Sunday, January 11, 2004

Those white, middle-class, intellectual, colicky-baby, night-driving, open road blues

(Warning: this is, in retrospect, a weirdly pretentious post. My only excuse is that I'm functioning on about four hours of sleep a night, and my self-editing function is down. My apologies.)

As I've mentioned, our new baby Alison is colicky. Technically, it's not quite that: she has, according to her doctor, a "mild anal stricture"--she has a terrible time getting anything out, be it poop or gas. This means she spits-up often, and has frequent stomach aches and gas pains, all of which means she's frequently too uncomfortable to sleep, which makes her cranky and...well, you get the picture. Like hundreds of thousands of other parents of colicky, uptight (literally) infants, we've discovered that driving in the car is good, if temporary, relaxant. Between the vibration and the passing lights and the sound of the motor, she usually calms down (or exhausts herself screaming; that happens too) and sleeps a bit, sometimes deeply enough that we can get her into her crib without waking her. Most of the time, of course, she just wakes up as soon as I park the car. Still, either way, it's a break.

I took our first daughter, who was also colicky, out on night drives when she was an infant; at that time we lived Alexandria, VA, and I made more midnight drives around the National Mall and the monuments than I care to count. But now, in Jonesboro, AR, the land is mostly flat and empty. (The city itself has only a little over 50,000 people; any serious night drive with Alison crying in her car seat will very quickly exhaust the city limits, and I'll hit the country.) To the north there are some hills, gradually leading towards Missouri and the Ozarks, but directly west, south and east is farmland: rice to the south and west, and cotton in the Delta country to the east. The latter is where I usually go: I'm generally wiped out anyway, so the empty straight rural highways are probably safer than anything with twists and turns.

Saturday night I headed out, and since Alison was only occasionally crying I turned the radio on low. I tuned in KASU, the public station at Arkansas State University, and very reliable source of good jazz and blues. Keith Brown, a fine Memphis-based blues guitarist, was performing a set that had been recorded live in Jonesboro, and he was working through some great old numbers by Robert Johnson and Son House. As his tough, mournful voice delivered "Preachin' Blues" and other classics, I covered 20 miles or more of rural roads, passing one darkened farmhouse after another. In the distance I'd occasionally glimpse lights high above the ground; lights from a cotton mill, or a rice flour mill, or (closer in to Jonesboro) from one of food processing factories around town. After Keith's set was over, KASU served up Beale Street Caravan, a terrific blues program. Beale Street is in Memphis, only 70 miles from Jonesboro, and in the dark night I thought about all the thousands of others who have lived and worked on these ragged farms over the decades, fiddling with their radios in the evening, trying to catch some music from so-close-yet-so-far Memphis, some tune that could inspire them and sweep them away.

A friend of mine and I once argued about the blues: was it simply just a set of chord progressions, a beat that anyone could learn, or was it truly a form of folk music whose authenticity derived from its context--the cotton fields, the train whistles, the juke joints, the flat landscape, all the elements of that made of the life of so many poor rural black men and women throughout the Delta and mid-South? I'm not a philosopher of art, so I hesitate to say much about the relationship between aesthetics and identity. But I mostly defended the latter position; while forms of music and musicianship can be multiplied and reworked for as long as there are people to hear them, that shouldn't suggest that all forms of music are equally themselves in any context: blues music has traveled far and influenced many beyond these fields (and a good thing it has), but there is a sensibility to the place it emerged that makes its form, its telos, ever so clear. If that wasn't the case, why would people bother with vintage Robert Johnson recordings; why would people travel the blues trail from Natchez to Chicago? The cynical answer, I suppose, is that it's just tourism; it's just another artifact finding a way to sell itself to people (like myself) hung up on experience. There's a point to that cynicism, to be sure. But it doesn't explain the whole phenomenon; it can't entirely justify why some practioners of an art are so hung up on returning to and retrieving, again and again, that art's own roots. No, some music--maybe all music--has a home, and while being rooted in that home may not make you a better performer or critic or fan, it does help you seen something that is going on in the form, something that you may not have ever known in another context. Or at least that is what I told myself late last night, taking our '98 Ford Escort down another empty cotton field road.

Blues music came, of course, from individuals who, materially speaking, were nothing like myself: a white middle-class academic. So I'm outsider to that history, that form. But what about the emotional core? The blues communicate a sadness, and a defiance: not a heroic defiance, but instead one having to do with simple endurance. This bad thing happened, then that bad thing happened, and tomorrow another bad thing will happen again. Life is hard, but the hardest thing about it is its continuation, its repetitiveness, its inescapability. The sharecropper looked out at that flat land, and knew that the next day would be much like the one just past. To be able to do, and then do again, and then still do again...well, that's not heroism, that's just living: living without any payoff or intellectual summation or spiritual reward, living with a sense of larger things but also a feel for one's disconnect from them. You get swept away not by the evocation of an another place, but by the heaviness of what you're already in. Spelling it out like this makes it seem pathetic, I know. But I wonder if the bluesmen of old, in pounding out their songs and their lives, didn't do a great favor to people like me, by discovering and articulating in artistic form a mode of living appropriate to all of us who sometimes feel disconnected, out of place, left behind by the train. That's everyone at one point or another, I know. But, as insulting as it may be to suggest it in light of all the real suffering in the lives of so many around the U.S. and the world, perhaps there is something bluesy to the life of the typical academic today. Committed to a vocation that was imagined and set up in a different era, we find ourselves (at least the overwhelming majority of us) teaching at underfunded and overwhelmed state schools and community colleges that look nothing like the preserves of excellence that we willingly conditioned ourselves to expect; aspiring to a frankly appalling ideal of detachment (an elite, cloistered way of life) while lacking either the resources or the institutional support or the social justification for doing so. In other words, we're stuck, psychologically--and while the social forces which kept poor rural blacks stuck were in every way viciously political, social and economic, it was the psychological sense of being stuck which most inspired the blues. And so, in a small, perhaps silly way, it inspires us as well. In the meantime, we teach and write, though few of us do enough of either, and none of us do it as well as or in the way that we should. It is crumbling edifice, the academy in America is, but still an attractive one: in all honestly, for all our bitching, most of us wouldn't leave even if we could. So we keep at it, living a kind of disconnected, fractured, perpetually out-of-step life: the middle-class academic at the dawn of the 21st century. This, I guess, is our blues.

I'm driving late into the night, and I'll be up early the next morning, and I may be up in the middle of the night as well: that's just what you have to do with a colicky baby. Lesson plans aren't going to get written as well as they should, and some things won't get written at all. I hope for a better job, but the longer I live here the less I want to move. I tune into the radio, and listen for the old man to sing some song about a preacher, and a woman, and the devil, and a train, and a death letter, and when he hits the refrain everyone in the audience murmurs in response; "that's how it is," you can almost hear them say, "that's how it is, every day." Indeed it is.