Hidden in Plain Sight

The World’s First Goat Positioning System

The guy running the front loader couldn’t have been nicer. “Look at this,” he said to his wife as she wandered up, holding a shovel in one hand and brushing back the dogs with the other. “She’s lookin’ for the prairie, and she’s got the same danged map as that other guy.” Passing my copy of the hand-drawn map to the woman, he gave me a look generally reserved for well-intentioned but slightly dim folk. “Around here, we don’t call it a prairie. We call it a hay field.”

“Well,” I said, “whatever you call it, I can’t find it. That map says it’s supposed to be twenty-six miles north of Highway 35. When I got up to Cow Micham Road, I knew I’d gone too far, but I sure hadn’t gone twenty-six miles. I decided I’d better stop and ask for better directions.”

That made him smile. It made his wife smile, too. We stood around for a bit, grinning at one another while the dogs snuffled around my ankles and bumblebees trundled through the rising heat. Finally, he pushed back his hat and said, “Tell you what. Go on back down the road a piece, past the old Gibson place. Pass by the goat on the right and keep a-goin’. If you get to the substation, you’ve gone too far.”

Deciphering directions in rural Texas can take some skill.  “Down the road a piece” wasn’t going to translate into miles, and as for the old Gibson place, it might be the Kutchka place now, or the Harringtons’. It might even be that the house itself had been torn down and a barn put up, but none of that would be recognizable to a stranger. So, ‘goat’ and ‘substation’ it would have to be. “That ought to do it,” I said, reclaiming the map. “Thank you kindly.”

Heading back to the car, I heard the front loader start and then stop. “When you get there?” I turned around. “When you get there,” he said, “don’t go drivin’ in. It’s too wet, for one thing, and I don’t know as they want people doing that anyhow. Pull up next to one’a them metal posts and you’ll be fine.” Thanking him again, I headed off down the road, ready to use a new version of GPS – the Goat Positioning System – to locate 400 acres of virgin prairie.

As it turned out, the goat was at home. After stopping to let him mug for the camera, I got back on the road and discovered myself nearly at the substation. Between the substation and the goat I had to look twice and turn around once, but at last I was certain: I’d found Nash Prairie. Unfenced, ungated, unmown and unplowed, it appeared unremarkable. Hidden in plain sight, lacking even a sign to mark its presence, it could have fooled anyone into mistaking it for just another untended field instead of recognizing it for what it is: a gem is its own right, a link to our past, and a sign of hope for the future.

Nash Prairie in spring

Texans love their wildflowers, and the spring ritual known as ‘going to see the bluebonnets’ is deeply ingrained.

When the weather cooperates, the flowers provide breath-taking vistas. On the other hand, there’s been a growing tendency to define ‘good wildflowers’ solely in terms of vibrant and accessible color patches, like the stands of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush that line so many roads.

Nash Prairie is different. Subtle rather than spectacular and nearly invisible to someone traveling by car, it rewards a leisurely pace and open senses. The fragrance of the land is indescribable, with an aroma at once rich and spicy, tanged with salt, and redolent of growth: the essence of grass, sedge, soil, and flower combined into one unexpected scent.

Unlike our more vibrantly-framed roads, Nash Prairie is a mixed bouquet. No human hand scattered its seeds; no master planner decreed ‘blue here, yellow there.’ The land itself determines which life will flourish, and where. In the sandy, well-draining soil of  raised pimple mounds, sunflowers, toad-flax, cone flowers and verbena flourish among the grasses.

Near the base of the mounds, paintbrush and toad-flax mix with prairie parsley and sensitive briar, while in shallow, barely visible meanders prairie nymph, a tiny member of the iris family, spreads and flows, a river of lavender petals.

That Nash Prairie survives at all is something of a miracle. According to The Nature Conservancy, the 400-acre tract is one of the last remaining segments of the Great Coastal Prairie, six million acres that once stretched from Lafayette, Louisiana to Corpus Christi, Texas. Less than one percent of the prairie exists today, and barely a fraction of that is virgin prairie, like Nash.

