Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Y'All Come Back Now

As he was making a typically dramatic exit from the dining room, my three-year-old son informed me, “When people are leaving, they say ‘Be careful.’” And I laughed and said, “Well, yes, here they do.”

The first time someone in Memphis bid me good-bye and told me to be careful, I checked the ground for something I might trip over. It took me years to get over the reflex of associating that phrase with imminent danger. My people say “take care.” Even though it pretty much means the same thing, it doesn’t feel as ominous to me.

But my kids clearly don’t follow my thinking. Here I am, with a little boy who can properly distinguish the subtle difference between “y’all” and “all y’all,” and a seven-year-old daughter who answers requests with “yes, ma’am.” Yet when I say “uff-da,” they look at me like I’m crazy. I have, somehow, raised Southern children.

It’s jarring to realize that many of the things I took for granted about my upbringing are not only lost generationally, but also geographically. The cultural touchstones between our childhoods are hundreds of miles apart. My kids don’t know a Dairy Queen from a dairy barn, whereas the 7-year-old version of me could have identified either from a mile away (one by sign, the other by smell; Name That Manure was one of our favorite road games).

There are much greater cultural gaps to leap, though. I feel torn about the fact that my children are ignorant of religion in a town where asking someone which church they attend is considered a casual pleasantry. I was raised with religion being treated as an academic course, a spiritual history and philosophy lesson that would serve me as well as any other knowledge. We were such typical liberal Lutherans that my teenage rebellion was converting to Mormonism. But approaching Sunday school as just another educational opportunity doesn’t really seem to be an option here.

My kids do have a huge advantage, however, in their awareness of other races and cultures. Even when living outside of large diverse cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit, it was rare for me to have more than one or two non-white, non-Christian classmates. I remember coming home in second grade and remarking to my mother that, for the first time, there was an African-American student in my class. My parents raised me to believe that everyone is equal, but that wasn’t a belief that came into much practice. I know that nothing I try to teach my children about equality could possibly be as effective as them living it every day. And, in hard relief, seeing injustice up close. I know they’re going to witness racism more often than I ever did, but I trust that they will be able to balance it with their own reality.

My people are Minnesotans, and their people before them, going back over 150 years. We share a culture, a history, and a language that are all foreign to my own offspring. When I take my children north to visit, I wonder how they interpret references to “the cities” or “the cabin” and everyone’s constant desire to “go up to” them. I take them north at least every year because I want them to know what a big country we live in, and see that there are fascinating things in every part of it. I expect to raise them as Southerners, but I want to spark the curiosity that will lead them to explore beyond their hometown. I hope they will travel all over. I hope they will make friends with people they never expected to. I hope they will learn new things wherever they go.

And I do hope they’ll be careful.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ten Feet Off of Beale

One of the traits that bars me from attaining the status of True Memphian is that I like the song “Walking in Memphis.” I can’t help it. I know it’s over-earnest and geographically flawed (it’s going to be a long walk to Graceland from Union Avenue, Ghost Elvis; are you sure you weren’t heading to Sun Studios?), but it’s so openly admiring of this town’s unique spirit. I wouldn’t say it’s the best song ever written about Memphis, but it’s one that, as a teenage Minnesotan, made me intrigued about that faraway river town.

I wouldn’t even try to determine the best song about Memphis, because there are more than a thousand contenders for that title. Yeah, yeah, there are only 899 officially recognized (recorded and distributed) songs containing Memphis in the lyrics, but I’m sure that doesn’t count the barge of local music inspired by the city. It’s astounding, really. For a town that barely cracks the country’s top twenty size-wise, it looms largest in the collective imagination of our songwriters. The word Memphis is itself shorthand for the roots of American music, symbolizing the birth of blues and rock’n’roll, but that’s obviously not the only reason it appears so often in song. Memphis is a character, a living thing with a clear identity. Stax may have the building, but the entire city is a museum of soul. It is dirty, broken, deep, and heavy. It is joyful, wild, careless, and probably pretty drunk. It is, all in all, something worth singing about.

