Saturday, September 19, 2009

NOTES ON NORTHERN ALABAMA


I.
What did my mother think her legacy would be when, as a Golden Eaglet Girl Scout, she went on a primitive camping trip in Dismals Canyon, Alabama back in the 1920’s? Did she think that camp-outs would become her oeuvre? She surely didn’t know that someday her daughter, at age 74, would discover she was only three hours away from the Dismals and would make a pilgrimage to the place where she “rolled down the hill with a garter snake in her backpack every morning” – a story my mother Dorothy repeated endlessly because she was proud of having a reptile for a camp mate, of sleeping under a ledge in the Canyon and of surviving weeks of roughing it. She loved every moment of being in an environment that most people prefer viewing from a car window. It was her finest hour.

The sight of badges sewn on every inch of the sleeves of my mother’s khaki Girl Scout uniform, Golden Eaglet pin included, used to taunt me. In the 80’s and 90’s, after she died, I worked as a Girl Scout executive and though I could recruit troops, figure out how to raise money for a Council, chart membership, and carry out corporate planning, I wasn’t the happy camper who lived out Juliette Low’s vision of a Girl Scout as the perfect nature girl – Dorothy was.

I have come to Florence, Alabama to stay in a comfortable room on the fifth floor of a hotel where I can look out at the Tennessee River meandering through the city as I wait for the Dismals Canyon gates to open. I plan to drive over and hike a puny 1 ½ mile trail to the floor of the canyon to see why my mother talked about this outdoor experience as the high point of her life. It is raining steadily, and the Dismals won’t open for another day, so I begin an exploration of the city of Florence, now touted as the Renaissance City of Alabama and part of an area called The Shoals.

We entered the city at noon on Wednesday and stopped at the $5 Buffet Restaurant where we were greeted by a cashier who explained why a large Mason jar of coins sat smack in the center of the cashier’s desk. A family needed money because a local Alabama man died in the hills of Tennessee, she told us. The man had gone to Tennessee to visit the grave site of a relative situated on a bluff, and while there, he and a companion became intoxicated and began throwing their empty beer cans off the bluff. They were unable to hear the cans hit the ground below, and the man whose relative was buried on the site, looked down, exclaiming, “Oh, that’s nothing…” and jumped. The jar on the cashier’s desk attested to his folly. Welcome to Florence, Alabama, I thought ruefully.

However, at the hotel, I discovered a wonderful magazine, “Explore the Shoals” that featured stories of famous people who were born in the area, worked toward and realized formidable life goals, and I was inspired to explore the sites of: W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues; Helen Keller’s home in nearby Tuscumbia; the home Frank Lloyd Wright designed as an affordable, middle class residence in Florence during the 40’s; and an exhibit of WPA and CCC work at the TVA Museum of Art at Tuscumbia. Florence and environs offered enough to absorb me for several days until the Dismals opened.

We toured the W.C. Handy birthplace, museum, and library where the personal papers, artifacts, personal trumpet and piano of Handy are housed. Newspaper clippings told the story about his classic composition, “The Memphis Blues,” the first popular blues music to include a “jazz break.” At one point in Handy’s life, he’s said to have been destitute; his bed being the levee of cobblestone in St. Louis, Missouri. Here, he heard a fellow indigent say: “I hate to see that evening sun go down,” and set to work writing the famous “St. Louis Blues.” During Handy’s lifetime, he wrote 150 secular and sacred compositions. The son and grandson of ministers, W. C. Handy became a musician over his father’s protests – “a devlish calling,” his father said, but his son persisted, combining spirituals and black chants to form his famous blues music and also forming his own music publishing company in New York City, operating the business even after he became blind. Undaunted, he learned Braille in his 80’s so that he could still read music compositions.

The visit to this site reminded me of a tour we once made of a blues museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of the places where Handy lived and played the blues during his lifetime. In the Clarksdale museum, I remember seeing a wire stretched between two nails in a plank of wood. The crude instrument was used by a music-loving black man who somehow carried out a tune that would later become part of the sounds of the Delta blues.

I spent a few hours reading Handy’s autobiography and found this arresting paragraph in the first chapter: “My father, Charles B. Handy, had been pastor of a charge at Guntersville, a small Alabama town, where he met a local banker who, on a trip to Nashville, was impressed by many colored people of wealth and culture…Father explained to this banker that ‘in a community of cultured white folk, there will be found a similar group of colored people, but in any place where backward whites predominate, there will always be found a group of backward and uncultured colored people.’” Those are Handy’s words, and his father would probably be labeled as “politically incorrect” today because of that opinion.

Part II. and III. will appear in subsequent blogs.
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