Friday, May 18, 2007

Two Kings

In the fall of 1955, I was a twelve-year-old seventh grader attending junior high in Montgomery, Alabama. The Bus Boycott was still several months off; Martin Luther King was just some unknown local preacher.

Life was torpid and turgid, ass-deep in the Eisenhour Era. Rock 'n roll, as far as anyone knew, hadn't even been born yet (though The Blackboard Jungle was bending a few minds); it was the Rosemary Clooneys and Eddie Fishers and Hilltoppers-types who still sold most of the records, with 78's slowly bowing before the onslaught of 45 r.p.m.

Cold War or not, the U.S. then, in retrospect at least, seemed as innocent as me, chubby Northern boy in a strange and steamy Southern city (rendered tongue-tied by the nubile, amazingly sophisticated, young belles-to-be). But even Montgomery in those days still meant Jefferson Davis rather than George Wallace.

Fortuitously, however, and without me having to put forth any effort at all, I was also experiencing and absorbing, pretty much at first hand, the laborious birth of rock 'n roll. The memory plays tricks, of course, but I'm fairly certain that during that miraculous year in Alabama I heard Fats Domino and Little Richard for the first time, as well as Ray Charles, Bill Haley, The Platters, Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knocking," Nervous Norvus croaking "Transfusion," plus several songs by "the late and great" Hank Williams (another Montgomery boy).

And, on Sun Records of Memphis, a suddenly-rising young c&w singer with a distinctly "black" sound, Elvis Presley--"That's All Right," "I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone," "Mystery Train"; big brash beat, fuzzy, echoing sound, Scotty Moore chords and all. The Sun was shining for sure--the radio seemed to hum with power when Presley (and a few others) played. And when he showed up on TV in January? Man--boy, rather--I was gone.

Within a year, Elvis was the King: an instantaneous national, and international, monument to the rock 'n roll explosion. But in Montgomery another King was rising...

An exhausted, hard-working woman, fed up with segregation's rule that put all black people at the back of the bus, decided to sit up front instead. Suddenly, all of the black people in Montgomery and the surrounding area were refusing to go to the back, and then refusing to ride those damn buses at all. The streets and roads were full of folks walking to get to their jobs, to buy their groceries, to go to the doctor or whatever.

And a local preacher named after the man who nailed those 99 codicils to the door in Germany was organizing and then taking over the movement. Rosa Lee Park's spontaneous action had become The Montgomery Bus Boycott, and white people all across the South and the rest of America were suddenly worried or interested, some even galvanized, paying close attention to the man in the spotlight, Martin Luther King.

(As a sidebar to this--see the photo above right--anyone who loves music, anyone who cares at all about this heartbreaking world we've created, needs to own the new Mavis Staples CD, We'll Never Turn Back, her resurrection of the Civil Rights era and its heartfelt, soul-rich, hold-fast music. Some of the best singing she's ever done, and that would be sayin' somethin'. And the CD has been given a harder-edge sound courtesy of brilliant producer and slide guitar master Ry Cooder--their collaboration a match made in heaven but meant to be heard here on earth!)

In King's city, meanwhile, some white people of good will, whether truly caring or merely acting for their own reasons, were helping the proud black walkers get to their destinations--meaning cars actually integrated, whites and blacks riding together, for however brief a time. My parents too gave rides to some folks, and so for four decades I carried around this hopeful memory that placed them squarely in the shining light of the anti-segregation efforts, what would soon become the Civil Rights Movement.

Sadly, my mother had a different explanation for what they had done; as she told me in the late Nineties when I finally asked about those shared rides, "Oh, we were just helping the maids and gardeners get to work; we couldn't do without them, of course."

So much for personal heroism, much less good will. I should have known, really; I'd seen the Southern attitudes in Georgia and in Montgomery, that strange mixture of closeness and disdain, paternalism and separation, and I was trying to sort it all out, even in seventh grade. Years later, I heard comedian Dick Gregory's cynical but precise description and recognized it for truth: "Down South they don't care how close you get, just so you don't get too big. Up North they don't care how big you get, just so you don't get too close."

We moved on from Montgomery in mid-1956, and the two Kings moved on as well, each to his own major role in our cultural and social history and each to his tragic destiny too (or was Elvis's just pathetic?).

Looking back, some years ago, I tried to put my seventh grade year into a poem, and here's what I came up with:

Et in Alabama Ego

"Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery":
John Prine warbled that, long after I’d gone and fled
For good. Nearing thirteen then, I’d nary
A clue compared to junior high’s Rebel debs--
Southern belles whose soft angora’ed
Shapes could stop a Crimson Tide,
Or breed an Auburn horde:
Dana Jo, Jewel, and languid Lenore
Running the ’55 fast lane
While Bigger girls Rita and Bonnie Gay
Coyly maintained their country-club ways.

Eddie-come-never, I was plain dazed
By training bras and formal drags,
Tri-Hi-Y functions and making out. Chubby outcast
In baggy pants, I’d more to do with j.d. trash
Like Bubba Beauchamp ("Beech-um," he’d snarl,
All snaggle-toothed sneer and coonass-mean,
Battered by him twice for not crying "Uncle!")
Or strong-arm Johnny, our own James Dean,
Determined to train me for future rumbles.

The "sosh" scene kids scared me worse,
Filled with their ‘Bama-style rage
At most things black: Negroes called spear-
Chuck and jungle bunny; boys my age
Gone nig’-knockin’. "You ain’t a man
Till you’ve dipped your pen in ink," they’d brag.
"And me with a pencil," I’d mumble--
Small-time loser at Deep South love and hate.

Was Wallace the governor yet? I disremember.
Hank Williams’ Caddy still lay in state downtown,
While a few whites gave rides to boycotters
Trudging by. Though two Kings rocked
The Confederacy’s cradle, I trucked
With Dixie dreams, Old Jeff’s unhurried curse.