Once part of the historic 15,000 acre KNG Ranch, the land was jointly willed by owner Kittie Nash Groce to a cousin; to West Columbia’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church; and to the West Columbia Hospital District. Thanks to the farming practices of German and Czech settlers who used it as a hay meadow, the land never was plowed. Cattle were grazed and hay cuttings taken once or twice a year, but the land always was allowed to regenerate, helping to maintain its rich diversity. The value of the management practices is clear. Hundreds of species thrive at Nash Prairie. Across the road, in a pasture dedicated to cattle grazing, only a dozen species are found.

In 2003, Susan Conaty, wife of the Reverend Peter Conaty, Rector of St. Mary’s in West Columbia, happened to hear a Houston Audubon society representative mention the importance of the hay meadow as one of the last remnants of coastal prairie. “I had never knowingly seen this prairie, even though I had driven by it for years,” she said. Her new awareness began a long and complicated struggle to preserve the land – a process which culminated in its sale to The Nature Conservancy for $1.8 million.

Also in 2003, Dr. David Rosen, then a botanist and plant taxonomist with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, began a survey of the Nash Prairie. While identifying more than 300 plant species there, he discovered one quite rare plant — the buttonbush flatsedge (Cyperus cephalanthus) — which first was described in 1843. Considered a reliable indicator of undisturbed Coastal Prairie, it was thought to have disappeared from Texas.

Grasses represent the bulk of the prairie’s species; big and little bluestem, Indian grass, brownseed paspalum, and switchgrass thrive there. By 2008, Rosen had catalogued 52 species of native grasses, remarkably close to the total of 63 species reported at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in Kansas.

Little Bluestem

Grasses and flowers aren’t the only prairie joys, of course. Birds abound; at Nash, 120 resident or migratory species have been identified. During my first visit few birds were visible, but scissortail flycatchers cut through the air, and meadowlarks sang without ceasing.

Nearly back at the road, I noticed a bit of bright red very near the ground. Bending down, I discovered a ripening dewberry, surrounded by blossoms and just-forming fruit. No ripened berries were visible on the surface. No doubt they’d provided a tasty snack to some bird or creature. But underneath the leaves, the plump, black berries were waiting, another bit of prairie life to experience.

Laying my camera on the ground, I reached into the brambles and began to pick. Greedy as a child, I wished for a basket, but my hand would have to do. As I picked, my mother’s voice chided me in memory:You’re not going to eat those without washing them, are you?

Indeed, I was. No pesticide had sullied this land, no chemical residue would spoil taste or pleasure. As for dirt, the berries sparkled. Rains that had turned the earth spongy and damp, unfit for driving, had washed the berries clean. Plumped by rain, ripened by the sun, their sweet warmth was a delight.

Gazing across the acres of prairie, tasting the tang of fruits formed by sunlight and rain, I imagined the sweeps of flowers to come, the rising up of grasses and the flowing down of winds. Looking beyond the grasses, I sensed the tangled bracts of time, the seeds of history, and the vining of seasons through an unbroken land.

Next time, I thought, I’ll stay longer. Next time, I won’t need a map.

 


Comments always are welcome.

On the Road, Again

  
It seems that cases of wanderlust are spreading among us as surely as cases of — well, you know. Even a casual glance at recent blog post titles suggests a certain restlessness: “Give Me a Road Trip Any Day”; “Rambling Through the Month of May”; “Running on Rhythm”; “Americana on the Road.”
As I’ve done my own day-dreaming about where I’ll go when free-wheeling travel again becomes possible, the urge to re-post one of my all-time favorite ‘travel’ stories became too strong to resist.
Some of you have read this tale before; others will find it new. In either case, I hope you enjoy it. It’s said that humor is the best medicine, and I suspect we all could use a dose or two at this point.

Floydada, Texas is cotton country, although it’s also known for good pumpkins, and likes to advertise itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the US.

It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and barely distinguishable days. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.”

By the time things settled down, people wondered if Sammy Rodriguez and his brother Danny hadn’t been run nuts because of just those circumstances: too much wind; too much work; too little ability to get their bearings while facing the limitless horizons of life.

