The year is 1955. I am 9 years old and heading home from school in Hickman, KY, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. My route takes me along the bluff, the river visible much of the way on my right far below. I have just passed the Roper Pecan Factory when I hear a burst of sound behind me. Gradually, I realize it is music that I hear and before long the first of maybe eight marching bands gets close enough for me to see and hear clearly. All of the bands are black and each band is decked out in the colors of its school. Nearly every all-black high school for more than a hundred miles must be here. Each wears a different color, one in flamboyant black and gold, another in red and white, and still another mixes royal blue with its red. There’s even a uniform where the color is so light that it almost vanishes to leave me remembering only the miraculously gold buttons and trim. Each has cultivated a particular style of marching to distinguish itself. Some have high stepping drum majors who set the tone with all sorts of figures that take them in and out of line, but all of them put a lot of what we will later learn to call “soul” into their performance.
I have never seen a marching band before and these performers are so exciting that they will make almost every marching band I see my entire life pale in comparison. Their appearance here feels like a miracle and leaves me full of awe. I don’t know any of the tunes they play nor do I know the schools the various uniforms represent—this is the segregated South of the 1950s– but I am swallowed up by the colors and the sounds of saxophones, trumpets, tubas, and the pounding of drums. I never could have imagined this moment and I want it to last forever, but it ends all too quickly. Soon the bands are in an intersection and turn right to weave their way down the bluff to the small downtown section that is rimmed by a “sea wall.” I walk on along the bluff past First Baptist Church toward the Courthouse and my home beyond. And yet before I can fully take in the moment, I find myself longing for its return? Will the bands come back? If so, when? For the next four years, when fall comes, I find myself waiting and looking for a parade I never see again.
Other things do come of course. It’s about two years later, and I am sitting in that Baptist Church I pass everyday on my way to and from school. It is not my church. I am here because some of my classmates invite me to hear an evangelist at a young people’s service. The evangelist, they say, has promised to show us something we have never seen before and will never see again. The Sunday school room is full, as we await this new revelation. Finally, the evangelist enters the room, greets us, and takes a banana from his pocket. He peels it carefully and eats it slowly. He pauses dramatically before addressing us: “Now,” he says, “you have seen something you never saw before and will never see again—this particular banana.” You can figure out the rest. From that unique piece of fruit to Jesus and getting saved in about 30 minutes.
I wasn’t too young to know a con artist when I saw one. Maybe I saw it more easily than others because so much of my family’s life felt like a performance. My father was a minister, a humble and unpretentious man who always seemed to be one with his career of choice. As for the rest of the family, we were continually adapting to the demands put upon us. In the small-town South of the 1950s, social details mattered, and there was a special list of attributes the minister’s family was expected to embody. My mother, for instance, wore shorts while cleaning the house but kept a wrap-around skirt near the front door for a quick costume change to meet visitors. My sister and I had our own versions of that wrap-around skirt. We became accomplished performers but always remembered that keeping the critics quiet was more important than getting their applause. By the time I finally read Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s discovery that the world is mostly fake seemed like something I had known all of my life.
We all get along as best we can among the untruths and half-truths that clutter everyday life. We discover our pleasures in friendship, family and accomplishment, and suffer the sorrows that come with loss, uncertainty, and disappointment. Between these two realms there is the life of longing, sometimes so thin we skate along on top of it without even noticing and others so deep we think we will surely drown if we can’t find a word or two to save us. And then suddenly, we find the poetry of life spoken in a story, a painting, or a film. For me, most of all, it is a song that captures something I feel deeply, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and gives it back to me as if it is a profound revelation.
I am one of those people who measures his life in the relationship of longing to the sublime moments when the earth seems to sing my song and speak my truth, those moments when the vagaries and half-truths of life disappear for a moment to reveal a space for wonder, clarity and insight. In an earlier age, people probably would have called these revelations “messages from the gods.” But time moves too fast for the gods these days. And so these revelatory moments, as wonderful as they may be, fade rather quickly to leave me once again trying to hold off the untrue and the half-true and to find a way to live with the inevitable sense of loss, uncertainty and disappointment.
This is a blog about my everyday life in Nashville. Often, it will be about the way a song enters my life, circulates through my experience picking up bits and pieces of memories and feelings, and spins some web of meaning out of the mix. Occasionally, it will be about someone I have met or heard sing. It will also be about the times when all songs seem dry, even exhausted, and about the experience of longing as the feeling ripens. I am not in any sense an expert or a critic. I make no claim to know what songs are best for anyone. I will write about what I listen to in the clubs and on recordings. What I am usually after in these pieces is how these experiences seem to simultaneously impose and receive meaning in my interpretation.
My city is one where art and industry battle daily, but I am not much interested in the mainstream that emerges from this strife. Though it is wide, deep and powerful, the mainstream creates ample margins, where many creative people gather to cobble together lives. Nashville’s a city full of songs and stories, even if many of them have been heard or seen by only a few. It’s a good place to wander and wait for revelation.