Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Labor South roundup: Steve Stern's tales from a "East European enclave in Memphis"; the South's Medicaid gap; anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga; and B.B. King singing "poor people's music"

Here’s an early summer round up from Labor South that includes an account of Memphis-born writer Steve Stern’s recent visit to Burkes Book Store in Memphis, a glance at anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the South’s Medicaid gap, and finally one more look back at the late great B.B. King.

(Author Steve Stern reading from his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis)

Finding an “East European Enclave” in Memphis, Tennessee

Steve Stern, author of The Book of Mischief (reviewed in Labor South back in May 2013) and other novels and stories about Jewish life in Memphis, the Catskills, the Lower East Side in New York, and Europe, stopped by for a reading and signing of his new book, The Pinch, at Burkes Book Store in Memphis last week. An overflow crowd welcomed him, so many fans that the store ran out of copies of his book.

“I can’t believe people are so nice to me in this town,” the Memphis native said, recalling how as a young man he “shook the dust off this town” but then later “washed up again on its shores” to do the basic research on the city’s old Jewish district, the Pinch. For the past 28 years, Stern, 67, has taught creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“When I first saw it, it was this moonscape,” he said of the old district just beyond the levees to the Mississippi River along downtown’s North Main Street that once was home to succeeding waves of Irish, German and Jewish immigrants. “I learned it was a self-sustained, very vital, East European enclave with artisans, fishmongers, tailors. Yiddish was the lingua franca of the street.

The burgeoning writer stumbled upon literary gold. “I guess my stories were looking for a home.”

Indeed, Stern’s wonderful tales put him in a league with the great Jewish writers Isaac Babel (whose stories were an inspiration to him), Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Asch, and Sholom Aleichem. Like those writers, Stern writes of poor shopkeepers and ragmen who live their lives in a world constantly threatened by the larger world outside that neither understands nor tolerates them very well.

The Southern Medicaid Gap

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation, the Southern states of Florida, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina are home to 61 percent of the approximately four million people denied Medicaid coverage in this country.

“And it’s people in the South who are predominantly left out because Republicans refuse to have anything to do with President Obama,” the Texas-based Progressive Populist recently reported.

Anti-union secrecy in Chattanooga

As the United Auto Workers continues to try speak on behalf of workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., even without official collective bargaining status, the rival group set up to counter the UAW’s presence there operates in relative secrecy.

The American Council of Employees, claiming 381 members compared to the UAW’s 816 members at the plant, boasts of local roots and independence of outside groups but refuses to reveal its funding sources, according to the Associated Press. Plus, “the lawyer who recently filed the group’s overdue disclosures with the U.S. Department of Labor touts his expertise in `union avoidance,’” the AP reported recently.

The group’s filing only listed about $15,000 in “other receipts,” according to Mike Cantrell, president of UAW Local 42.

The UAW’s Local 42 receives its funding entirely from the union’s national office.

B.B. King sang the music of “poor people”

OXFORD, Miss. – Blues music may be singing the “No Future Tomorrow” blues once B.B. King hangs up his guitar for good, Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer warned back in 2004.

(To the right above, the hearse carrying the body of B.B. King makes its way down Beale Street in Memphis en route to his burial site in Indianola, Miss.)

Speaking at a “Blues Today” symposium in Oxford, Iglauer, whose Chicago-based company recorded Hound Dog Taylor and other greats, called bluesman B.B. King the music’s standard-bearer. “Sooner or later he’s going to be forced to retire. He’s an icon. When he does, that blues is history. … I’m very scared about the future.”

To keep the music alive, Iglauer said, blues musicians must be “nurtured” to be able to connect with contemporary audiences. “If we don’t nurture the young musicians, we are talking about a museum.”

King, who died last month at the age of 89, got his nurturing from folks like his cousin, country blues artist Bukka White, and the music he heard along Beale Street in Memphis back in the 1940s. “I’m a self-taught man,” King told an audience in Oxford during that same blues symposium. “Every time I’d hear something I’d learn a little more about it, and I’d play it. It’s like learning a language.”
In an interview I had with the Mississippi-born blues great that same year, he said he was optimistic about the music’s future. “There is a young guy, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb Mo, Corey Harris. They don’t play what I play. I don’t play like Bukka did. I wish I could. What I’m trying to say is that each generation brings about their own musicians.”

 King was right. Compare the clean, soul-rending notes from his guitar Lucille on “Three O’Clock Blues” to the raw chords you hear on Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” in the 1940s or Charley Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” in the 1920s.  King’s lineage may be more evident in Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 classic “Dark Was The Night”. Johnson’s every emotion-filled moan is echoed by his bottleneck guitar.

(Blind Willie Johnson)

It’s all blues, just different kinds of blues, different generations of musicians with something to say to an audience that knew exactly what the musicians meant.

The nurturing Iglauer called for can be seen today in places like the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, where young local musicians get training that allows them to tap into their region’s rich cultural legacy.  The upcoming young blues prodigy Christone “Kingfish” Ingram is a product of that training.

The blues grew out of a South haunted by poverty, isolation, racial oppression, old-time religion, and intolerant, oligarchical rule. It was the music of poor people, a kind of rebellion against those crushing forces. It’s the same with poor people’s music everywhere in the world—flamenco in Spain, fado in Portugal, tango in Argentina.

It crosses racial and even class lines, however. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf liked to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. Bluegrass and country greats Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams all learned from the blues.

To some, the blues lost much of its poignancy when it left the backwater South and went commercial in Chicago. In the 1930s, Mississippian Robert Johnson’s blues laments about “hellhound on my trail” and “me and the devil … walking side by side” were existential cries of anguish. By the 1960s, Texas guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins once complained, practically every Chicago blues song was about a woman.

In many ways, B.B. King straddled those different eras of blues. From learning at the knee of Bukka White to singing duos with Eric Clapton, he was a part of blues’ evolution from the music that W.C. Handy heard at the Tutwiler train station back in 1903 to what the Rolling Stones were singing in the 1960s and beyond. That’s why he was, in Iglauer’s words, “an ideal spokesman for his music.”

“I think one of the things about the blues is truth,” King told me in 2004. “It’s truth without a lot of makeup. If we hear Frank Sinatra, he paints a beautiful picture. He sings about a girl in a beautiful meadow. He finally tells her he loves her. That makes the picture. In the blues, the guy doesn’t know all these beautiful lines. The blues singer just says, `Baby, I love you!’”

That’s a universal language, and people are going to want to hear those who speak it well for a long time, whether the words are about hellhounds, lost love, or loneliness and an empty bed at three o’clock in the morning.

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