Whatever the cause, when they disappeared along with eighteen of their relatives, Floydada Police Chief James Hale heard about it as soon as some of the Rodriguez’s kinfolk tracked him down to report the missing brothers. The family members mentioned to Chief Hale that the men had been saying some strange things. “They made statements like the Devil was after them, and Floydada was going to be destroyed if they stayed here,” Hale said.

Later, someone remarked that Floydada wouldn’t be much of a loss if it was destroyed, but he said it quietly, and away from the crowds.

After more than twenty years, people in surrounding towns — even the Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals who tend to take their religion pretty seriously — still keep clippings about the story close at hand. When I saw the article tacked onto a refrigerator in Idalou, torn rather than clipped from the newspaper and starting to yellow with age, it still bore witness to the best part of the story: every living word of it is true, perhaps excepting those conversations the preacher had with the Devil. But no one’s sure about that.

The broad outlines of the story were clear. The Rodriguez family fled Floydada in five or six cars, abandoning one in Lubbock and a second in San Angelo. A third was found in Galveston, filled with clothing, purses, wallets, and other personal items. Eventually, all twenty people crammed themselves into one car and headed east toward Florida, only to be stopped short in Vinton, Louisiana.

Main Street ~ Vinton, Louisiana

The troubles in Vinton began after a campground owner called police to say the group had tried to commandeer an RV. When a Calcasieu Parish deputy stopped their car, the driver seemed willing to answer questions, but when he got out of the car, he was clad only in a towel draped around his mid-section. Vinton Police Chief Dennis Drouillard said, “When the officer went to ask what was going on, he jumped back in and took off.”

The group not only took off, they took off down Vinton’s main street at speeds approaching 90 mph, until the car plowed through a fence at the baseball park and hit a tree. At that point, fifteen adults and five children piled out of the 1990 Pontiac Grand Am.

“They were completely nude,” Drouillard said. “All twenty of them. Didn’t have a stitch of clothes on. I mean, no socks, no underwear, no nothin’. Five of them [the children] were in the trunk. The Lord told them to get rid of all their belongings and go to Louisiana. So they got rid of all their clothes and pocketbooks and wallets and identification and the license plate off their car and came to our gorgeous state.”

The car was totaled, but the injuries were minor. Sammy Rodriguez was booked on charges of reckless driving, flight from an officer, property damage and assorted minor traffic violations.


Like the police, city prosecutors found themselves bemused, and tended toward leniency. In exchange for Rodriguez paying a $650 fine and picking up the $975 tab for fixing the fence and a telephone pole, they dismissed charges of criminal damage to property.

In a fit of good sense, no charges were brought for indecent exposure. As Court Clerk Mary Vice said, “The statute states that for indecent exposure, you have to be exposing yourself in order to arouse someone. That wasn’t their intent.”

Magistrate Kent Savoie gave Rodriguez 90 days to pay for the fence and 30 days to pay the fine. He was ordered to spend 17 days in jail, but after being given credit for six days served, the balance of the sentence was suspended.

Once the proceedings ended, Savoie asked Rodriguez, pastor of the Templo Getsemani Assembly of God Church, why he and his nineteen relatives left their clothes behind in their flight from Texas. Rodriquez said he had a vision from God on August 17, telling him Judgment Day was at hand, and he and his family were to go to Florida. At some point in the journey, they became convinced the Devil was in the details of their clothing, so off it came.

Whatever Savoie thought of the response, he seemed to accept it. “I don’t know what possessed you to do what you did, but I’m relying on the statement you were told to do so by some higher being.” By that time, Rodriguez had been thinking things over. “It wasn’t God, sir,” Rodriguez answered, his voice nearly inaudible. “I would like to apologize to the people of Vinton and Floydada for everything, and I ask for their forgiveness.”

Rodriguez said he planned to leave immediately for Lubbock and then Floydada. “When I return to Floydada I am pretty certain that I will no longer be the pastor of my church, unless the people there can forgive me,” he said. “I plan to look for a job as soon as I get back.” Rodriguez’s wife’s family sent her a plane ticket, and she returned ahead of him. A relative drove the other 18 people on to Wauchula, Florida.

