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Listen to This, Listen to That: Location, Location

by Dan Froid

I’ve been thinking about place: where we spend our childhoods, where we move and live, the places we find wonderful or detestable or just endurable. Writer and filmmaker Julie Dash recalls her childhood in “Location, Location,” Episode 43 of Air Schooner. Though she was born and raised in Long Island, both of Julie Dash’s parents came from South Carolina, and her life and experiences have been inflected by the Gullah/Geechee culture of that state. Her father used to make his own style of gumbo, and, she says, “he would cut up the okra and put the little okra stumps on our forehead, and that was part of the process of making gumbo.” And her aunts instructed her in the art of making perfect rice: in fact, “the whole notion of cooking rice that wasn’t perfect was almost a cardinal sin.” Dash’s experiences are tied directly to specific places—Manhattan, South Carolina. This is true for nearly all of us, and so I’ve been thinking about the locations of my own life, and those I’ve learned about in song. Dash beautifully evokes South Carolina in her novel Daughters of the Dust, a sequel to her film of the same name, from which she reads aloud in the podcast. One of the best songs about a place is, I think, Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” in which Williams’s unmistakable drawl drags out a story about a small southern town. It’s another fascinating evocation of a specific place:

You can't depend on anything really
There’s no promises, there’s no point
There’s no good, there’s no bad
In this dirty little joint
No dope smoking, no beer sold after 12 o’clock
Rosedale Mississippi Magic City Juke Joint
Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar
Sold his soul to the devil so he can play guitar

This is about the South, like many of her songs, but anyone who’s lived near rural or semi-rural areas can recognize—perhaps painfully—how well Williams nails it. This song knocks me over every time.

Barry Lopez has moved around a lot. In the podcast, Lopez discusses his many travels, both while moving around as a child and exploring the world as an adult. His essay “Six Thousand Lessons” describes the endless ways we have of confronting our world:

Witness was what I was after, not achievement. From the beginning, I wanted to understand how very different each stretch of landscape, each boulevard, each cultural aspiration was. The human epistemologies embedded in the six thousand spoken ways of knowing God compare with the six thousand ways a river can plunge from high country to low, or the six thousand ways dawn might break over the Atacama, the Tanami, the Gobi, or the Sonora.

Every prayer varies as much as every instance of falling water: how lovely, and thrilling. Emmylou Harris gets at a similar idea in her gorgeous “Boulder to Birmingham.” (It’s best, for good measure, to listen to Joan Baez’s cover of “Boulder to Birmingham,” too.) Only this week did this song enter my consciousness—and oh, what beauty! Emmylou Harris wrote it in grief following the death of her friend Gram Parsons. She dwells here on scenes of natural beauty—but she also introduces elements that somehow threaten or penetrate those scenes: a fire, trucks on a highway. So the song is beautiful, but it’s also unsettling. And there’s a religious element at work here, too:

Well you really got me this time
And the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive
I have come to listen for the sound
Of the trucks as they move down
Out on ninety five
And pretend that it’s the ocean
Coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean
Baby do you know what I mean

What a complex and wonderful image: the rush of trucks on a highway, that is, a sound, becomes the sensation of what is essentially a baptism. The weight she places on that very innocuous, quotidian sound—the notion that sitting still and listening to trucks’ movement could amount to a baptism, and that in her grief it does—strikes me as similar in a way to Lopez’s desire simply to know, to encounter six thousand ways of knowing God, of watching the sunrise. And thinking about this makes me recall something Rebecca Solnit wrote, in The Faraway Nearby:

Some people love their story that much even if it’s of their own misery, even if it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to step telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear—you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.

The death of a story comes first; and then there’s another story, and always another one.

Encounters can be, not just potentially transformative experiences, but fraught, which Lopez also reminds us. He tells Scott and Stacey about an essay he wrote several years ago, about “the pathology of consumerism.” In it, he observes the many brands he sees adorning the people of. He recalls that the editor thought such a list made him look a consumer; he says, “Wouldn’t that be the point? Why would a reader read an essay that was holding the ugliness of consumption up to a bright light and not implicate himself?” A writer can’t, when immersing herself in a place or a situation, neglect to implicate and interrogate herself. That’s the power of “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten”: Williams confronts the less-than-savory aspects of this little town, but in the final verse, she inserts herself—or at least, the narrator becomes a character, as well—and the song becomes, more than a story about a small town, a harrowing personal recollection.

Let’s end the post today with a nod to Lesley Gore, who passed away this week. Here is the delightful “California Nights,” in which Gore dwells, too, on location, location; she rhapsodizes about her fondness for the nocturnal delights to be had, on the arenaceous stretches of land in that great western state, with her lover.