Alas, poor Minneapolis. The only list I could find of songs about Minneapolis contained a meager 23 entries, and a fair lot of them were novelty songs produced by local radio stations. Minnesota in general fares a bit better, especially if you’re flexible about interpreting the oeuvre of Bob Dylan, but it’s still not a very long list. Minneapolis is a lovely city, but it doesn’t quite capture the imagination. Like its inhabitants, it steps back and lets others take the glory, plugging along responsibly and with understated appeal. Admirable qualities, but not those that lend themselves well to artistic inspiration. Hence the general dearth of songs about technical writers.

Ironic, then, that two of the top ten best living American songwriters (according to Paste) are from Minnesota: Prince and the aforementioned Bobby D (and two are from Canada, which is basically the same). Why does the great white north create the artists but doesn’t inspire the art? I suppose, ultimately, there isn’t much to write about a landscape that looks like a blank page.

The Folk Alliance conference takes over Memphis this week, with folkies from around the world (including my hometown homie John Elliott*) descending on our city. In the few (okay, 23) years it’s been running, the conference has grown to be a major force, with 1,800 attendees forking over a year’s gas money in hopes of being heard by and making connections with music industry types. Although it’s surely true that “if you sign them, they will come,” I can’t help but think that the conference’s location is also a big part of the draw. There’s something much more appealing about being discovered in Memphis than, say, Cleveland. And surely, these musicians are also aware of this town’s inspirational legacy. It’s practically cheating, coming here with an acoustic guitar and a harmonizing buddy. The songs must write themselves. (Songwriters love when you say that.) Memphis is part of our country’s musical consciousness, and I don’t doubt that these artists will tune into it while they’re here.

Especially while they’re walking.

You know.

In Memphis.

*Programming note: the formidable trio of Elliott, Rose & DaCosta will be playing a (free? I think?) FAI Public Night showcase at 9:30 pm on Feb. 16. You really, really should go. Here's the info.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Winter's Moan

“Snow in the South is wonderful. It has a kind of magic and mystery that it has nowhere else. And the reason for this is that it comes to people in the South not as the grim, unyielding tenant of Winter's keep, but as a strange and wild visitor from the secret North.” - Thomas Wolfe

They’re calling for snow again today. And by calling for it, I mean putting the odds at 100%. Those are pretty high odds. I admire the meteorologist who says, “95% is for weathergirls. This thing is gonna happen!”

So of course, my fellow Southerners and I are in a sort of giddy state of dread and excitement. We’ve bought up all the bread and milk in the county, left our faucets to trickle, and opened the cabinet doors. (I’ve never understood what the cabinet-opening was about. Having lived in freezing climates for over twenty years, I didn’t experience this weather precaution until moving south. I guess it’s so you can see all the bread.)

Yes, we’re excited about snow. It shuts things down, makes the landscape pretty, and gives us an excuse to wear cute hats. But unfortunately, along with snow comes the cold, and that is something we are never, ever happy about. Blood may be thicker than water down here, but not by very much. As soon as the thermometer dips below 50 degrees, we are unable to get through a full day without remarking on how cold it is.

You’ll notice I included myself in this group of delicate Southern flowers. As much as I hate to admit it, I have become a cold-weather weakling. I now sit huddled inside on days that my ancestors would consider shorts weather. Sitting inside in bare feet and a ¾-sleeve tee shirt, of course.

I know better than to pull that wimpy bit up north, though. When I do trek back to the tundra, I’m fully prepared. I bring along the shearling-lined parka, wool hat, and waterproof Timberland boots that only see daylight twice a year in Memphis, and I keep my mouth shut about it. I don’t remark on the weather because it just isn’t remarkable. I don’t know if Northerners are better able to handle the cold, but they certainly know better than to draw attention to it. Even if they were the type to complain or outwardly express any other type of emotion, they wouldn’t bother with something that is unpleasant, unchangeable, and seemingly unending. It’s one thing to be ill or out of sorts for a day or two, but admitting that you’re bothered by the cold is akin to saying, “I am unhappy and am going to be this way for the next seven months.” That’s something your mailman or your grocery bagger just doesn’t need to know.