And that would have been the end of it, had not a fellow named Chris Stuart heard the story ten years later. Deciding he had enough material for a song, he went to work. In the end, he wrote a memorable one — good enough to be included in a collection of Car Talk Car Tunes put together by National Public Radio for their popular Saturday morning show hosted by Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.

Whenever I listen to the song, I laugh. I wouldn’t be surprised to know God laughs every time he hears the story, and taps his toe to the song. Let’s face it. Humans can be good for a laugh now and then, even when we’re trying to be serious.

 


Twenty Naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac

I was thumbin’ my way down to Baton Rouge, standin’ on the side of the road,
When a car pulled over and a voice cried out, “We’ll take you where you want to go.”
I jumped inside, but to my surprise, they were naked as a poor man’s toes.
It was a tight situation when the whole congregation said the devil was in my clothes.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
The sermon that morning was on Adam and Eve and the ways of the dreadful snake,
Everybody was clappin’ when the preacher pointed at me, my body began to shake.
I threw off my shirt, and my shoes and my socks,
My jeans and my BVDs.
We were all in the nude, shoutin’ “Hallelu!”
and singing “Somebody Touched Me.”
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.
We had the cruise control set to fifty-five, when a Smokey got on our tail,
He pulled up beside, his eyes got wide, and the siren began to wail.
We ran off the road toward the tree of life, Lord, the future was looking bleak,
We hung on and prayed, everybody was saved, ‘Cause we all knew how to turn the other cheek.
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac,
Brothers and sisters shoutin’ in the back,
Elders in the front, choir in the trunk,
Twenty naked Pentecostals in a Pontiac.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Poets’ Birds: Red-Winged Blackbird

 

Like the thrilling call of a returning osprey, the song of the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) announces an undeniable turn of season. Hear the song, and it’s not difficult to find the bird: defending territory or seeking a mate by displaying his brilliant red shoulder patches atop any convenient cornstalk, cattail, or branch.

The song, once heard, lingers in memory: evocative, freighted with unexpected meaning. For Welsh poet R.S.Thomas, a song similar in so many ways to the landscape of Wales — a little rough, a bit dark — gave rise to a simple and yet enjoyable poem.

Sometimes compared to the American poet Robert Frost, Thomas is less philosophical and less sanguine about the realities of rural life. Still, there’s little question that he absorbed those realities and transformed them in his own way, much as he imagines the blackbird’s song as a particularly pleasing alchemy.

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.
You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.
A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.
                                          “A Blackbird, Singing”  ~  R.S. Thomas

 

Comments always are welcome.
Click here for more information on poet R.S. Thomas.

Livin’ the Blues

Mississippi Delta Morning

Cheating. Grudges. Abandonment. Shootings. Woman trouble. Man trouble. Too much whiskey. Not enough whiskey. Flophouses and fixin’-to-die. The blues has it all.

Blues can provide I’m-down-here-in-the-ditch-and-I-can’t-get-out resignation, if that’s your preference, but there’s more to the blues than blank despair. As much as anything, the blues tend toward travel; they overflow with highways and journeys, crossroads and railroads, picking up, leaving town, heading home, or wandering off to Chicago, Memphis or Helena.  If you’re ready to make a run to Anywhere-But-Here, the blues will be happy to ride shotgun.

Robert Johnson went down to the crossroad. Tab Benoit’s night train is rollin’. R.L. Burnside did some rollin’ and tumblin of his own while grandson Cedric, along with his buddy Malcolm, bought a lemon of a car and ended up having to hitchhike home. CeDell Davis, who liked to say he intended to “live as long as I can and die when I can’t help it,” finally couldn’t help it and moved on, but before he left he suggested we might want to heave ourselves up out of our own chairs and get packing, since sitting around isn’t going to get us anywhere.

