browsing category: Non-Fiction

Non-FictionSummer 2018

Out Past the Heliosphere – Jonathan Railey

I.

“Feel bad this morning, ain’t got no home / No use of worrying, because the world gone wrong.”

– The Mississippi Sheiks

Let me tell you about the fall line, which runs for about a thousand miles along the Atlantic Seaboard from my home state of Georgia up to New Jersey, fusing the Piedmont forest to the coastal plain.

In Georgia, the fall line is a curious pastiche of hills, cuts, and rocky shoals that are home to unique plant and animal communities. Just north of here, the terrain is lush, mountainous & embroidered with stately deciduous woodlands. To the south, mountains give way to yawning, planar flatlands that feel either faintly Midwestern or Mesozoic, depending on how you squint. But the fall line is something else—a place defined by its liminality.

so a controlled dissolution of the self, a hustle / wave upon wave extinguishing on the shore…

I have returned to this place because I am from here, from a little town that once thrived—like so many others—with factories and storefronts and a bustling railway station. To come back home like this is to face the fact of time, and to engage with a curious questioning and reification of myself. The result of this cognitive dissonance, usually, is some form of comfortable regression, like hanging out with folks I have known since grade school, drinking too much Old Crow, and ruining our stereos.

Somehow, we are all in our forties now. When we come together like this, the conversation inevitably exhumes our shared childhood and the pervasive feeling of closure that hung over it; that quickening of late capitalism, as factories shuttered and whole cities and towns atrophied en masse.

I remember it well. In a rural-industrial version of the out-migrations that were happening in cities all over America in the 1980s, jobless black and white working-class families began packing up and fleeing the area in search of employment. Some moved on to factory cities up north, only to meet the same fate a year or two later.
Those of us who managed to remain here through high school typically had parents who were lucky enough to hold onto relatively stable jobs outside of the factory paradigm. Our moms were hairdressers, bank tellers, and waitresses. Our dads worked in the railroad yard or in garages. When times got tough, we leaned on our kin. Everybody, it seemed, was just scraping by.

That sense of closure wasn’t something any of us spoke much about back then. I think it’s fair to say we looked forward instead, to things like weekends, football games, and, ultimately, graduation: getting on up, getting out. In the meantime, we fought, messed around, and grew up together, faintly aware of a reality—the one we inhabited—dissolving underneath us. There is always the looking forward that defines our species, but also a peculiar regard for perpetuity that found expression in our yearbook signatures: Friends forever! Don’t ever change! Keep in touch! Stay crazy! As though our world was not smoldering.

Decades have passed since I moved out and away from all that dissolving ground.

And the bottle empties. The fire dies down. So let this be enough:

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…

It’s for good reason that, when speaking of something that has occurred, we often say it has “taken place,” emphasizing the physical setting, its protean quality.

Landscapes are changing all the time, after all. Plates shift. Polar caps melt. New roads are paved, old ones renamed. Take the Atlantic Ocean, not too far from here: Once, in the distant past, it covered half of Georgia. Now, the sea levels are rising again and I am not sure what to feel about that besides a terrible smallness.

And how dime-a-dozen industrial outposts like my hometown fit into modern times is, of course, its own crumbling mystery. The empty storefronts and the vacant houses; the weedy parking lots and the boarded-up factories. A new order to replace the old—

And that which hath been is that which will be…and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

I have come down to the fall line, I suppose, to reify this place and see for myself that it’s not just memory. That a community still lives here. That my very own parents still live here in the house I grew up in, down in the micah-flecked cut across from the railroad yard.

And, in the darkness, tomorrow awaits. The sunlight will cast aucuba shadows on the brick facade of the public library. I will walk there with my nine-year-old daughter to see how it’s holding up under its stand of magnificent pines, and to pine for what’s best of the past.

Did I ever tell you that in 4th grade, it was a ritual to meet my friends here to play Dungeons and Dragons after school? About the fantastic things we dreamed up and the monsters we threw down against—the Displacer Beasts and dragons and something terrible we called the Genius Loci: Indistinguishable from the landscape, it had the power to possess and enslave anyone it wanted…

And as the evening wind pushes through the treetops, what I will mean to say is:

You are my child. You could pick any river here and follow it three hundred miles to its conclusion, right to where all this land gives way. If you did, I’d be right there with you.