Maybe that’s why Southerners are more effusive in their freezing. The two months or so of winter that we experience is always somewhat of a novelty, broken up by random spells of 60-degree days that reassure us of impending spring.

Ah, spring. We have that here. In Memphis, there are actually flowers blooming on March 20th. In Minnesota, the only things coming from the ground in mid-March are crusty, waist-high stalagmites of soot, ice, snow, and sand.

So although I once mocked them, I am now one of the legion Southerners who goes sockless in January and then complains of a chill. And I love it. It’s so much more enjoyable to have winter be a pesky little nuisance than an overpowering oppressor. While my friends in Minneapolis, Chicago and New York are so under it they’re completely over it, the idea of snow now warms my heart.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

We Thought You Was A Toad

I’m not an expert on the Coen brothers, but I think we’d get along pretty well. There’s something of the Memphisotan in them, I suspect. Although they grew up in a Minneapolis suburb bordering my own, their work has shown a fascination with parts of the country that may as well be foreign allies with Minnesota. There are the New York movies (Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy), the southwest/Texas movies (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men), and the L.A. movies (The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There). But the three Coen Brothers movies I feel most connected with are those that speak of home, both the one I came from and the one I’ve chosen as an adult.

It won a couple Oscars, so I know I can’t be the only person who liked Fargo, but sometimes it feels that way. It doesn’t fit in much with the flashier, shinier, more colorful mix of Coen films, standing off in a northern corner by itself (politely avoiding eye contact with A Serious Man). But Marge Gunderson is my idea of the perfect leading lady, and I consider Frances McDormand’s slyly understated portrayal to be an homage to The Minnesotan Woman. Sure, she’s kind of dorky and brusque, but she’s smart and strong and loyal, and strangely attractive in a Radisson Hotel lounge kind of way. Some Minnesotans were insulted by the movie, but some are insulted by Prairie Home Companion, too. I guess temperatures under 30-below can be rough on one’s sense of humor (the Swedes’, mostly).

I’d only lived in Memphis a year when O Brother, Where Are Thou? was released, so I didn’t automatically recognize the references to TVA’s damming of Lake Arkabutla or know the exact location of Robert Johnson’s crossroads negotiation, even though these occurred less than an hour’s drive from my home. But the movie still stuck with me like the sirens’ song. As in Fargo, exaggerating the comical traits of an area highlighted both the humanity and inexplicable cruelty of its residents, but the film didn’t take shortcuts with stereotypes. By using the framework of an epic tale, the Coen brothers show respect for a hero that could be dismissed as bumbling, and a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in this or any rural Southern setting.

When I think of True Grit, I think of Westerns, so it surprised me to realize that the “west” was my neighbor, Arkansas. The story itself is enough of a draw, with Coen-friendly dialogue already seeping from the novel, but I wonder if the location held appeal to the film-makers as well. Like the Delta of O Brother, Fort Smith, Arkansas is an in-between place, a seemingly civilized town that’s only a night’s ride from the unknown of Indian territory. From what I know of Arkansas, things haven't changed all that much. A grieving child, a drunken bounty-hunting Marshall, and a cocky Texas Ranger could have easily slid into the realm of the cartoonish, especially when using language that amuses by sheer anachronism, but again the Coens avoid this peril by focusing on character rather than caricatures. That's a skill I had to learn myself when I moved to the South. People are so big down here, their surfaces so broad and apparent, that it can be hard not to assume you know all you need to.

The Coen brothers have certainly covered a lot of ground, cinematically speaking, and I wouldn’t try to contend that the areas featured in these movies reflect their deepest geographic affections and loyalties. But they do reflect mine, and in doing so, I feel some validation. I feel like someone of my own tribe has blessed my wandering from home. It’s a little like meeting up with old friends after twenty years and having them say, “Yeah, you did alright.”

Or even better, “Ya did real good. You’re bona fide. I admire your sand.”