James Lewis Carter Ford — T-Model to his friends, admirers, and detractors — did the last of his worldly traveling in 2013, dying of respiratory failure at the age of 88 — or 83, or 93, depending on who’s doing the calculating.  Davis outlived him by four years; he died at age 91 in 2017, thanks to complications after a heart attack. That either man lived so many decades may prove the old saying that the Lord protects drunkards and fools. On the other hand, it may have been sheer luck.

I met Davis and Ford in Clarksdale, Mississippi, at the annual Juke Joint Festival. On Saturday afternoon, Lightnin’ Malcolm and Cedric Burnside were scheduled to play in the alley behind the Rust Restaurant; most people had no idea T-Model and CeDell were planning to join them. When the men appeared, shivers of excitement and anticipation ran through the crowd.

While friends helped CeDell get settled in his wheelchair, T-Model worked the crowd, shaking hands and grinning. Slowly, the crowd began to transform itself into a house party. While family and friends made a little music, the gathered crowd would glimpse shared roots and shared lives in a way impossible at concerts.

Cedric Burnside

Cedric Burnside, grandson of blues great R.L. Burnside and son of drummer Calvin Jackson, has played for years with a variety of musicians including Junior Kimbrough, Kenny Brown, and the North Mississippi Allstars. After teaming up with Steve “Lightnin'” Malcolm, another young Mississippi native who lived for a time with CeDell Davis, the pair began writing and composing.

I don’t just sing about the blues, but I live it, too,” they sang, with a straight-faced irony probably lost on the blues tourists surrounding them:

Some people say they read about the blues,
been readin’ about it for a while.
Well, I don’t have to read about the blues —
been livin’ it since I was a child.

CeDell Davis, a native of Helena, Arkansas, certainly began livin’ the blues as a child. After contracting polio at age nine while living with his brother near Tunica, Mississippi, he was forced by his disability to give up the harmonica and re-learn his guitar skills. He grew creative, telling an interviewer:

I was right- handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn the guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kinda swiped one of ’em.

Later, he told David Ramsey, in an interview for The Oxford American:

Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife. It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.

It was the perfect solution for someone unable to put a slide on a finger and use it conventionally. He wasn’t the first to use a knife, but he was in good company. In a famous autobiographical passage, W.C. Handy remembers his experience in the Tutwiler, Mississippi train station around 1903:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages.
As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ to where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

“Weird” is an apt description, since a metal knife handle on metal strings produces a sound akin to fingernails on a chalkboard. Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic, called Davis’s guitar style “utterly unique, in or out of blues.” As Palmer put it:

Some people who hear CeDell’s playing for the first time think it’s out of tune, but it would be more accurate to say he plays in an alternative tuning, because the way he hears and plays intervals and chords is consistent and systematic.
The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic, gnashing sound that conspires with his patched-together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique to produce some of the grittiest music imaginable.

Having mastered his own style of playing, Davis began showing up in various nightclubs across the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, he teamed up with Robert Nighthawk, considered to be the Delta’s finest slide guitarist by no less than the great Muddy Waters.

For ten years, from 1953-1963, Davis and Nighthawk worked the juke joints and clubs until, in 1957, Davis was trampled after a brandished gun led to a stampede at an East St. Louis bar. What polio hadn’t accomplished, the bar brawl did; multiple leg fractures put David into a wheelchair. Still, he continued to play, until a stroke in 2005 forced him into a nursing home.

Although the stroke left him unable to play the guitar, he still could sing, and sing he did: encouraged and assisted by a variety of musicians and supporters. After a return to live performance in 2009, he released two more albums: Last Man Standing (2015) and Even the Devil Gets the Blues (2016).

Debilitated by polio, confined to a wheelchair after a barroom stampede, unable to play the guitar and left with only his voice for music-making, he remained one of most positive people in the world.

As he rolled through the gathered festival crowd in his wheelchair, he was living large, with a word and a handshake for everyone in his path, including his old friend T-Model Ford.

