Old South

The Lost Art of the South

A gift from my musically esoteric boyfriend, my record player has been my proverbial time capsule to the American Southlands I call home. I load dusty albums from the past–kings and queens of country–on the record’s arm and they drop by themselves. So I stack up five of those melancholy discs, and listen to the A-sides. They play through, drop down, and I flip and start with the B-sides. Sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss, all held within the grooves of the black vinyl. These artists sing a different tune than the post-millennial country. They sing about dusty clay roads, but they also sing about the lowest lows of desolation and the prayers of the darkest night. They sing about prison and adultery, tragedy and comfort. Their words are not contrived and sometimes not even catchy–slow and dull and long–dragging on one continuous chord. But they come from a place exclusive to the South, a place that the South could be forgetting.

I was raised in and by the hills of Virginia so I am acquainted with bluegrass and the bucolic banjo pluck of the Appalachians. Life in the South to me has meant mountains and magnolias, bourbon and a sauntering pace of life. But until recently, I did not know the darkness of the deep musical movements coming from the South less than a half century ago. In this place, in the acapellas of low sadness and the hymns of wandering, I have found camaraderie with the land that hemmed and honed me as a young woman and as a contributor to family and place. The deeper I listen to Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the like, the deeper I enter the old South; a place where despondency, pride, and revelry exist within each other. Ever since the needle scratched and crackled through that first disc, the open space between me and my homeland, and all her past sins, triumphs, and profundity, has sealed.

Emmylou Harris was quoted recently in Garden & Gun magazine saying that she has given up on present-day country radio. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element,” she said. And she’s right, alluding to this spiritually infused land where God is seen more with dirty shoes holding out redemption, rather than a glowing halo bestowing blessings. Some present-day artists–Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings in particular–hold fast to the tenets of powerful, bleeding and vulnerable music of the South, but these artists are rare. The influence of the South is too often watered down to an occasional mechanized twang, girls who wear dresses with cowboy boots, and cheap beer cans. And behind the barbeque and pickup trucks, we have lost, or are at least losing, our edge.

William Faulkner at work.

It’s the same edge that the writers of our Southern fiction have made famous. The place of darkness which honed the literary voices of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque, Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares, and William Faulkner’s pontifications on death. The South provided a backdrop unmatched by other geographies, fostering art that feeds on our ability to make the worst of our lot.

This land of moonshine and muskets belies a deep disenchantment. O’Connor wrote that since we lost the war in the 19th century, we have ‘had our fall’–the type of fall that keeps the whole populace awake to their potent inability to pride themselves on themselves. We are aware that we can believe deeply and still, with sweat and blood, lose everything. The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.

Flannery O’Connor herself said that we may not be Christ-centered as much as we are ‘Christ-haunted.’ And these ghosts, as much as they keep us fearful and frightened, keep us wide-eyed and questioning. We have been the “Bible Belt” for decades, a symbol of centrality as much as corporal punishment. And we Southerners have been beaten by our own faith. We are holy tormented and wholly sanctified.

The South has created from this fallen place and offered the nation a voice otherwise unheard. A perspective cast through an interminable mix of searing nostalgia, bated hope, and a weighty present balanced between the two. For decades, artists let this land mold their perspectives. It was the Southern zeitgeist, and it is this curious mix of hope and sadness.

More recently, the blurring of state and cultural lines has come as a detriment to artists. We lose our senses and loosen our allegiances, as we drift above the lands. As O’Connor said, when we cease to create from the reality of our place, this Southern place, we have lost ourselves, and we have lost the South. Makoto Fujimura has said before, we have a language for the waywardness. What the South is beginning to miss is the language for the ties that bind. So the challenge for Southern artists now is to stay connected–to keep the ankles in the mud and the fires smoldering. To be a product of the palpable senses, and to let the sights, sounds, emotion and memory of your place build your reality and your platform. We need to reorient our perspective to move beyond what we do in the South, beyond fishing, hunting, and cooking with butter, and enter into who we are, in joy and in trial.

And perhaps, optimistically, we can find ourselves anew in the people who understand and channel this spirit, regardless of their geographical upbringing. Because in the end, what the South did was connect in the darkness. It is the invaluable voice of a fallen community that still echoes from my record player, and is still found within my pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.

Savannah: City In Flux

The lens centers upon a row of boarded up buildings, with tattered siding and leaning roofs. Along the edges of the image, there is a crumbling sidewalk strewn with derelict characters. At night, the streets in this neighborhood shine bright with globes installed by the city.  Behind closed doors, the community rages: shouts of anger burst through a cracked window, a woman calls for help, two kids light up in hopes of drowning reality. Young parents long to see their children graduate high school, to make ends meet on two or three jobs, to find a way to feed each little one. Several middle-aged residents aim to take pride in some small way, perhaps a backyard garden, or a carefully-lit fire blazing in a papered room that is encased behind barred windows. The juxtaposition of brokenness and a grappling towards hope is unmistakable.

