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[Editors’ Note: Over the coming months CounterPunch is proud to present installments from David Vest’s memoir Rebel Angel, the chronicle of how an Alabama boy became a poet, a rocker, and a political radical, with stops in Romania, academia and the inner sanctums of Big Oil along the way. Enjoy the ride..–JSC/AC]
By night I ride to and from the gig in a Bluesmobile with over 220,000 miles on it. The car cost me 32 cents a pound, not counting the clutch I replaced. The four passengers include an alcoholic, a former crack dealer, a convicted killer, a poet, an ex-Moonie, a guy who played with Iron Butterfly for a couple of years, a bank collections agent, a Fulbright Scholar, a speech writer for a big oil company, a motorcycle enthusiast who rides a lot of funeral escort, a Vanderbilt <Ph.D>., a corporate sales rep and a CounterPunch columnist. These are The Cannonballs. If you walked into a club where they were playing, you might hear Dylan’s unreleased song “Julius and Ethel,” an acapella Blind Boys-style version of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” or a song no one, including the band, has ever heard before. Or you might not.
Mostly I play piano, sometimes mandolin if I’m in the mood. I like to play the two-fisted Gulf Coast barrel house boogie style I learned by direct laying on of hands from piano players like Big Walter the Thunderbird, Katie Webster and Floyd Dixon.
By day I scribble, mainly. Some days I mount the public platform and “view with alarm,” in the fond hope that I will end up with fewer opinions.
I am descended from a line of rebel angels (my great-great-grandfather enlisted in the Confederate Army at 16 just in time to fight at Chickamauga the following day). My own rebellion began at the piano and spilled over into my life, far too slowly for my own good. I was a secret sympathizer far too long, a secret agent for nothing in particular. My heart was in the right place, but I couldn’t always find it.
How did a white southern male, descended from Confederates and slave owners, baptized at thirteen by total immersion, end up a radical — escaping not only patriarchal fundamentalism but even the slough of southern liberalism, into which, as the cousin of Adlai Stevenson’s running mate (John Sparkman) he should rightly have disappeared? How long did they have to knock to wake him up? What did it take? And what does any of it have to do with the blues?
Tonight I’ll be singing, “Lawd lawd lawdy Miss Clawdy, you just don’t treat me right, you like to ball till the morning then you stay gone late at night.” I have sung that song in six different decades now. I have sung it from Birmingham to Bucharest. I have sung it when I should have been at home.
But it’s the nights I didn’t sing it, the nights I did stay home, that I regret.
Today I’m sitting under the wych elm tree, drinking the last of my Russian Caravan tea, more sorry for the harm I haven’t done than the other. I’m able to make a living doing nothing I don’t love to do, namely making music and writing words. I do not remember not wanting to do them. As far as I can tell, I could always play the piano and I could always write. I decided some time ago that this is how I would live, by my gifts, doing what I felt I was meant to do. I resolved to get up every day and work whether I had any paid work to do or not. I vowed to support myself at whatever level my music and my writing would bring in, and to give it away when I couldn’t sell it. I haven’t had a boring day since.
That’s my advice: quit that job. Jump! I’m sorry I ever did anything else, to tell the truth, although it wouldn’t leave me with much of a story to tell if I hadn’t. (Before following my advice, you might want to read ahead and find out where following it got me!)
Show me someone whose life is not an appalling sequence of betrayals — of friends, lovers, mentors, institutions, principles and above all self.
And yet, looking back, wouldn’t we think more highly of ourselves if we’d betrayed some of them a little earlier?
Early in life I might have heard a voice crying in the wilderness. It was the voice of John Lee Hooker, a life-guide as good as any other. In my childhood he went about the South, driving at night and dodging “ghostses in the road” to sing his great songs of liberation, like this one, an anti-credo more powerful than anything ever nailed to a door:
Ain’t no heaven
Ain’t no burning hell
When I die
Where I go
Don’t nobody know
Can’t nobody tell
Take that, Emily Dickinson. For me, the great American song is not “I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” or “Stardust” or even “Blowin’ in the Wind,” great as they all are. It is “Burnin’ Hell,” by John Lee Hooker. The fact that it is virtually unsingable by anyone else, that no glee club could ever hope to hum it, that its intractable individuality does not lend itself to any kind of communal expression — all the more reason to admire it.
