Archives for August 2014

FOLLOWING THE MISSISSIPPI: Motel In Memphis–Pride (In The Name of Love)


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Where you there when the man from Atlanta was murdered in Memphis?

Did you see him laying at the Lorraine Motel?

Did you hear them say that the CIA is witness

To the murder of a man at motel in Memphis

Motel in Memphis, Motel in Memphis

Run and tell somebody there’s blood on the riverside

Oh, muddy water / Roll into Memphis

If you were there you would swear it was more than a man who died

2014-07-08 19.29.14The wispy summer sky was turning a dark purple and a gentle breeze was blowing off the Mississippi as I strolled east through a decaying stretch of downtown. My soul was still buoyant from its dip in the fountains of Memphis music history but was slowing waxing with a melancholy tide. I was nearing the American Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel where on April 4, 1968 a great man was gunned down for the crime of demanding human dignity. Although it was after hours I felt compelled to pay my respects, particularly after hearing the recorded testimonials at Stax Records—whose artists often stayed at the Lorraine—of the stark and immediate repercussions of this hateful day.

The song “Motel In Memphis” by Old Crow Medicine Show was on endless loop in my head as I approached, the Stax Museum having provided affirmation of the song’s claim “it was more than a man who died.” As I write these words several weeks after my visit, racial tension is spilling over in Ferguson, Missouri outside of St. Louis where I had just left.

LorraineRegardless of what we learn about the incident at the core of this turmoil, such frustration doesn’t boil over without antecedent. Yet where is a Martin Luther King, Jr. to channel violent backlash into peaceful and effective protest? Nearly fifty years later his shoes have yet to be filled—his dream of a post-racial America still not fully realized. A black man is no more likely than a white man to use drugs, but is ten times more likely to go to jail for it, and we jail more citizens (not per capita–literally more) than China with its repressive government and population topping a billion. Our for-profit prison system has become the new Jim Crow.

More than a man, indeed.


Early morning, April 4

A shot rings out in the Memphis sky

Free at last, they took your life

They could not take your pride

In the name of love

One more in the name of love

The scene outside the Lorraine Motel is frozen to April 4, 1968, including the same model cars that were in the parking lot that evening (not morning).  The lobby, though, has been converted into the National Civil Rights Museum and a huge brick extension sits across the road in place of the dilapidated building where the assassin hid.

2014-07-08 19.28.09As I stood outside room 306–a reef on the door just like the one placed April 5th–my eyes welled up and a lump rose in my throat. I’d spent the day luxuriating in the heights our people can soar when white and black harmoniously collaborate—the sublime emerging from subjugation. Yet here lay a stark reminder of the unseemly flip side—a nation’s deepest shame played out upon the same soil that gave birth to so much splendor.

I don’t necessarily buy into the concept of white guilt, but suddenly felt embarrassed standing amidst black families who had come to pay tribute, as though I were intruding. Part of me wanted to apologize for every idiotic thing ever done in the name of racial hate, though I knew that would be patronizing (and just plain awkward!) Besides, King’s dream was of peaceful coexistence.

National-Civil-Rights-Museum-BannerThe U2 song “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” now dominated my thoughts, and I choked on the line “They took your life, they could not take your pride.” King had come to town in support of a sanitation workers strike and was gunned for standing up for basic human dignity. It boggles the mind how a man of love could inspire so much hate. He was aware of the threats on his life, but would not be bullied or marginalized. So they took his life.

They could not take his pride.


Rain Began To Descend Upon The Memphis Waterfont

Rain Began To Descend Upon The Memphis Waterfont

I was unprepared for how deeply that moment outside a motel in Memphis would affect me through mere proximity. As I walked back to Beale Street along the Memphis shoreline a gentle rain began to fall. It felt as though God himself were mourning our capacity to wrench pain and discord from an already indifferent universe.

Mississippi River At State Park Just North of Memphis

Mississippi River At Meeman-Shelby State Park Outside of Memphis

The next morning I packed my soggy camping gear and headed south down legendary Highway 61 which cuts through the Mississippi cotton fields where slaves once coped with backbreaking labor (their compessation: degradation, humiliation, brutality, rape, and death) through the only means available—music. From these fields of nightmare emerged America’s one indigenous art form and greatest cultural gift to the world: the blues/jazz/rock-n-roll continuum. How ironic that from unbearable pain came such transcendent beauty.




