John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile of American folk singer, composer, and MacArthur Fellow Rihannon Giddens includes a history of the influential, but little known black antebellum fiddler Frank Johnson, as well as the 1898 racial massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina.
In the first part of his two-part essay in the redesigned Sewanee Review, John Jeremiah Sullivan examines the hazy, complicated roots of the Blues, going deep into Early Blues before, where he finds forgotten African-American journalist and performer Columbus Bragg, the first person to describe a song as a “blues song,” and another wrinkle in the Blues’ tangled origins.
Memories of being a Southie kid and black in a mostly white neighborhood.
“A case of reinvention through preservation.” Sullivan’s friend leaves the celebrity world to go back to his roots to work in canning:
These days when you say someone becomes “obsessed” with something it usually means they spent four hours reading about it on the Internet last night, but it seems accurate to say that Kevin became obsessed with preserves. It gradually became not the only thing he talked about, but the thing you could tell he was always thinking about. He started making cross-country trips to track down fruits that supposedly “put up” well. He tried to preserve things he’d never seen preserved, stuff that would have made his grandmother have to lie down and fan herself. He sent me a picture of a Buddha’s hand citron one time. It was an unearthly yellow and looked like a squid. If one of the ghosts in Pac-Man had been bright yellow and was preserved in a specimen jar, where it got all distended over time, it would have looked like this thing. “Found this last night at the Altadena farmer’s market,” he wrote. “My first thought was, I wanna get that, I wanna preserve it.”
Sullivan searches for the real story behind two phantom voices that recorded songs for Paramount in the early 1930s:
No grave site, no photograph. Forget that — no anecdotes. This is what set Geeshie and Elvie apart even from the rest of an innermost group of phantom geniuses of the ’20s and ’30s. Their myth was they didn’t have anything you could so much as hang a myth on. The objects themselves — the fewer than 10 surviving copies, total, of their three known Paramount releases, a handful of heavy, black, scratch-riven shellac platters, all in private hands — these were the whole of the file on Geeshie and Elvie, and even these had come within a second thought of vanishing, within, say, a woman’s decision in cleaning her parents’ attic to go against some idle advice that she throw out a box of old records and instead to find out what the junk shop gives. When she decides otherwise, when the shop isn’t on the way home, there goes the music, there go the souls, ash flakes up the flue, to flutter about with the Edison cylinder of Buddy Bolden’s band and the phonautograph of Lincoln’s voice.
A writer takes a trip to visit his wife’s family. What has changed in the country over the years, and what hasn’t:
“For obvious reasons, the actual Cuban peso is worth much less than the other, dollar-equivalent Cuban peso, something on the order of 25 to 1. But the driver said simply, ‘No, they are equal.’
“‘Really?’ my wife said. ‘No . . . that can’t be.’
“He insisted that there was no difference between the relative values of the currencies. They were the same.
“He knew that this was wrong. He probably could have told you the exchange rates from that morning. But he also knew that it had a rightness in it. For official accounting purposes, the two currencies are considered equivalent. Their respective values might fluctuate on a given day, of course, but it couldn’t be said that the CUP was worth less than the CUC That’s partly what he meant. He also meant that if you’re going to fly to Cuba from Miami and rub it in my face that our money is worth one twenty-fifth of yours, I’m gonna feed you some hilarious communist math and see how you like it. Cubans call it la doble moral. Meaning, different situations call forth different ethical codes. He wasn’t being deceptive. He was saying what my wife forced him to say.”
Venus and Serena Williams, living as adults, free of their parents, and still America’s biggest tennis superstars:
I asked Oracene what she felt, watching her daughters reclaim the heights after what they’d been through. “Honestly?” she said. “I reflected on the fact that in the United States, you don’t have many players that are doing well. And then you have these two old, black girls, up in age now, and they’re still holding up America. That to me was remarkable.” I thought about it. She was right. There isn’t another American right now who’s capable of really penetrating at a major. Or maybe, in fairness to Andy Roddick and a couple of other people, it’s better to say that there isn’t another player whose penetration at a Slam would not make your eyebrows jump. It’s just these two girls, these two sisters. They’re what America has right now.
Excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Pulphead,” on his brother’s electrocution, and what it did to his brain:
“On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Ellsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and in the strict sense of having been ‘shocked to death,’ was electrocuted. He and his band, the Moviegoers, had stopped for a day to rehearse on their way from Chicago to a concert in Tennessee, where I was in school. Just a couple of days earlier, he had called to ask if there were any songs I wanted to hear at the show. I asked for something new, a song he’d written and played for me the last time I’d seen him, on Christmas Day. Our holidays always end the same way, with the two of us up late drinking and trying out our new ‘tunes’ on each other.”
For the last several years, the big ticket in town has been the teen melodrama One Tree Hill, which was on the WB and is now on the CW Network. Don’t let the off brands fool you, though; a surprising number of people watch it, maybe even you, for all I know. It’s one of the worst TV shows ever made, and I seriously do not mean that as an insult. It’s bad in the way that Mexican TV is bad, superstylized bad. Good bad. Indeed, there are times when the particular campiness of its badness, although I can sense its presence, is in fact beyond me, beyond my frequency, like that beep you play on the Internet that only kids can hear. Too many of my camp-receptor cells have died. Possibly One Tree Hill is a work of genius. Certainly it is about to go nine seasons, strongly suggesting that the mother of its creator, Mark Schwahn, did not give birth to any idiots, or if she did those people are Schwahn’s siblings. The One Tree character who supposedly lived in our house was Peyton, played by one of the stars, Hilarie Burton, a striking bone-thin blonde. Think coppery curls. I’d seen her on MTV right at the moment when I was first feeling too old to watch MTV. Superfriendly when we met her, superfriendly always.
Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.” An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot.