He filled my head with dreams and my heart with longing, this man whom I thought I loved. This man whom I mistakenly thought cared about me.
In our future together, he planned a road trip through The South. I could almost feel the waxy texture of the Magnolia blossoms beneath my fingertips. Sense memory brought back the scent of lilacs and honeysuckle. The low down sound; the pure loneliness of the blues invaded a cobwebbed corner of my mind. But the dream faded when he turned out to not be the long distance runner I thought him to be. His life was filled with disharmony and chaos. There was no room for me there.
I hadn’t been on a musical journey in the southern states since the 70s. when I was scouring the country, scouting songs for The Everly Brothers for their ill fated Stories We Could Tell album. I missed the southern hospitality I had known and come to enjoy all those years ago. I missed the friends I had met along the way, but with whom I had lost touch as the years crowded in on me. As my children were born, and the daily routine of life encroached, a return to the south seemed as remote as getting back together with “him” when he abandoned our relationship without a backward glance…the one who planted this dream in the garden of my heart. The dream I couldn’t let rest.
An invitation to go to Olive Branch, Mississippi for an autograph signing convention presented itself, and we, my fiancé and I accepted. Harbouring this dream, we added Memphis and Nashville to our itinerary as a starting point. Memphis, birthplace of the Blues and Rock and Roll. Nashville, Music City.
Memphis Blues by WC Handy
Folks I've just been down, down to Memphis town,
That's where the people smile, smile on you all the while.
Hospitality, they were good to me.
I couldn't spend a dime, and had the grandest time.
I went out a dancing with a Tennessee dear,
They had a fellow there named Handy with a band you should hear
And while the folks gently swayed, all the band folks played Real harmony.
I never will forget the tune that Handy called the Memphis Blues.
Oh yes, them Blues.
They've got a fiddler there that always slickens his hair
And folks he sure do pull some bow.
And when the big Bassoon seconds to the Trombones croon.
It moans just like a sinner on Revival Day, on Revival Day.
Oh that melody sure appealed to me.
Just like a mountain stream rippling on it seemed.
Then it slowly died, with a gentle sigh
Soft as the breeze that whines high in the summer pines.
Hear me people, hear me people, hear I pray,
I'm going to take a million lesson's 'til I learn how to play
Because I seem to hear it yet, simply can't forget
That blue refrain.
There's nothing like the Handy Band that played the Memphis Blues so grand.
Oh play them Blues.
That melancholy strain, that ever haunting refrain
Is like a sweet old sorrow song.
Here comes the very part that wraps a spell around my heart.
It sets me wild to hear that loving tune a gain,
The Memphis Blues.
On Sunday, the shuttle from Whispering Woods, our hotel in Mississippi, dropped us at the airport, in Memphis, Tennessee. We grabbed a cab to take us into the city. On the way to catch “The Dog” to Nashville, as we passed the United Baptist Church, I heard what sounded like a band of angels belting out a gospel hymn. We had several hours to explore while waiting for the bus, so we stepped inside. This seemed a good choice to begin; this place where people come together to share heart and voice. The choir outdid themselves on this sultry summer day with their powerful voices and profundity.
Later as we mingled with the congregation, a tall, stout woman still in her choir robes whom everyone called Mama Mamie, upon hearing the story of how we came to be in Memphis, took me under her wing and invited us to come to her home for a Sunday supper. A pot of ribs, black eyed peas, and greens on the simmer when we arrived spiced the air with a sweet fragrance. Her house was mostly a screened-in porch, that wrapped itself around the front and both sides of the house, with rockers and a wooden swing at one end and some Shaker footstools and ladder back chairs scattered about.
As her kinfolk began to arrive, iced tea was served, neckties were loosened, and musical instruments began to appear. Guitars, harmonicas and a fiddle made from a cigar box and a broom stick, began the afternoon’s jam.
Kind Hearted Woman sung by Mama Mamie’s son LeRoi, his silken voice laden with sorrow, made me wish I had started my recorder sooner. I didn’t hesitate when he began the first single note picking of Hesitatin’ Blues followed by Love In Vain, his soul full of the yearning and sorrow for a lost love.
Others came forward and shared their music and culture. Sonny, Mama Mamie’s grandson, came out of the house with a horn, the screen door meowing behind him, an old man pulled a bow across that fiddle and they played some “jump-up” blues as a couple of the younger girls and boys danced with each other; the click of cicadas adding a new tempo to the beat.
Then the day it turned to night, and we, so caught up in the sounds and senses and generosity of southern hospitality, almost missed the last bus to Nashville with In the Evenin' When the Sun Goes Down still ringing, singing in our ears.