I just wanted to thank y’all for everything.
It was a good night.
Thank you for making it so, and for not only making it a great reading, but a visit to a place I will always appreciate.
What a delight to receive this nice note from Rick Bragg. Honestly, he’s the one to be thanked.
When does an audience of 700-some people seem intimate? When you have Rick Bragg at the podium.
His books read as if he’s telling you a story at the dinner table. It’s the same when you see him on stage or in person. Rick Bragg talks like he writes. He writes like he talks.
On April 14, he spent close to two hours reading from his memoirs, telling stories and answering questions for an audience that would have been happy to sit there for another two hours. They gave him a standing ovation.
As he walked to the book-signing table, Rick said this was the part he liked best — meeting people and autographing their books. There was a long line of enthusiastic people, and Rick said he was energized. He sat down and commenced to visiting with his fans, looking each one in the eye, putting exactly the right name in each book, thanking them for coming.
We left full and satisfied, yet still wanting more.
Rick, you are always welcome in Kalamazoo. Come back and see us.
Rick Bragg in Kalamazoo
In All Over but the Shoutin’, there is a colorful and appetizing passage about a church’s “dinner on the grounds,” a meal served outdoors, often near the graveyard. There are scores of food references throughout that book. The second time I read Shoutin’ I wrote down every dish or ingredient on a separate sheet of paper. Purple hull peas, cornbread, barbecue, Grapicola, biscuits. It makes me hungry just to read that list.
We concluded this season of Reading Together with a community potluck on April 16. There in the dining room at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, we feasted on such tasty offerings as bean soup, lentil salad, black bean salad, cheesy potatoes, tater tot casserole, cornbread, whole wheat rolls, pineapple pie, cookies, fruit, chocolate cake.
It was a feast of home-cooked dishes and good conversation. We talked about Rick Bragg’s books, and how much we enjoyed his presentation on April 14. We talked about the food itself, sharing recipes and techniques, confiding our kitchen weaknesses and disasters.
Bringing a dish to pass says, “I am offering who I am. This food represents me, but it also represents my family and my family’s family, our values, our traditions, where we are in life right now and where we’ve been.” And so a potluck becomes an exchange of food, history and thought — storytelling. The conversation of food and stories turns strangers into friends. It builds a community.
What a delightful evening we had with Rick Bragg at Kalamazoo Central Auditorium last night. It was great to see so many of you who were as enthused about his visit as we’ve been.
I’ll be posting more thoughts about his presentation later, and we’ll get photos added as soon as possible.
If you attended the event, let us know what you thought. Post a comment to the blog, or Contact Reading Together.
Rick Bragg says he “grew up at the knee of front-porch talkers, of peole who could tell a story and make you believe you had been there, right there, in the path of the bullet or the train, in the warm arms of a new mother, in the teeth of a mean dog. The men, sometimes dog drunk, sometimes flush with religion but always alight with the power of words, could make you feel the breath of the arching blade as it hisssssed past their face on the beer joint floor, could make you taste the blood in your mouth from the fist that had smashed into their own, could make you hear the loose change in the deputy’s pocket as he ran, reaching for them, just steps behind.”
“The women in my world, aunts and cousins and grandmas and a girlfriend or two, could telegraph straight to your brain the beauty of babies you never touched, songs you never heard, loves you never felt. They could make you cry about a funeral you never saw, make you mourn for a man you had never even met. ... They had a gift, one the rest of us who aspire to be storytellers can only borrow. ”
Rick Bragg has the gift for telling stories. His trilogy of memoirs has enabled readers to walk the blacktops of rural Alabama and get to know him and his people. Now we have the fine pleasure of hearing stories in the writer’s own voice. Please join us on April 14 and welcome Rick Bragg to Kalamazoo.
Mark Sahlgren treated us to a wonderful concert on March 11, including a display of his collection of vintage Gibson guitars. Mark was joined by two beautiful singers: his Grassroots co-host Lorrain Caron, and his daughter Darcy Willis, of Cornfed Girls.
When we were planning Reading Together activities, we wanted to be sure that there was a concert of music with a Southern accent. One cannot form a complete picture of Rick Bragg’s rural South without a soundtrack. After all, there is a reason they call it country music.
