Today, we departed Springfield, Illinois, for a seven-hour odyssey to Memphis Tenn., mainly following the course of Mississippi River on I-55, a road so relentlessly straight that even a slight curve provided something of an occasion.
We vowed to make this long drive non-stop, a vow we largely kept except for the five rest areas we visited and for the little matter of Mother Jones. Wha? Yes, we were driving along, making good time, when in a place called Mt. Olive, Illinois, we saw a highway sign for the Mother Jones Memorial. Should, we stop? Our schedule was tight! After a frantic 10 seconds of deliberation, we decided we had to pay our respects. Exiting the highway, we drove perhaps two miles on historic Rt. 66, when we discovered, amidst corn fields, the Mt. Olive Cemetery, whose entry way was framed by brick pillars, on one the word “Union” and on the other “Miners.” In the rear, rising high above the many gravestones, was the memorial and resting place of the indefatigable union organizer who never rested: Mother Jones. Though she hailed from the State of Washington, she asked to be buried “with my boys,” which included the 7 miners killed in the violent labor dispute known as the “Virden Massacre” of 1918. No sooner had Larry and Bill had placed two stones on the Mother Jones grave marker than another car pulled in. An elderly native of the town and his wife, now living in Colorado, had come back to visit, along with their adult daughter and son-in-law now residing in Australia. Larry got into a great conversation with this older gentleman, who is one of only two living members of a family with 10 children. He provided some personal details and recollections of the town, coal mining, and the annual commemorations of the massacre during his youth. How amazing that we arrived only minutes before them. It was like the perfectly planned rendezvous that wasn’t planned.
Back, back on the road. Now the Dylan–mobile assumed its other functions: Listening Room and Lyceum. Bill read aloud from a fine article about Dylan’s relationship to Judaism and then most of a very lengthy Rolling Stone interview with Dylan by historian David Brinkley. In terms of music, we moved on to Highway 61– how fitting since I-55 shares its roadbed with 61!–and Blond On Blond. And then we proceeded to talk before songs, between songs, and sometimes over songs for the better part of 6 hours. Yackety Yak.
Between the music and the articles, we discussed a wide array of issues that ranged from the prosaic (“How does he remember all the words to those epic songs’?) to the personal (“Why do we relate so intensely to songs whose allusions are often so impenetrable?”) to the perplexing (“How does he survive his unceasing road life?”). Some notable breakthroughs. For Bill: The realization that the frenetic, surreal Dylan can be calm, reflective, linear in his thinking, as he was in the Brinkley interview. There’s clearly a lot of the Midwestern temperament in him, and his equanimity contrasts sharply with his raucous music and wild stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Also noteworthy: the integrity with which Dylan continues to live the life of an artist (not merely “entertainer”), to remain true to voice and vision, no doubt enjoying attention and audiences but paying little attention to celebrity-hood and the media.
For Larry: Being struck most by the incredible range of music that Dylan created from 1962 to 1966 culminating with epic poems like the dream-like “Desolation Row”, the love ballad “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and the raucous ‘Like a Rolling Stone”. This incandescent period reflected an evolution of language and thought that moved from the outer world to the inner world. Dylan seemed to go as far as a human can go in this inner voyage shortly before he crashed his motorcycle in 1966. He had already crashed into the headwinds of (former) fans calling him “Judas” when he went electric, and his concerts had almost become battlegrounds. We felt a need for more peaceful songs after all this and going south seemed to signal that softer country rock music was coming with The Band, as John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, and Planet Waves were ahead. The Brinkley interview seemed to confirm the integrity of Bob’s music, and that among the many shifts of the 70’s and 80’s Bob remained true to his vision of individual freedom of expression as an artist.
We pulled into Memphis and found our way to yet another Hilton monstrosity, located about a half hour outside the city. Dylan’s “Stuck inside of Mobile with Memphis Blues Again” seemed particularly appropriate when hunger, fatigue and a stomach ache threw Bill into a funk, which Larry, using every trick in his neuroscience bag, worked hard to overcome by convincing Bill to travel back into the city for a dinner of ribs at the famed Blues City Café on Beale St., Memphis’s own mini-French Quarter. After a delicious dinner (“Put some south in your mouth”), Bill was sufficiently re-vivified to join Larry for a stroll up Beale with its crazy sunset quilt of gaudy flashing neon signs and the musical collage of blues/rock/rap pouring out onto the club-studded street.
For those who might not be aware, Beale St. and its king, W.C. Handy, are credited by Memphis folk with inventing blues music, a questionable claim, but hey. Bill is proud to note that his fellow alum of DeWitt Clinton H.S. in the Bronx, the great writer James Baldwin, posed the key hypothetical in his book of the same title: “If Beale St. Could Talk.” Actually Beale St. does talk in a way, both through its music and through its many historical landmark signs which pay tribute the city’s African-American champions, whether freedom fighters or cultural figures. One of those signs reminded us that Nat D. Williams became the first black disc jockey in Memphis. He began broadcasting on WDIA in 1948, when young Robert Zimmerman was only 7 years old. It well may be that only few years later, when little Bobby was secretly listening to the radio under his covers rather than going to sleep, he was pulling into his Hibbing night the signal of the Memphis blues show hosted by Mr. Williams. Another cool fact is that Williams didn’t have to depend only on DJ-ing to earn a living. He also served as a history teacher in the Memphis schools. Three cheers for Bill’s colleague!
And so ended a long day that brought us to and through the eleventh state on our transcontinental quest to “find” Bob Dylan. Time to get some rest and prepare for the Lorraine Motel and Graceland tomorrow. Then…the Deep South….the Mississippi Delta, where the blues were born. Mystical.
PS: You are probably wondering whether we sang the Davy Crockett song when we entered Tennessee. The answer is: Of course.