Cedell Davis and T-Model Ford at the Clarksdale Juke Joint Festival

T-Model, a man with as much hard living and bad luck behind him as you could have and still be alive, was a bit of a wonder himself. Writing inThe Guardian, Richard Grant lays out the highlights:

T-Model’s life reads like a horror story. At the age of eight, his father beat him so badly between the legs with a piece of firewood that he lost a testicle. His ankles are scarred from the chain gang. His neck is scarred where one of his wives slashed his throat.
He has been shot, stabbed, pinned under a fallen tree with a broken ribcage, beaten unconscious with a metal chair. He watched his first wife go off with his own father, watched another die after she drank poison to try and induce a miscarriage. The only woman he ever really loved poisoned him at the breakfast table. He woke up in hospital that afternoon and never saw her again.

He began playing guitar at age 58, on the night his fifth of six wives left him. She’d presented him with a guitar as a parting gift and Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues in Clarksdale recalls, “He stayed up all night drinking white whiskey and playing that guitar. He kind of went on from there.”

Indeed he did. Unbelievable as it seems, T-Model wasn’t especially eager to apply words like anguish, tribulation, or despair to his own life. As he said,

“I play the blues, but I don’t ever get the blues. After my sister died I prayed to God to please let me live like a tree. Tree don’t care if them other trees is dyin’. Tree don’t care about nothin’. When they raped and killed that white lady [an 88-year-old white woman who was teaching him to read and write] I felt bad – she was a good old white lady – but I didn’t let it get me down. I don’t let nothin’ get me down.”

As Grant notes in his article, most people aren’t able to stay happy because they’ve decided to be happy, regardless of circumstances. Still, it seemed to work for T-Model. “He plays the north Mississippi hill-country hypnotic boogie-groove like nobody else on earth,” commented Memphis musician Jim Dickinson, producer for Ford’s album Bad Man (2002). “His music is not a complaint of self-pity, but a celebration of life.You could see it in his smile.”

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys noticed the smile himself after driving to Greenville on a whim, just to see if he could find T-Model and play with him.

We jammed all afternoon and played a juke joint that night, then slept on his floor. He was nothing but nice – all smiles. There’s nothing like T-Model’s smile, and boy, he’ll use it! He’ll find the prettiest girl in the audience and just smile all night.
Left to right: Lightnin’ Malcolm, Cedric Burnside, T-Model Ford

Certainly he seemed happy enough in Clarksdale. Basking in the palpable affection surrounding him, firm and straightforward in his singing, he clearly enjoyed playing with Cedric. As the set finished, T-Model rose, steadied himself on his cane and bantered a bit with the musicians around him.

Then, a model of graciousness, he took his place in the crowd while CeDell and Malcolm, the old and the young, the black and the white, the root and the branch, began to edge through another song, just as they would have done when they shared the same house .

CeDell Davis and Lightnin’ Malcolm

As he watched and listened, T-Model casually reached down, picked up his cane, flipped it under his arm, and began ‘playing’ it in rhythm with Malcolm.

Look at that,” the fellow from Chicago sitting next to me said. “Just look at that.” Next to us, a photographer stopped in mid-focus to stare, before saying to no one in particular, “Can you believe that?”

We watched, transfixed, as the old reprobate, the ol’ tail-dragger, a man with a checkered past and the sweetest smile in the world, seemed to breathe in life and breathe out blues in a process as easy and natural as CeDell’s table knife slicing chords into a plateful of music. He just couldn’t help himself, and everyone saw it.

The Old Tail-dragger

When Lightnin’ saw what T-Model was up to, he caught Cedric’s eye and they grinned at one another across the crowd. Seeing Lightnin’s amusement, CeDell looked over at T-Model, who responded with a deep, elegant bow. As one song ended and another began, CeDell’s voice strengthened, the rhythms intensified, and the chattering, admiring crowd began to grow quiet.

It was then, in a small Delta town nearly hidden from the world, that travelers from Rotterdam, Rochester, and Rolling Fork leaned forward in anticipation, feeling the blues itself begin to travel. Pitted against the low mumurings of a threatening storm, the music rolled and tumbled from one guitar to the next, from one singer to another.

As clouds heaped up and chords grew heavy in the air, CeDell sang on, while Lightnin’s guitar flashed and the music poured down, running like an unbanked river across hearts flattened and scoured by life, flooding out into the streets, spreading and leveling as it flowed.

