Thursday, October 22, 2015

Labor South Roundup: Pols on the stump at an old-time political rally in rural Mississippi; Punk artist Tav Falco returns to Memphis: Guitarist Jimmie Vaughan makes every lick count at the "King Biscuit" blues festival in Helena, Ark.

(To the left, at Johnny Morgan's "Good Ole Boys and Gals" political rally in rural Mississippi)

A cultural excursion into the Deep South – Pols on the hustings at an old-time political rally in rural Mississippi; punk rocker-photographer-poet-filmmaker Tav Falco returns to Memphis; and Jimmie Vaughan channels Jimmy Reed at the Helena, Ark., “King Biscuit” blues festival

At the “Good Ole Boys and Gals” political rally in rural Lafayette County, Miss.

A couple hundred state and local courthouse pols gathered to give and hear stump speeches, sip bourbon and munch on barbecue chicken at Lafayette County Supervisor Johnny Morgan’s “Good Ole Boys and Gals” political rally near Oxford, Miss., Wednesday night.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, up for re-election this year, told everyone how good he’d been for the Magnolia state over the past four years. Incumbents and challengers took turns bashing President Obama while the occasional brave soul called for an expansion of Medicaid and more spending on public education.

Morgan, a veteran politician and former state legislator, is chief organizer of the event, which takes place several times a year and always draws a large crowd. Peanuts, hoop cheese, delicious barbecue chicken, and a generous bar add to the festivities.

 Tav Falco returns to Memphis

(To the right, Tav Falco and Panther Burns performing in Memphis)

Tav Falco, a controversial, sometimes polarizing multi-media artist who burst onto the Memphis music and art scene with his band Panther Burns in the late 1970s, returned to his old stomping grounds last week with a performance with his band at Lafayette’s Music Room in the city’s Overton Square district.

Falco has been living in Europe—earlier Paris and now Vienna—for many years, and he included songs in French, a tango, as well as cuts from his new CD “Tav Falco Command Performance” for the crowd.

The CD is a paean to Memphis in some ways with renditions of rockabilly master Charlie Feathers’ “Jungle Fever”, Big Star leader Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok”, blues meister Memphis Minnie’s “Me and My Chauffeur Blues”. Also included is Falco’s own sharply political “Whistle Blower” with its warning against growing American-style fascism.

Falco also has a newly published book of his photography, An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South, that is getting attention here and in Europe. In a telephone interview this week, Falco said the book is the first of three that will include his photography. It features photographs he took of the South decades ago.

“There is a landscape that draws people, photographers, a social fabric,” Falco said about the South. “This is the area I grew up in, pictures of my formation, my aesthetic. An artist works with what is at hand. I think it is important where an artist works and lives.”

The next book in the series will “reflect a more international view,” he said.

Falco’s art—whether photographs, music, books or film--today reflects a continuing commitment to his own aesthetic, as described in his strange, fascinating, monumental 2011 book, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death, volume one in a two-part series called Mondo Memphis:

“The image of the artist or musician as alchemist is utterly fascinating. Music—an unseen force—magic, the occult, and alchemy all seem to be interconnected. … The first thing I do when I go onstage is to cast a spell.”

Jimmie Vaughan at the Helena, Ark., “King Biscuit” blues festival

(Jimmie Vaughan in Helena, Ark.)

Veteran guitarist Jimmie Vaughan may offer a less complicated “aesthetic” to his music, but he is no less compelling. Brother of the late guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmie Vaughan is a master of simplicity with his playing. Each note says something, each lick lean and mean, never showing off, just what’s needed to send a message. In jazz terms, Jimmie is Miles Davis to his brother’s Charlie Parker.

Performing with long-term sidekick vocalist Lou Ann Barton, Vaughan offered a wide range of his music over the past several decades, tipping his hat to his late brother in his classic homage to dead-and-gone blues singers, “Six Strings Down”. He also played songs by greats such as Jimmy Reed, another preacher of the gospel of “simplicity” in music. “Who doesn’t love Jimmy Reed?” he asked the crowd. They shouted back an affirmation.

(To the right, a bluesman on Helena's Cherry Street during the "King Biscuit" blues festival)

Vaughan was the headliner of this month's blues festival, located in the heart of downtown Helena, Ark., where Sonny Payne’s famous “King Biscuit” radio show featured Sonny Boy Williamson and other blues great as far back as the 1940s.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Flag-waving Southern secessionists square off against anti-Rebel flag University of Mississippi students

Within minutes of a rally today by University of Mississippi students calling on the university to take down the state flag with its Confederate emblem, a group of Southern secessionists marched onto the scene waving giant Confederate battle flags and a sign calling on the South to "SECEDE".

A racially mixed crowd of 100 or so students and faculty had gathered by the pole carrying the state flag on the campus "Circle" to protest that last-remaining state flag that still includes a Confederate battle flag as part of the design. "Take it down! Take it down!" they chanted. The Circle is immediately in front of the university's historic Lyceum, site of the most intense shooting and rioting when James Meredith was enrolled as the university's first black student in 1962.