II.

In his best-known and most-covered song, “Blind” Willie McTell gives us a man wounded & wanting out. In so doing, he also expresses how innocent people—whole families, even—can get decimated by a powerful, singular force. And although it has been said that the blues is “nothing but a good man feeling bad” (or else “a bad woman feeling good”), this one locates the badness in a precise geographical location, just south of Georgia’s fall line.

The “Statesboro Blues” is a rich hybrid of songster tropes, humor, and woe, cast in the mold of a standard, 12-bar blues. The song’s funniness comes largely from the one-liners and confused overtures of Papa McTell, its patently ambivalent narrator. When he threatens to leave his girlfriend, for example, he refers to her as a “pretty mama,” a “mighty mean woman,” and a “queen.” Later, in a stylized diction evoking the Black church, he calls on his family, announcing his departure up and away. But somehow, in the same breath, he manages, desperately, to invite her along—“Mama, don’t you want to go?”

But there is also a sense of spiritual malignancy at the heart of “Statesboro Blues.” Papa McTell wants his “travelin’ shoes,” but the feeling is one of being swept away by murky, unconscious forces. He reveals, at last, that he and his kin have come down with what he can only call the “Statesboro Blues.” This haunting image—of a family afflicted—functions like a surreal variation on the old put-down: I’ll hit you so hard your mama will feel it. Here, McTell has been hit so hard by the facts of existence that his whole family feels the pain.

These two factors—confusion and malignancy—which drive “Statesboro Blues” to its conclusion, also map the way to another terrain much larger than the physical boundaries of Statesboro, Georgia.

*

The real Willie McTell was born in Happy Valley, Georgia in 1903. Blind at birth, he drifted around the fall line and coastal plain with his mother, Minnie Dorsey, eventually settling in Statesboro, where Minnie found kitchen work. His father, a man named Ed, ghosted early on.

Lynchings were a common American fixture at the time—certain White folks’ attempts to keep alive the terrible, racist social order.  One that McTell’s mother surely would have known about occurred outside Statesboro a few years earlier, when Paul Reed and Will Cato, two African-American men, were seized by a lynch mob, doused with oil, and burned alive. The resulting violence and hysteria culminated in a regional exodus of African-Americans.

But tell me- Where does one go when there is nowhere to go?

McTell was an infant at the time the Reed-Cato Lynching took place. It’s not hard to imagine him coming of age, hearing stories about this event. As he aged, he would have learned about any number of lynchings and acts of racial violence, features of the dystopic landscape he could not physically see, but inhabited and sensed his way through.

As lively as it is on the surface, it is possible to hear, within “Statesboro Blues,” another song purely about a vexed place, an impression of the psychological landscape McTell might have inhabited. Sometimes, this shadow-song seems to say, a place is just bad: You might get some love there, but it will turn out to be bad love because everything about it is skewed and wrong.

Facticity is the term existential philosophers use to describe the unchosen, unavoidable life circumstances one gets thrown into. It is entirely possible to be born into a bad place. If you’re lucky—and if you live long enough or find a way out—you might get to see it change and become something better. That might be something. Maybe.

Willie McTell’s mother died when he was seventeen. Shortly thereafter, he put on his “travelin’ shoes,” left Statesboro, and began laying the groundwork for his career as a musician. He played and traveled, metabolizing and synthesizing vast amounts of musical information out on the road. He became known as a masterful, subtle musician and consummate professional entertainer. He recorded “Statesboro Blues” a few years after he left and he kept on playing, kept on traveling after that.

III.

They are up there right now, true to their purpose, drifting through interstellar space. They will continue on, going further and further, pinging information back to Earth for as long as the on-board instruments remain operational.

During the Carter Administration, each of the Voyager space probes was outfitted with a set of golden records containing information about our planet, including a handful of carefully chosen audio recordings. The idea was that, in the event of an alien lifeform intercepting the probes, there would be a map to our planet and a general primer on how the world works.

Much of the music included on the records is classical or folk, with a few notable exceptions, including Chuck Berry’s early rock anthem, “Johnny B. Goode.”

*

The kinescope I’m watching captures a moment from French television.

The year is 1958—the year a white supremacist detonates sixteen sticks of dynamite in a Black church in Birmingham, Alabama. The year a deranged woman approaches Martin Luther King, Jr. in a department store and plunges a letter opener into his chest.