The South’s relative isolation allowed cultural traditions of its settlers to remain alive. What did immigrants bring with them? Maybe a fiddle or guitar — or maybe only words and melodies remembered and rehearsed and handed down. That’s a challenge in any case, but for instrumental music, even more so. How did the fiddler avoid mixing up one waltz with another? The guitar accompanist likely learned chord changes without ever knowing what guitar tablature looked like. (There was little formal training except perhaps at the hand of the Baptist preacher’s wife who also taught piano lessons and made sure every girl learned how accompany hymns.)
And that guitar might have been a cheaply made instrument bought from a Sears Roebuck catalog, or Montgomery Ward. On such instruments, the strings were so far from the fretboard that the new musician had to endure a painful ordeal until thick callouses were developed on the fingertips. Most people hadn’t played finely made expensive instruments and thus no one knew it could be better. Life was hard. Why wouldn’t there be a trial to achieve moments of pleasure?
Many of the songs from the South are about hardship. You can’t think about hardships without also thinking about faith and religion. In Chapter 9 of All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg recalls the influence of religion and retells some of his churchgoing experiences. He titles that chapter On the Wings of a Great Speckled Bird. That line is from what may be one of the greatest songs of country music, “The Great Speckled Bird.”
What a beautiful thought I am thinking,
Concerning a great speckled bird.
Remember her name is recorded,
On the pages of God’s Holy Word.
The words of this gospel song are attributed to Rev Guy Smith. Recorded in 1936 by Roy Acuff, the song is about remaining righteous amidst the trials of life. The phrase “great speckled bird” comes from a Bible passage, Jer 12:8-9. (For more about the meaning of the song, here’s an interesting discussion.)
I know people have ridiculed country music because of its bounty of songs about hardship, particularly drinking and infidelity. I guess there’s a reason for the stereotypes. Likker, relationships and religion were not insignificant themes.
And that’s why “The Great Speckled Bird” is so emblematic of country music. The irony is that its melody is shared by a song from the 1920s, “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” The same melody was later used in the 1952 country hit “The Wild Side of Life,” sung by Hank Thompson (about a wife that strays) and the loud retort from Kitty Wells: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
Mark Sahlgren's Gibson guitars
Just as there is no singular recipe for Southern fried chicken, there is no definitive way to make cornbread. The other night, I had the pleasure of talking about this beloved bread to a group of enthusiastic tasters here at the library. It was fun to comb through cookbooks and Internet postings to find recipes, and even more fun to bake and share the results.
Cornbread is truly an American dish because its source is a grain native to the Americas. Native Americans mixed cornmeal and water into little cakes that were baked in ashes.
Enter the Scots-Irish immigrants and other “backcountry borderland” people (read Albion’s Seed) who headed for the hills of Appalachia and the South more than any other area. They were accustomed to oats. Porridge, oatcakes, scones. Oats like the cooler weather across the pond. The New World’s native corn grew better and — as I would imagine — was a whole lot easier to harvest than oats. The settlers adapted and adopted. It’s easy to see how the Scotsman’s oatmeal porridge became the Southerner’s grits. And it’s not too farfetched to imagine oatcakes and scones becoming little cakes of cornbread.
While cornbread can be found on tables throughout the United States, it reigns supreme in the South. It probably got a good start and took hold because wheat flour was not as readily available until after 1860 (according to A Gracious Plenty by John T. Edge).
While there’s no one perfect cornbread recipe, there is a regional difference. In the North, cornbread tends to be sweet and light — by light I mean it contains a high amount of flour. Northern cornbread calls for varying amounts of sugar. And here in the Midwest, honey is the expected partner to cornbread.
On the other hand, Southern bread is heavier and a bit more sturdy. Southern cornbread contains mostly cornmeal and it isn’t sweet. I say “tends” because you can find exceptions for every rule. Southerners do like their sugar. Southern cornbread will have a crispier crust, owing to the use of cast iron skillets, precious implements often passed from one generation to the next. The technique of heating a cast iron skillet until the batter sizzles helps the bread achieve that characteristic crispy-to-crunchy crust. More unique to the South is hot water bread — little cakes fried in hot oil. The batter is moistened with boiling water instead of milk.