There was a disc jockey at a radio station in my home town who would give me records, stuff the station didn’t intend to play. I left there one night with a handful of John Lee singles.
The next time you turn on the TV and find yourself greeted by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts, Mother Angelica or Osama bin Laden, recite John Lee at them. Next time you’re telling the worry beads, call on Saint John Lee, I declare he will see you through. (“Blues the healer — it heal me, it can heal you too.”)
“Get in the water or get off the diving board,” I hear an old P.E. coach say, moonlighting as my editor. Let’s get it on, then.
My father’s family was more or less Methodist, if that is not a redundancy. His great-grandfather, who looks remarkably like me in his portrait, had built something called the Old Vest Mission in Oak Ridge, Alabama, near the Flint River, where the Vest family had settled shortly after the defeat of the Creek Nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend opened up the territory. Some of the Vests came from Georgia in a covered wagon, others rode down from Tennessee on the Bump-Ass Trail. At the Vest Mission circuit-riding ministers preached to free and slave alike. The free people sang about going to heaven when they died. The enslaved people sang about about killing their oppressors and escaping to freedom. They were singing the same songs, of course. White people said you could walk by that way at night and hear the ghost of a slave baby crying.
I saw the Old Vest Mission for the first time in about 1991, a year or so before it finally gave up its ghost and collapsed into the overgrown field where it sagged and rotted. I don’t know who owns the land now. The family lost it after the Civil War. Some of them wound up living as sharecroppers and tenant farmers on the same acreage. By the time my father Wilburn Ester Vest was born the family was flat-out poor, like almost everyone else in the area, yet haunted by stories of lost wealth and position. Wilburn’s grandmother, born in Texas, was later said to be the direct heir of the original owner of the land from which the Spindletop oil field gushed forth. That I was theoretically one of the richest people ever to have lived has amused me in an idle hour.
Wilburn’s mother was one-quarter Cherokee. Both she and her father were Native American in appearance. The family did not talk about it much; inter-marrying with Indians had not improved their social standing. Yet my grandmother Vest did tell me that her full-blooded grandmother took her into the forest, taught her the names of plants, and showed her how to have visions. Once in a dream she came to me and revealed that I had once been a character named Crazy Ghost, who liked to hide behind trees and make everyone pretend he was invisible. Evidently she also paid attention to the plant lectures: she had a legendary green thumb and could have fed an entire neighborhood from her back yard garden. Her husband, Connie Ester Vest, was happy to get a low-paying job in a factory, preferring to go to work early every morning in his coveralls, with a dried knout of tobacco (called a “Mickey Twist”) in his back pocket, than to walk another mile behind a mule. If he did you a favor, and you remembered to thank him, he’d say something like, “Hit wont no trouble. Glad I could hope ye out.”
My mother’s people regarded all this talk of Indians and Texas as faintly barbaric (they were townspeople, eternally grateful to have nothing to do with mules and Mickey Twists). Her parents were lapsed Catholic and Southern Baptist, with Nazarene tendencies. My maternal grandmother, whose name was Ora Bell Ryland, was an unusual woman in that she applied the strictest religious principles to herself but not to others. In her mind, the commandments were a set of instructions for her to follow, not a scorecard to keep track of other people. A less judgmental human being I have not encountered since her death in 1956 at the age of 54. She wore no make-up, never cut her hair, and attended no movies, not even The Ten Commandments or King of Kings. Yet she was friends with hard-drinking Lesbians, freely welcomed all the neighborhood bad boys into her kitchen because she liked them and never claimed to know what anyone else needed to do. She might not enter a movie theater herself out of her desire to avoid “graven images,” but she was quick with a quarter when there was a Rocky Lane western or Randolph Scott picture I wanted to see. If the French are a “think Left, live Right” race of people, Ora Bell was “think Right, live Left” at its finest.