FOLLOW THE MISSISSIPPI: Memphis Musical Ménage á Trois


2014-07-08 12.16.44The Elvis themed dive just outside of Graceland informed me they were no longer serving breakfast. What kind of diner quits serving breakfast after 10:00!? Considering I’d spent a soggy night curled up in the middle of a leaky tent I’d pitched by headlights after driving a half hour from Memphis and then wandering lost for a half hour in a sprawling state park, I didn’t accept the news with grace. The king would not approve.

2014-07-08 13.21.32After swallowing an unsatisfying hamburger I scurried away, but upon learning they wanted $10 just to park next door I returned to my parking spot and walked–the cheapest admission package to see a dead man’s house ($34) seemed stiff enough. Despite the rocky start, passing the gates of Graceland via shuttle from the visitor center marked the start of what would be one of the most epic musical days of my life. In Hannibal I’d walked in the footsteps of Mark Twain, but today I would [Read more…]

FOLLOWING THE MISSISSIPPI: Walking In Memphis (After Fleeing Illinois)


Walking In Memphis...With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale

Walking In Memphis…With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale

Cairo, Illinois has always seemed mythic to me. Founded on the peninsula where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers join, it marks the most important intersection of the nation’s original superhighway, connecting the interior of the original states to the Gulf of Mexico and world beyond. I most envision Cairo, though, as the gateway to the abolitionist north that Huckleberry Finn and his runaway companion, Jim, tragically drifted past in a heavy fog. Yet while the Mississippi’s intersection with the Missouri gave birth to mighty St. Louis, Cairo is a small town of little note outside of Mississippi River literature.

For good reason.

Welcome To Historic Cairo

Welcome To Historic Cairo

From the moment I crossed back into Illinois I was confronted by more decay and neglect. I hoped Cairo would be an appealing little hamlet like those of southern Minnesota, embracing its historical significance, but this rundown town on the state’s southern tip was hardly worth a second glance. I continued on the Great River Road to the confluence, but the wayside was overgrown, littered with trash, and abandoned like all the others; the placard was faded and barely readable. It took a minute to get my bearings since there were no markers to make sense of the landscape, only a dilapidated concrete landing that looked like an abandoned military bunker. I assumed it was meant to provide a view (or something for bored [Read more…]



2014-07-06 16.43.45Although I stayed up late chatting with my neighbor, I was up early the next morning to meet an old friend, Matt Gregg, for the 1:00 Cardinals game in St. Louis. So after heading back to the Java Jive to book a room via their internet (any excuse for great coffee) I headed south along the river.

At least theoretically.

As I left town it was immediately clear that flooding had worsened overnight. After the second major detour around a flooded small town I steered away from the rising waters.


Casino Queen / My God you’re mean

I’ve been gambling like a fiend / On your tables so green

Casino Queen.

Casino Queen From Across The River

Casino Queen From Across The River

On their debut album, Wilco—a band with Midwestern roots— [Read more…]

FOLLOWING THE MISSISSIPPI: Walking In Mark Twain’s Footsteps


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“[My parent’s] first crop of children was born [in Tennessee]. I was postponed–postponed to Missouri. Missouri was an unknown state and needed new attractions.”

The Fourth of July had been beautiful, but I exited my tent on the 5th to gray, foreboding skies. (Side note: After a lifetime of camping I’ve concluded there is no graceful way to dismount a tent!) The forecast had promised no rain until Sunday, so I clung to hope as I cooked breakfast and headed into town.

2014-07-05 10.02.04I drove up Lover’s Leap on my way in to view Hannibal from opposite my perch last night. The widening river snaked between the rolling hills below—shrouded in a gray haze—and faded into the horizon. It was readily apparent that the minor flooding of the previous day had worsened overnight.

2014-07-05 10.04.08Once downtown I headed straight for the Mark Twain Museum, a half dozen preserved buildings along a cobblestone block on the north end of Main Street and a modern facility further downtown. The tour starts at Mark Twain’s childhood home, complete with a white picket fence that claimed to be the very one Tom Sawyer rented out. I’d been incredulous the previous evening, but the museum did a good job of [Read more…]