(To the right, the state flag flying on the campus "Circle" at the University of Mississippi)

As the rally began to come to a close, a small group of Confederate flag-waving whites--children as well as adults--marched onto the scene. Campus police came quickly to the scene as students from the rally began to shout at the group.

"Are you a racist?" one asked.

"Absolutely," said one of the flag-bearers, whose sign also indicated that he was a member of the Killen, Alabama-based League of the South, a Southern secessionist organization.

(University of Mississippi students and faculty calling for the university to stop flying the state flag on campus)

Other members of the group wore T-shirts with the sign "International Keystone Knights".

"You are leftist commies," a group member shouted at the students.

"Can you spell communism?" a student fired back.

"We are the blood of conquerers," another group member responded.

On the League of the South Web site today, group member Jeremy Walls filed a report of the incident and said this:

"I knew immediately there would be some problems with the crowd. Plenty of self-loathing whites were present along with the usual smattering of minorities. I couldn't help but wonder how many of these kids were from out of State and how many were residents. ... We are indeed being watched by the Marxist forces in the area. ... One thing is clear: Marxism is alive in Mississippi. We have much work to do here if we hope to hold the line in our fight for our ancestral homeland."

The choice of the University of Mississippi campus for today's confrontation is no accident. No university in the South was burdened by more Confederate symbolism after the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948 than "Ole Miss". In fact, the vice presidential candidate on the Dixiecrat ticket that year was Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright. The university has struggled in recent decades to divest itself of that symbolism, but never without intense protest.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Southern working-class folks have a reason to feel rebellious - they're just waving the wrong flag to show it

(To the right, Benny Wint)

MARSHALL, N.C. – Benny Wint grew up as one of the few whites in a black neighborhood of a small South Carolina town. Today, if customers come into his roadside stand with a racist attitude, he wants them to leave.

Yet what Wint sells at his roadside stand are Confederate flags--all kinds, from the traditional Beauregard battle flag to a Southern Cross with purple bars on a yellow background. He says he has black and Mexican customers as well as white.

“The Confederate flag means freedom, the right to do what you want to do,” says the 56-year-old, who has been selling the flags for nine years. “The right to do what you want to do is something you can’t do in this country any more.”

(Benny Wint's roadside stand near Marshall, N.C.)

What the flag evokes for many African Americans is the image of 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, gun in one hand, Confederate flag in the other, in a photograph taken before he allegedly walked into an historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and killed nine people. What they see in that flag are Klan rallies, Jim Crow and slavery.

“The Confederacy and what it stands for is treason,” said Charles Steele Jr., who heads the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

More than likely, a Wint ancestor fought under that flag in a war that killed more than 600,000 soldiers—a toll equivalent to 6 million with today’s population. One out of every four white Southern males between 16 and 45 years of age was either killed or disabled in the Civil War.

Southern apologists have long claimed that the war was about states’ rights, union aggression, trade disputes. The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass would have none of it. “The very stomach of this rebellion is the negro in the form of a slave.”

Yet most of those white Southerners on the frontlines of the Civil War owned no slaves. In fact, the 1862 Confederate Conscription Act exempted well-to-do slave owners from serving in the military.  Southern dissension against the war was much more prevalent than so-called Southern heritage groups would have you believe.

This “is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” North Carolina’s Civil War governor, Zebulon Vance, said. “The great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians and not the people.”

Yet the people fought that war to preserve slavery, the human property of the South’s rich elite. And they kept waving the war’s flag as Jim Crow loomed over the land, subjugating blacks once again and even many poor whites who also couldn’t afford the poll taxes levied to restrict voting.

Working-class white Southerners waved that Confederate flag into the 21st century while the successors of the Southern ante-bellum elite mouthed “Southern virtue” and kept the region the nation’s poorest.

The flag “is a sign of defiance, a sign of pride, a declaration of a geographical area that you’re proud to be from,” country singer Charlie Daniels has said.

Daniels is one of many Confederate flag-waving Southern musicians-- David Allan Coe, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd--whose music embodies a spirit of rebellion from the corporate norm in Nashville or New York.

I remember going to a concert by the ground-breaking rock group Buffalo Springfield in North Carolina in the mid-1960s. Fans yelled uproariously when the concert began with the unveiling of a giant Confederate flag across the back of the stage. However, those same fans then walked out in droves when Neil Young and other band members ventured into the long, mind-bending guitar riffs that foretold of the music that would later come from Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.

Like many blacks, working-class Southern whites feel alienated from much of U.S. society. Their wages stagnated while the earnings of the top 1 percent went through the roof. They’re fed Fox News’ race-tinged, anti-Obama, anti-Obamacare pablum 24 hours a day, yet the politicians Fox News pushes aren’t putting food on the table or gas in the car.

Unlike struggling blacks, working-class Southern whites don’t have a natural support base among Northern—or Southern—liberals or the Democratic Party, which today is nearly as dependent on corporate funding as the Republican Party and which has eschewed the working class in favor of identity politics.

They’ve got a right to feel rebellious. The problem is they’re waving the wrong flag to show it.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.