Washed clean of inattention, the fellow from Chicago stopped talking, leaned back and closed his eyes. Surprised by an unexpected surge of joy, the photographer from Jackson lowered his light meter and set his camera aside.

Smiling back at CeDell, T-Model winked, folded his hands over the crook of his cane, and lightly tapped a foot over the fine, raspy grit of the pavement. Off to the west, the rain rolled down and the great river tumbled on, sluicing and singing through the Delta, the source and the life of the blues.

 

To hear my favorite cut from T-Model’s “Jack Daniel Time”, click here for “Red’s House Party”
For a taste of CeDell Davis’s music, try “You Got to do the Boogie-Woogie”
.
Click here for a list of upcoming live blues events from Clarksdale.
Comments always are welcome.

 

 

 

The Re-Resurrection of Dale T

Lydia Ann Channel Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas
Since Easter’s the time for re-telling one particular story, I thought I’d re-tell one of my own favorite resurrection tales. Some of you will remember it, but a good story’s a good story, and the best ones deserve being dusted off from time to time.
Happy Easter!

 

None of the roustabouts, deck hands, or dock workers along the middle and upper Texas coast seemed to know how Dirty Dale got his nickname, and Dale wasn’t telling.

Gracie, who’d given up life on an oil rig to put her cooking talents to work in a land-locked café, served him breakfast every morning. She insisted his name came from his good-natured willingness to pursue every female in sight. No matter how oblivious, uninterested, or irritated the object of his attentions, Dale’s confidence was absolute. Sliding into a seat next to an unaccompanied woman, he’d murmur, “Hey, darlin’. I’m here to improve your life.” Most didn’t feel the need for improvement, but Dale remained optimistic.

A prissy live-aboard in his marina claimed to have named him Dirty Dale because he rarely indulged in a shower, but that wasn’t true. Like his dock-mates, Dale trotted down to the bathhouse with towels and a change of clothing every day. His scruffy beard and fly-away hair led to an unkempt appearance, and you could see traces of his current projects in the grease or oil smudged across his shirt, but none of that added up to a lack of personal hygiene.

Friends who boarded his boat for drinks and conversation assumed his nickname reflected conditions below deck. Living aboard a boat is complicated at best, and the old adage “a place for everything, and everything in its place” may have been born on a boat. A particularly unpleasant set of woes betides the sailor who gives up the struggle to stay organized, and Dale’s ship had become significantly out of shape.

It wasn’t that he’d surrendered to the forces of stuff; he never engaged the battle. His boat’s interior held the history of his world: layered, crammed, and filled to the proverbial gills. Occasional gaps in the walls of stuff were the only evidence that piles of spare parts or second-hand books might have been heaved off the boat during the odd impulse toward organization.

On the water, he approached sailing much as he did housekeeping, with a style both improvisational and weirdly creative. Years after the fact, astounded sailors still told of the day he won an offshore race by anchoring in the Galveston Ship Channel, pouring a couple of fingers of good Scotch, and sitting back to watch as the fast-running tide swept his less savvy competition back to sea.

Everyone agreed that it was a validation of sorts. If God truly cares for fools and drunkards, there’s no question Dale was twice-blessed. Despite his disregard for common sense and common sailing practice, he never met the unhappy fates that befell his more prepared, cautious, and law-abiding friends. From time to time, he even got the ladies. At least, he got them once.

During the years I knew him, Dale’s most famous escapade involved a weekend voyage down the Texas coast with his newest love. Because of time constraints, they cruised the Intracoastal Waterway to Freeport, where they spent the better part of the weekend. Then, as they were traveling back toward Galveston on Sunday afternoon, the boat sputtered to a stop. The little Atomic 4 engine had run out of gas.

Suspecting she was stuck on the marine equivalent of a country road with a guy who’d planned the whole thing, the lady-friend grew irritated. But this was Unprepared Dale, not Predatory Dale, and he truly was out of gas.

