliners, which used to fly under the call sign 'Hound Dog One'.

Such arriviste trappings might be incongruous to the poverty around Memphis, but Graceland is a revered local money-spinner. A lesser known local attraction is the Stax studio. Rebuilt to perfection (the original was knocked down by a property developer), it plays another important role in the cultural heritage of Memphis, celebrating both a record label and the single neighbourhood that produced Isaac Hayes, Ike Turner, Booker T. Jones, Rufus Thomas, Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn.

This was the multicultural backbone of Stax Records: a fusion of rhythm, soul, blues and gospel influenced which, combined, challenged the still-segregated landscape of American society in the early 1960s - in the very city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, outside room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel.

Today the hotel is a part of the Civil Rights Museum, a fantastically curated, chronological exhibition of a period of American history few can be proud of, and which depicts a story that spans multiple centuries to within my lifetime.

Heading south of Memphis, following the curves of the Mississippi, you encounter more of the impoverished rural landscapes people have either aspired to break away from, or reluctantly accepted to be their lot and stayed put.

Challenging this is Natchez, a Miss Havershamesque town overlooking the Mississippi as it bends between Louisiana and the state named after it. When cotton was the currency on the Mississippi - and a lucrative one at that - Natchez, with its commanding view of the river, was a wealthy town. Today, its wealth has visibly faded, although the town centre retains a fabric of suburban respectability.

Natchez is a charming town, but hardly worthy of an overnight stay. If you do, two attractions make it worthwhile. Firstly, there is the Under-the-Hill Saloon on Silver Street. This slightly creaky riverside pub, with its - how do you say this politely? - eccentric barman, Harley-riding clientele and eclectic decor (yes, that was a real hand grenade we saw behind the bar) is a local institution.

Above it is the three-room Mark Twain Guest House, to which guests share a single bathroom and, for their $100 night, do without in-room televisions and telephones in order to preserve the "somewhat historic atmosphere of our rooms".

Whether Mark Twain ever stayed there for real remains to be proven. If he had have done, he'd have certainly eaten at The Magnolia Grill next door which - either through a paucity of anything better or, simply because of the atmosphere of the evening - served up arguably the best meal of the entire week spent south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

First timers, travel writers and more seasoned visitors to the United States find it near-impossible to avoid commenting on the enormity of the country - its places and its people - or on the absurdity of its excess. And yet, in Natchez, What Would David Bowie Do? encountered perhaps the most wasteful application of a natural resource on God's green: a petrol-driven truck employed just to transport patrons less then 50 feet up and down the causeway between the entrance of a Mississippi steamer casino boat and the roadway where shuttle buses drop them off. Having picked them up from the car park further up a hill. Let me go over that again: a truck, which transports people 50 feet up or down a landing ramp.

And so on further to the mouth of the Mighty Mississip' itself, New Orleans - the final destination of this brief road trip. Simply put, one of the most charming cities on the map, even though a clearly pissed off Mother Nature did her best to wipe it clean off that map in 2005 when she sent Hurricane Katrina spinning across the Gulf of Mexico.

When she struck, Katrina breached the delicate acquaintance The Big Easy had enjoyed with the Gulf since the port was founded by the French in 1718. Flooding caused by the city's levees breaking killed more than 1000 residents and displaced tens of thousands more. In fact, exactly how many were displaced is still not known, six years later. Census figures have shown that New Orleans - once America's third-largest city - lost almost a third of its population over the last decade. Today it is America's 52nd largest city.

Built, largely, over reclaimed swampland, New Orleans is a cocktail bar's shaker of influences. With its clearly French foundation, the infusion of Creole, Haitian, Spanish and other European elements give the city a flavour unlike any other I've visited in America with, perhaps, the exception of San Francisco.

Cosmo Condina/
The jazz music is there, but the good stuff needs searching for. Bourbon Street, like Beale in Memphis, may be the star of the show, but it is a somewhat tacky thoroughfare.

It is loud and colourful, with no shortage of bars to tempt you in. Some even have authentic jazz and blues. Others, however, are just garish karaoke bars, catering to the culture clash of Mid-West sales reps attending conventions and Mid-West rednecks who all converge on the city at the same time.

At least it's easy to set the two crowds apart: the reps are all dressed in sports jackets, their mobile phones holstered at the hip, while the rednecks almost exclusively wearing baseball hats, facial hair and capped-sleeve T-shirts bearing logos of a motor oil brands.

New Orleans is not, of course, just one street. During the daytime, the French Quarter provides both respite from the aching sun as well as a charming and thoroughly walkable area in which to step in and out of bars for a cooling drink, or to sample some of the food delights, especially creole cooking and, for the totally indulgent, a local speciality known as a Po' Boy.

These are, essentially, very large sandwiches - what Americans will refer to as a "submarine", owing to them being made out of a French baguette, are the size of an actual submarine, and are loaded with so much unhealthy crap that they can be legitimately be described as weapons of mass destruction.

The Po' Boy originated in the Great Depression, when a pair of entrepreneurial brothers came up with the idea of selling foot-long sandwiches to poor families on the basis that each 'Poor Boy' would adequately provide a meal to an entire household. Today they are far from cheap, and given the propensity for over-indulgence, you are unlikely to see a Po' Boy eaten by either a single family, or anyone on a low income.

Here, in fact, lies a pillar of the American paradox: the United States is the world's wealthiest nation, and yet 15% of its 312 million inhabitants live below the poverty line. That's the equivalent of the entire population of Spain. America remains highly aspirational: TV advertising is about doing well, living healthier and aspiring to own that next-generation SUV, despite the fact you will not be able to afford its fuel or, come to think of it, the house to park it outside. This is a country with a gross domestic product - of almost $15 trillion, but where child poverty is twice as high as many European countries, and where more than half a million children are officially listed as homeless.

Driving through - or driving past - poverty like this makes no difference as to whether you're in the USA or the outskirts of Mumbai. Of course, it asks moral questions of the traveller, but as self-indulgent as this sounds, my curiosity for a part of America which has struggled for long enough, and will, sadly, struggle for a lot longer, is driven by a celebration of the culture and pleasure it has provided the world.

Lacking any real erudition, I'll leave more dexterous reflections on Americana in general to Kerouac and Bryson: I wouldn't even dare suggest this dog-and-pony show of mine would, in any case, offer anything deep. But for all of America's critics and cynics, who say it lacks culture, history, society, I say take a closer look. Look deeper and you will find a country that might surprise you and even enchant you in the way it did me before I'd even set foot there - and has continued enchanting me ever since. My own personal American road movie is not yet past the opening titles. There is plenty more to come.

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