introducing readers to writers since 1995

February 27, 2005

Guest Author: Cynthia Shearer

by Ron Hogan

shearer.jpgThe press kit for Cynthia Shearer's second novel, The Celestial Jukebox, had a lengthy playlist identifying albums Shearer cited as influential in shaping her story of the polyglot immigrant culture in the contemporary Mississippi Delta. Some of her tracks were by musicians I'd already discovered and loved, like Othar Turner, the "Mississippi Master of the Fife"; some I'd been meaning to track down, like the Louvin Brothers; some were completely foreign but quickly went on my search list. I wanted to hear more about how Shearer, the former curator of Faulkner's home at Rowan Oak, fell in love with this music, and she kindly filled in the backstory with this essay.

Stocking the Celestial Jukebox
by Cynthia Shearer

I do not play any musical instrument, unless spoons count. So my instrument of choice has always been the English language. When I was growing up in an isolated part of South Georgia in the 1960s and 1970s, I had to rely on local truckstop jukeboxes and hand-me-downs from my hippie radical draft-resistance counselor of a brother for shaping of my musical tastes. In addition, I had an itinerant retired military man for a father, who was always quoting 1930s songs to me or showing up at my apartment at college, Stevie Wonder album in hand, saying, "You gotta hear this." I've learned over my lifetime that when certain people say, "You gotta hear this," it's best to hear it, whether it's Tibetan monks chanting, or Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies singing the vintage, original version of "Keep On Truckin'" in Texas. I'm still, at this late date, always on the lookout for something new and odd to listen to. The Celestial Jukebox is a love letter to all musicians from any epoch or place, regardless of how they might register on Sony's Richter scale. I have a deep love and respect for certain semi-literate black bluesmen in Mississippi, both living and dead: Othar Turner, fife and drum player from Gravel Springs; Joe Callicott; Bukka White; Howlin' Wolf; Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside of Holly Springs; The Rev. Gary Davis; The Rev. Robert Willkins; and Willie Eason of the Jewel Dominion Church in Crescent, City Florida, and his inimitable lap steel.
They didn't get the big hype that Robert Johnson does, but these were my masters--oddly enough during the years I was employed as the curator of Faulkner's house--and I happily apprenticed myself to their art, which consisted of locating lost chords of joy, or even creating them ex nihilo. I wanted to learn to write English words the way these guys could play trance music. I learned to watch gas stations in Mississippi on Sunday mornings, and to follow any van I saw towing a little trailer full of guitars and amps. Sooner or later, they were going to set up in some little church in a cottonfield or pine forest, and there would be trance music of the sort that will never, never, ever be heard anywhere in any studio. The Sons of Wonder from Friar's Point. The Forrest Brothers. The Mighty Stars of Harmony. The Spiritual Q.C's. They worked at post-offices or sawmills or farmed during the week; they played music for the sheer joy of it on weekends. As Joni Mitchell wrote, they "played real good, for free."

As people realized I was seriously into the music, they began to give me stuff, as if to say "You gotta hear this." Charles Simic made me a tape of blues music that helped me see what happened to the blues once it traveled upriver from Mississippi to Chicago. (It got happier, and turned into that wild stuff known as "jump" blues.) A friend in Oxford, an ACLU lawyer named Tom Freeland, gave me the run of his considerable music library, and let me be on an internet list of music writers from all over the world. Also on that list was Pat Conte, record collector and originator of WFMU's radio show Secret Museum of the Air with Citizen Kafka. When WFMU was suddenly accessible to me online and I could hear someone like Laura Cantrell quietly doing her astounding vintage country music show--man, I felt like I had connected to the real and holy church of all musical utterance, the real celestial jukebox, on whose playlist all are welcome irrespective of market demographics and the pleasures of beancounters in Armani suits.

I was in the midst of writing the novel in 1999 when I found out there were many Africans immigrating to the Mississippi Delta. "Oh, God," was my first thought. "I want to be there when they start going into the juke joints and making music with the American blacks." Suddenly there was this fifteen-year-old African kid in my book, and he was a natural, and he was staring with reverence in a Delta pawnshop window at this old National Steel guitar that had been discarded by an American kid because it wasn't as cool as a Fender Stratocaster. But it was the kind with steel cone resonators, like the kind they designed for Sol Hoopii, the Hawaiian lap steel master who chucked all his fame in 1938 to go play in Aimee Semple MacPherson's church. The story took off from there. That part of the story landed me an NEA fellowship in 2000; Josip Novakovich read some of it, mistook me for an African man, and wanted to include that part in an anthology of immigrant fiction. He was amused to find out I was a middle-aged white lady from Mississippi, but I was delighted to have been mistaken for my African kid. And I also knew I was on the right track when Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars trucked in some Senegalese kora players from Minnesota or somewhere to play with Othar Turner and his fife and drum band, and the results sounded like a celestial family reunion.

I ran across these words in an exhibit on Senegal, in Chicago, from the ancient Islamic poet Bani of Dakar:

You may have gold
Or you may have silver,
But you may not love yourself
That is the way of God.
You did nothing to deserve it.

The book is long since finished, but I still lie awake at night, wondering why those words couldn't have set someone like Kurt Cobain free from his slavery, like they set me free of mine.

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