Chuck Berry is onstage, wearing his Gibson, flanked by his band and the studio audience. As he banters with the audience, the mics hiss. The band members, all in black suits and neckties, fidget against the inky grey background. Berry is name-checking Ludwig Von Beethoven, repeating that most hallowed name in a goofy, faux foreign accent.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask him to forgive us, roll over, and listen to a little of…THISSS!

With that blistering Carl Hogan riff he can play in his sleep, Berry brings everything to life and then leads the band into the next five minutes of history, stomping out the rhythm with his foot.

I got a rocking pneumonia / I need a shot of rhythm and blues…

As the camera angle widens, a tripod dolly sweeps into the frame from the left. Both cameramen nod in rhythm, along with the audience.

Soloing, Berry stirs the air with his feet, a little grooving here and there before the signature duck walk. Then he lets the tension build back up before he lays his guitar down close to the floor and cocks his head like he’s listening to the music of the spheres, receiving a transmission from the kosmos. Sidling up next to the bass player, in perfect rhythm, he starts miming a sexual release that must rankle even the French censors. The band looks apprehensive, uneasy.

Even at this young age, he is no stranger to scandal. He will have more ahead of him. Newspaper headlines that distort one image, clarifying another. There are troubling things about Chuck Berry that cannot be erased, denied or separated out.

The camera angle suddenly switches to a wide-open establishing shot, revealing the edges of the production set and two cameramen on dollies at five o’clock and seven o’clock, looking a little militarized now, drawing down on Mr. Berry, The Spectacle.

They switch to a close up as he calls out roll over, Beethoven! again and again, smiling broadly. For a moment, he seems to be in a trance of procedural memory—all those sessions over the years in St. Louis clubs gaining expression right here, right now.

Roll over Beethoven / And tell Tchaikovsky the news…

What news, exactly? That the future has finally arrived.

From this moment, fifty years will pass before I witness a latter-day Chuck Berry on a balmy September evening on a Midwestern university lawn.

*

Technically it’s autumn, but the summer that just passed was a hellacious, humid thing, even compared to a typical fall-line summer, and it’s still lingering in the air.

Berry is the headliner at this year’s homecoming festivities and I have been looking forward to this performance all semester, as a way to motivate myself through a rocky, homesick first semester of teaching and grad school.

I have overwhelmingly paternal associations to these songs. When I was a boy, my dad—a mechanic who worked in a garage all week fixing flats, rebuilding engines, and replacing busted radiators—saved up and bought our family a radio tuner and turntable from Sears. It was a big deal, a singular extravagance that communicated the centrality of music to what little leisure time there was. On the weekends, after church, we listened to the radio or records. Chuck Berry’s were some of Dad’s favorites.

Now an old man, Berry steps out somewhat cautiously amid the booming applause, onto a temporary stage that has been set up on the college lawn.

Somewhere in the sea of beery, sunburned concertgoers, I lift my kid up onto on my shoulders just as the band starts to play.

Hail, hail rock & roll he sings, smiling, deliver me from the days of old…

When the sun has set, we’ll head home, ducking across the quad, past the student housing, into our sleepy apartment, the hedges buzzing with cicadas.

His next stop will be in his hometown of St. Louis. Before the year is out, he’ll play shows in Zurich, Paris, London, and New York.

The Voyager space probes, meanwhile, are still out there, still talking to us, drifting deeper and deeper into space – extensions of a wish to know and to be known.

Imagine: your voice in outer space, on a golden platter.

There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood 
where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode!

It’s not really true, of course. But it’s the story audiences want to hear again and again.

So maybe history is just a song about time—our one decent attempt to map that ever-dissolving terrain, hold it up to the light, and see ourselves embedded in it.

A nobody up from St. Louis, across the color line, & out past the heliosphere. A man who did wrong and right and his song waiting out in the starry Void.

We send these things out, not knowing if they’re ever going to go anywhere, but as a way of saying, for better or for worse, “This is who we are. This is what we have done.”

 


Author Bio: Jonathan Railey holds a B.A. in telecommunications from the University of Georgia, a master’s degree in psychology from Naropa University, and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Jonathan lives and works in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife, Janelle, and their two daughters.

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