In the South, cornbread hot and buttered is a necessary accompaniment to the main course. It’s used to soak up “pot likker” from a mess of greens or to shove the remaining purple hull peas onto one’s fork. Leftover cornbread gets dry and crumbly, so fresh bread is often made at each meal. Nothing’s wasted, though. Leftover bread is often crumbled into a tall glass to which buttermilk or plain milk is added. This makes a fine supper or snack.
What I make at home is most definitely Southern cornbread and I have two hand-me-down cast iron skillets and one cast iron griddle, all beautifully blackened from years of use. But like those settlers who had to adapt to their new home, I’ve learned to make do with Midwestern cornbread. If it’s offered to me, I will take a piece and say “thank you.” But I will pass on the honey.
Following up on my earlier post about old sayings and folklore in Ava’s Man, I want to comment on what Rick Bragg said about Southern language.
In response to his brother Sam’s comment about fish not biting “on a bluebird day,” Bragg wrote:
“Yet I could not help but wonder where that phrase, that lovely phrase, came from. Who still talks like that, I wondered, in a modern-day South that has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern?"
A Southerner could be mistaken for any other American — until he opens his mouth.
I happened on a USA Today story from 2005 about a class in voice and diction at — of all places — the University of South Carolina that will wash that drawl right out of your mouth. Erica Tobolski will teach you to replace those twangs, drawls, lilts and clips with Standard American Dialect — the bland speech you hear on TV.
Here’s how Tobolksi explained it: “We sort of avoid talking about class in this country, but clearly class is indicated by how we speak,” she said.
“Many come to see me because they want to sound less country,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to lose my accent completely, but I want to be able to minimize it or modify it.’”
What she means is that folk often equate the Southern accent with a lack of intelligence. Then they give you a sidelong look and wonder if your family owned slaves. And from there a whole host of other assumptions may be made about you and your momma and your daddy and all the rest of your kin. For that reason, some Southern expatriats find it’s easier to fit in by trying to speak the way the locals do.
And sometimes your accent changes because you’re surrounded by people who talk funny. Case in point: I married a Yankee, so my accent has moderated somewhat to be a tad more Midwestern. (My husband still claims that conversing with my Louisiana family “is like being at the United Nations — you have to wait for the translation.”) Contrast that with my little sister and her husband, both Southerners. Their Southern speech is more pronounced than mine, even though they live up North, too.
And just what is Southern speech anyway? You know it when you hear it, but the fact is the South is the most diverse speech region in the United States. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture has this to say: “Although the South is the most distinctive speech region in the United States, it is also the most diverse, little more uniform than the nation as a whole. Outsiders may think that all southerners talk pretty much alike, but Southerners certainly know better. Some of the most unusual types of American English are found on the periphery of the South, in areas such as the southern Appalachian and Ozark mountains … Even the well-worn stereotypes so often featured in cinematic and other media portrayals of southern speech do not typify speakers throughout the South. For example, the lack of ‘r’ after a vowel, once a hallmark of much of the region, is fast disappearing and is increasingly confined to older and African-American speakers.”
Modern times are changing accents, particularly in the urbanized areas of the South. As our world becomes more mobile and as technology further alters the way we communicate, will our accents go flat in this increasingly flattened world?
If Southerners are moderating their speech, it seems folks in other parts of the U.S. may be affecting a drawl, says Dr. Nicolas Witschi of Western Michigan University’s English Dept. He calls this phenomenon the “Southernization” of U.S. culture. Witschi says the having two Southern presidents in a row has influenced the way Southern culture is perceived. Values are attached to the South (earthiness, religion, faith, family values, tradition) stand in contrast to perceived urban (i.e. Northern) values. Dr. Witschi was a presenter at The Book as Literature program on March 26. he says this Southernization is why one might happen on a drawl in such far flung locales as Idaho or California, even when the speakers have never left home.
Unless you are bound for a career in stage or cinema, taking a college class to lose your accent seems like a shame. When asked what he thought about washing away traces of Southern speech, the author Roy Blount Jr. said: “I just think that there’s a certain eloquence in Southern vernacular that I wouldn’t want to lose touch with ... You ought to sound like where you come from.”
Give a listen to Rick Bragg’s accent in this video.
