Our second USA road trip was inspired by my husband’s love of music (he’s a drummer). This blog is by him!
After all our travelling this year, I still haven’t lost the anxiety that comes with travelling by plane; the mild dread that I’ve screwed up the booking or that we’ll hit a monster traffic jam. With relief, we finally arrived in New Orleans after an internal flight in Cuba and a US-policy-imposed detour from Havana to Cancún (Mexico). It was our third flight in 3 days.
1,000-mile musical road trip
I was attracted to the musical history of New Orleans and the vague sense that it might be more interesting than most US cities. The Big Easy was the start of a 1,000-mile musical road trip to Chicago, passing through Memphis and Nashville.
Our AirBnB host in New Orleans put me straight that, though there were some good music venues on Bourbon Street amongst the drink-til-you-puke bars, the place to go for live music was Frenchman Street with 14 music venues over 2 blocks. The music spilled on to the street so you could wander along and, if something took your fancy, go inside for a drink and a closer listen.
Having struck gold on our first night at the Spotted Cow with a band I still don’t know the name of, I wanted to find out if there were any bands playing during our stay. A local musician tipped me off to Johnny Vidacovich’s long-standing residency at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, telling me that he was one of New Orleans’ best known drummers. Perfect! Expectations were high.
I arrived early although judging by the handful of people propping up the bar, I’d arrived a bit too early. Now, although I hadn’t heard of Johnny Vidacovich, Wikipedia suggested he was a force to be reckoned with. There was recognition from Downbeat magazine and jazz luminaries such as Branford Marsalis, plus he’d played with Bobby McFerrin, Professor Longhair and Mose Allison amongst others.
A few minutes after 11pm, Johnny took to the stage struck up a Monk tune and… oh dear. I’ve never had such a negative reaction to a drummer’s style of playing! There was no groove and the sudden transition into a hackneyed disco rhythm was totally unnecessary. I stuck it out for 45 minutes knowing that I’ve come to love music that I initially reacted badly to – but no, I couldn’t take it any more and I trudged out into the New Orleans night.
To plan or not to plan?
And there (in a nutshell) is one of the recurring themes of our around-the-world trip; to plan or not to plan. Should we take things as they come and chance being pleasantly surprised knowing that we might we miss out through lack of planning? Or should we plan carefully, know all the options and risk being disappointed as had happened with Johnny Vidacovich?
Ruth is more of a planner and I’m a ‘let’s see what turns up’ personality: a difference of approach that has resulted in a few tense moments. And then there is the boys’ constant refrain of ‘what are we doing next?’
One of my favourite things is having no idea what’s around the corner and the excitement of discovery, especially in a city. It’s my small part of the human compulsion to explore, a compulsion the boys currently don’t share and don’t even understand; they crave a destination, a timetable and a good reason why everything is happening. For the boys though, my style of exploration just doesn’t add up and is rarely acceptable.
Soothing the savage beast
After New Orleans we went north towards Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. As well as Ruth’s mum, we’d also been joined by Trombone Shorty, a New Orleans musician whose new album was a constant companion on the car stereo. Thomas loved it and happily grooved along in the back seat. The music was so potent that when Thomas was in a really foul temper I got him in to the car, ostensibly to go to the supermarket, put Trombone Shorty on the stereo and as the songs passed Thomas’s need to groove chipped away at his stubborn desire to grump. The music truly had soothed the savage beast.
United States of the Automobile
Once out of New Orleans, the American organisation of life around the automobile became more apparent. Smaller towns such as Grenada, Mississippi, were so spread out as to have no discernible centre and were clearly not designed with any intention of travelling by foot. There were no real corners to look around, resulting in a need to plan and a destination to drive to. We were looking at Mississippi through the car windows and not making any real connection.
The land of God, guns and Trump
On a societal level, America is frustrating especially in the mid-west. This is the land of God, guns and Trump, of a Bible Belt faith that is so lazy and lacking in critical thought that one supposed Christian wasn’t even aware of different versions of the Bible. I was itching to ask ‘what exactly is wrong with socialised health care?’ but it felt that the people who needed to think about this most simply wouldn’t be well informed enough to consider the options.
I asked a motorcyclist who chose to drive without a helmet about the risk she took. She told me with 100% confidence that, in the event of her death, she knew where she was going. And that was the end of that conversation. Her faith in the Lord had been invoked and further questioning was clearly not only unnecessary but palpably shut down. No matter how much I am genuinely interested in a person’s answer to the question of what they think they will actually do in heaven, day-in, day-out for eternity, some questions are tricky to ask without sounding like a smart arse.
Racism and segregation
And then there’s the racism and segregation of cities such as Memphis and Chicago. One white trucker I spoke to was perfectly friendly but dropped in a racist story about his friend. Back in New Orleans, the tour guide on our visit to the Whitney Plantation not only told us of the past injustices of slavery but made it perfectly clear that, to her, modern day slavery was alive and well within the US prison system.
One prominent campaigner for prisoners’ rights was Johnny Cash, whose Greatest Hits album became another soundtrack to our road trip after a visit to Nashville’s Johnny Cash museum. Robert loved the song A Boy Called Sue and they would both start singing along to Folsom Prison Blues and its infamous line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”.
In Memphis, the Stax Records museum highlighted how racially integrated an organisation it was – from its owners through to its effective house band, Booker T and the MGs. Later the same day we visited the original Sun Records studio where Elvis recorded his early music. Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips, had rented the space, so when it later got turned back into its current day incarnation as a museum and working studio, it was a stroke of luck that the businesses that had occupied the space in the intervening years had not altered a single piece of the interior. It was some thought that Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and (a then unknown) Jerry Lee Lewis had jammed together in that very room 60 years ago.
After more than a 1,000 miles of driving, we finally reached Chicago. Its position as home of the blues was in evidence judging by its street buskers and we really enjoyed the water taxis that let you explore much of the city centre via its waterways. However, it was Ruth and her Mum’s turn to get out to some live music in the form of a musical. Which one you might ask? Chicago of course!
We need to have a voice
When I was a kid, I didn’t ‘get’ Johnny Cash, but the boys did. Maybe, just maybe, they could sense the authenticity of Cash’s music. Such voices are so dearly needed in a modern-day America awash with ignorance, misunderstanding and fakery.