Later, he told us she pitched a fit that would have done his second ex-wife proud. More confident of his old Atomic 4 than of his ability to endure the rantings of a furious woman, Dale concocted a gallon or two of home brew. Combining acetone, nail polish remover, a little kerosene, a bottle or two of booze, and who knows what else in a plastic bucket, he gave it a swirl and poured it into the fuel tank. After an explosive cough from the cylinders and a rattle or two unlike any he’d ever heard, the engine fired, and they were underway.

By the time he ran out of fuel a second time, they nearly were back to port. Thanks to a local shrimper, they reached home under tow and safely docked, just before the woman disappeared into the night and out of Dale’s life forever.

Shortly after the infamous Freeport voyage, Dale found yet another woman: one who found the boat charming and Dale amusing. She moved aboard, and eventually they married. After a short stint as shrimpers, they moved to Florida; took up chicken farming; tried their hands at long-haul trucking; and then divorced.

Ever the survivor, Dale remarried for the fourth or fifth time, came back to Texas, and moved his boat to Florida. No one was surprised by another divorce, but new gossip drifting back from the Keys became worrying. Not merely lovesick, Dale had become physically ill, and it was serious. Details were sketchy. Some said it was an intestinal problem. Others claimed it was cancer. There were reports of medical complications, and financial difficulties.

In those days before email and cell phones, it was hard to get solid news, but reports still traveled, and we learned the bitter truth. Another surgery hadn’t gone well. Dale was expected to survive, but didn’t. When word of his death arrived on the Texas coast, everyone paused, and swallowed hard. If death could come to Dirty Dale — blithe spirit and survivor extraordinaire — it could come to any of us.

Months passed. At the marina where Dale had lived, new boats arrived, skippered by sailors with their own tales of life on the sea. Occasionally, the return of cruising friends or the simple urge to party found old-timers gathering for long evenings of nostalgic story-telling.

One particularly languid summer night, stories flew. We laughed again at the man who imbibed a bit too much and fell off his own boat, only to have his panic-stricken girlfriend call his wife for help. We remembered the salt-encrusted, slightly crazed live-aboard who varnished his decks with a mop, and the braggadocious tech savant who took out a channel marker by ignoring his own electronics. Eventually, stories about Dale would surface, and those, too, were retold with relish.

During a beautifully embellished version of the infamous Freeport cruise story, maudlin sentimentality had begun to flow as freely as the wine when the door to the clubhouse flew open and an unkempt, disheveled apparition stepped into the room.

“Whatnhell’s a guy hafta do t’ get a drink around here?”

As perplexed by our silence as we were stunned by his presence, Dale tried again. “Whatsa matter wi’ you guys? You drink it up already?”

At last, someone blurted it out. “Dale! We thought you were dead!” Looking around, Dale must have seen the shock and astonishment in our eyes. “Dead? Me? Well, if I’ve been dead, I’m sure as hell glad to be back. Now, somebody pour me a drink.”

Clearly, the gossip had been wrong.

Each year, as the season dedicated to another remarkable story rolls around, I think about Dale.

He’s well and truly gone now, having succumbed at last to the same disease rumored to have killed him in the first place. I miss his teasing, his larger-than-life persona, his ability to charm and hornswoggle anyone he met, but most of all I miss his generosity.

Of all the gifts he offered so willingly — his receptive spirit, his humor, his determination to explore the possibilities of life outside the bounds of normal society — perhaps his greatest gift to a surprised few was an experience akin to resurrection. Whatever happened on that first Easter, no disciple could have been more astonished than those of us who thought — if only for a brief, irrational moment — that Dale T truly had risen from the dead.

During the Easter season, whether you’re Christian or whether you aren’t; whether you believe Jesus walked out of his tomb or whether you don’t; whether you dismiss the rabbits and eggs of the pagans or embrace them with the joy of a child, Dale T has a message for you:

Keep your eyes open. Be attentive. Listen.

You don’t know what forces are abroad in the land, and you can’t predict what’s going to happen next. You never know when someone might roll away your stone, and you never know who’ll be the next to come sashaying back from the dead.

Comments always are welcome.