Rick Bragg (photo by Ann States)
While we seek mirth and beauty
And music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent,
Their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more
~from “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster
Recently I was privileged to be a guest on Public Media Network’s Monday Night Live with host Keith Roe and frequent visitor Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books.
During our talk, Keith drew a parallel between the hard times featured in Rick Bragg’s memoirs and the economic conditions our world is facing right now. He’s right. The books are timely. The Great Depression figures most prominently in Ava’s Man. A few months back, I heard from a woman who had just read Ava’s Man. She told me she was comforted, encouraged and inspired by how Charlie and Ava Bundrum took care of their family under such difficult and discouraging conditions. She said she hoped other people going through hard times now would have courage.
There was the time when Charlie was unable to work for weeks after being injured in his job as a roofer. Charlie, badly weakened from the fall he took, struggled to clear brush, or cut pulpwood, or would go door to door offering to dig wells. Or he would load boxcars by hand. Ava counted out pennies to buy needles and thread. She and the girls would sew if there was no cotton for them to pick. Sometimes the only food was cornbread.
The money ran out. It got so bad they had to sell the cow to pay rent. When the landlord came for the cow, she also wanted the morning’s milk, which Ava was keeping for the children. That episode of stinginess makes you alternately sad and angry.
“The woman tried to argue. Ava, desperate, might have given in, but she had seen so much of their already meager life shaved away that she just couldn’t take any more scraping on the bone that remained.
She turned and walked into the house and portioned out the milk for her children, and watched them as they drank it. The woman huffed a little, then took her cow and left. Ava crowed about that for seventy years.” (page 113)
Charlie did recuperate and continued to look for work wherever he could find it, anything to keep the family fed. As his health improved, Charlie would hunt and fish. Hardship and hunger were constant companions, but Charlie and Ava never gave up. They played music, they bore children. They sold their cow more than once. And they worked and worked.
The Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” was popular during the Civil War with folks in the North and South. Its plaintive melody and bittersweet feelings are just as applicable now.
Hard Times Come Again No More
Rick Bragg said one of the reasons he wrote Ava’s Man was “to give one more glimpse into a vanishing culture for the people who found themselves inside such stories, the people who shook my hand and said, ‘Son, you stole my story.’”
Those glimpses into a vanishing culture make Ava’s Man read like an adventure story and cultural history all bound together. He seasons the book with old sayings, such as the one about how a snapping turtle will bite you and won’t let go until it thunders. I heard that growing up in rural North Louisiana, and I was forevermore scared of snapping turtles even though I wasn’t sure I had ever come close to one. The very idea of an animal taking hold for so long certainly elevated a creature’s power and caused children to look on in wonder at the adult — and to be very, very afraid.
Nature and its ways was often a subject of stories told on the porch or at the dinner table. And one of life’s greatest mysteries will always be what constitutes good fishing. On page 18, Rick Bragg recounts a time he and his brother Sam were fishing:
“Then he stared up at a perfect blue sky, a sky without a cloud.
“And everybody knows,” he said, “the big fish won’t bite on a bluebird day.”
I just looked at him, because I did not have a rock to throw. On the one day I outfish him, he is spouting poetry.
Yet I could not help but wonder where that phrase, that lovely phrase, came from. Who still talks like that, I wondered, in a modern-day South that has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern? I found out it was just something my grandfather and men like him used to say, something passed down to him, to us, like a silver pocket watch.”
I looked into the term “bluebird day” and found it generally means a day without clouds.
If you’re into fishing, a bluebird day is sunny and clear. On that kind of day, the fish won’t bite. Clear, bluebird days usually appear after a cold front has passed through. Fishermen will tell you that fish can sense bad weather coming and will be really hungry. Once the storm passes and that bluebird day appears, fish aren’t as active. The water may be churned up, making it hard for fish to see the bait passing by. Or the fish have full bellies and don’t care to swim after the bait.
Now, if you’re in ski country and it’s wintertime, then a bluebird day is when the sky is clear and there’s fresh powder on the slopes, a fine day for skiing. The pretty little Mountain Bluebird, which lives out in the Rockies, is one solid shade of sky blue.
Mountain Bluebird (photo by Terry Sohl)