A great beauty in her youth, she had been aged prematurely by heart trouble. She appears to be well past eighty in photos taken in her early fifties.
She married an alcoholic Scots-Irish Catholic she had met at a semipro baseball game at a time when both of them were married to other people. James Oscar Curnutt, a short, wiry line-drive hitting first baseman with a wife and a couple of children, noticed her in the stands and stole her away from one William O’Connell. This duty-bound woman who had been the primary caregiver for a host of younger siblings before her first marriage threw duty to the wind and leapt toward love when she found it. Neither of them ever looked back.
It was J.O. who later bought me my first typewriter and a stack of newsprint cut up into 8 x 10 sheets and told me to get to writing.
And it was Ora Bell who gave me my first piano, paying $50 she had earned working in a Kress store for an old H. P. Nelson upright so heavy it almost fell through the front porch when they brought it to the house.
Ora Bell possessed a great voice, sounding a bit like an Appalachian Judy Collins. She was the star of her church choir but seldom attended because J.O. wouldn’t go and she couldn’t endure to hear him criticized, patronized or prayed over. Her favorite song was “the Old Rugged Cross,” but she played jazz and boogie-woogie records for me.
She bore three children, my mother Mildred (born in Selma, Alabama) and two doomed sons. One of them, Jerry, died at seven months. J.O. had taken Ora Bell down to Tuscaloosa to give birth because her sister’s brother worked at a foundry and had access to a company doctor in the Depression years. It was all to little avail. Was malnutrition the cause of death?
The other boy, Robert, was her golden child. A gifted athlete, he scored the winning touchdown in a championship high school football game about three weeks after I was born. The following Monday, only 18 and to all appearances in the full bloom of health, he collapsed and died at a pickup basketball game across the street from our rented house in West Huntsville. Now she had lost both sons.
My father came home from basic infantry training, as he had done when I was born, to attend the funeral, then shipped out again. A few months later he would land at Omaha Beach and promptly disappear, missing in action, presumed dead.
An inauspicious but not uncharacteristic beginning for a child born on November 2, the Day, after all, of the Dead.
* * *
Tracing My Name
(first published in Antaeus, 1977)
Impossible is but the faith of fear. — Fulke Greville
Long back, in the waning of childhood, waxing of absence,
Sometimes at the foot of the stairs or, at dusk, in the boxwoods,
And once in the dark garage, emptied of coal dust, or
At night in the plate glass window of the feed store
Next to my house, which had to be passed, and once,
I swear this is true, at a tomb,
A mausoleum, returning my foolish gaze
Through stained-glass windows, something looked at me.
It had my grandfather’s eyes, and the light brown hair
My grandmother wore in braids (when she let it down
It reached to the back of her knees). And I could tell
The roots of my family line were lining its lightless
Veins to finger the breath it could not draw.
Setting fire to the neighborhood failed,
I realize now, and not just because it rained,
For it sat on the smoldering fences and studied me
For all the world as if it intended to learn
My name (which was not the name I go by now).
Though people have looked at me as if I possessed
The kind of warped mind that could have invented this story,
And doctors have claimed they can’t find anything wrong,
And if, to be truthful about it,
I’ve sometimes pretended the whole thing never happened,
Especially when mistaken for someone else,
Something like the faith of fear, and the precious
Immunity to sophistication, passed down
Through succeeding generations like a Bible,
Sustain me, in spite of my sense of ridicule,
To keep this image relatively pure —
Though angels in love with death
And people from unknown countries have offered me money
To write it down as if it had happened to them.
David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs. You can purchase a copy of The Cannonballs’ new CD from CounterPunch by clicking here.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com