Cut and scene. The camera shifts to a different perspective a mere fifteen years down the road. Kids pummel down the street on tricycles, a neighborhood baker greets passersby with a wave and warm smile, boys ready to play basketball lace up beside a flower-crowned bed and get ready for some three-on-three. The aroma of fresh food wafts from building-tops and residents rouse themselves for a bright and early farmer’s market prize as Saturday morning begins to rear its head.

Photo by Elisa Jara.

Recently immersed in a design school project tied to issues of urban revitalization and community change in one of Savannah’s most illustrious neighborhoods, I have found myself longing deeply to bring hopefulness and restoration to my current home yet struggling for answers. As a newcomer to the city, I have been thrown into a melting pot of southern charm, lingering racism, and deep-set hopes and dreams. I came to Savannah from further north with ideas about the things that make a place successful, and more personally the things that make a place enjoyable.

When friends from afar ask me about my experiences, admittedly I often refer to Savannah as a mixed bag. It has so much character: incredible historic architecture and streetscapes, unique and well-seasoned food offerings, and families with generations of rooted traditions. The city also boasts a thriving art and design school that churns out some of the United States’ most vocationally equipped creatives. Simultaneously, though, Savannah has a pungent underbelly that anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in its heart will recall. Well-known for its prevalent crime and racial segregation, Savannah is a city still in the throes of finding its voice.

On the surface Savannah glitters with the charming warmth of the Old South. Known as one of the first planned cities, Savannah developed around several central city squares and small grassy parks. Once populated with horse-drawn carriages, its wide streets and grassy roundabouts facilitated a ready flow of traffic to and from its bustling waterfront corridor. Today, many people still stroll the downtown area’s wide sidewalks well into the night, often with pets or kids in tow. These patrons, many of whom are tourists, frequent the local bars and restaurants for a taste of southern flair and laid back conversation. Paula Deen has set up shop near the old city market, offering a buffet of delicious sweet and sultry regional cuisine to those willing to come early enough to reserve a seat. Around the corner, the Savannah Bee Company sells everything from honeycomb to honey-scented lotions and offers free samples of many of its honey flavors. Yet another shop breathes the air of French culture to Savannah’s visitors, boasting a well-curated collection of jewelry, soaps and scents, books, tasty treats, and vintage furnishings. Such spots make Savannah feel a bit like an eighteenth century port town in which onlookers are transported into a slower way of doing things and where the most important item on the agenda is the dinner menu.

Further from the heart of downtown, Savannah begins to feel more like a Flannery O’Connor novel. O’Connor, notably, grew up in Savannah, so this musing should come as no surprise. Here, the streets are peppered with wandering jobless men and the occasional local gem, such as Back in the Day Bakery. A brief visit to one of Savannah’s Chu’s Market locations will offer a colorful glimpse of local culture, a beat on teen drug and gang activity, and a close-up of the tightly-knit community bonds of those born and raised in its many homes. As an outsider entering into these parts of town, one will probably feel both discouraged by the marks of extreme poverty and surprised by the depth of local character. Crumbling homes are brought to life through carefully-manicured lawns and colorful accents. Groups of elderly men mill around outside local car repair shops and abandoned grocery stores, carrying with them rich stories of community lifeblood, at times pumped rich and at others parched. Teens wander the streets in the late afternoon, some looking for a few bucks through a quick break-in while their peers are busy seeking out friends to accompany them to the park.

I’ve never met a people as courageous and determined as those who live at the crux of these perimeter communities. One, a woodworker, situated his shop in a neighborhood with kids and teens in desperate need of after-school alternatives to crime and drugs in order to serve as a catalyst for change. Another, a local printmaker and professor, opened a Tex Mex-inspired coffee shop housing locally-made furnishings and intriguing art pieces in an area of town desperately in need of more mixed-use development. Yet one more, a local music teacher, regularly gathers up the trash that populates her block, plants flowers along an ill-repaired crackling city sidewalk, and encourages the city to get more involved in her neighborhood.

As I think on Savannah’s future and my own as an urban resident, I am both moved and inspired by those who have chosen to live in the gap as agents of change rather than shirkers of responsibility who escape for an easier, more comfortable way of life. Dwelling in the clutch of the renowned “Garden of Good and Evil,” I have begun to understand, perhaps more deeply than ever, that we always live in the flux between two extremes: brokenness, and great, vast beauty. At times, the immense pain of a community may leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to discern how to help it move forward. But change is never easy, and a place full-dose is rarely what we make of it at first glean. I believe that somehow, in communities like Savannah, we must hold in hand the two extremes. We must be both passionate repairers of the broken walls and patient investors who recognize that a full-spectrum revival probably will not happen in our lifetimes. To reference Jane Jacobs, we must be willing to become the seeds of our cities’ regenerations, those seeds that bring “energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside [ourselves].” And like Jacobs, we must be content to make our little mark and let the work of future generations extend our efforts into new domains.