A Tale Of Two Stairways

Past, Present, Faulkner

May 24, 2019 in El Turista,SOUTHERN JOURNAL,Southwest,U. S. Politics | Comments (0)


“My fellow citizens,” Abraham Lincoln said, addressing Congress in December 1863. “We cannot escape history.” The sentiment and, “The past never dies. It is not even past,”  a line from William Faulkner that has been elevated by quote pickers to the status of an aphorism about the South, hummed like a soundtrack in my mind as we (my daughter and I) discovered the state of Mississippi. Don’t forget slavery, the bluesy background kept repeating. Don’t forget the violence of the 1960’s. 

She was not even born then, but I did not have to tell her about Mississippi Burning: the KKK at night, the exonerated murders of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner. The endless anniversaries attract the media. They become news, affordable to produce from the archives. Not even the past.

We went to Natchez because I wanted to drive some of the Natchez Trace Parkway that goes 444 miles to Nashville and look for signs of the original wagon road. I like historic trails. Old spirits follow them, and you can find things. In arid northern New Mexico I have seen 150-year-old wagon tracks from the Old Santa Fe Trail and found a rusty spur.



My Fellow Americans. . .

November 9, 2016 in SOUTHERN JOURNAL,U. S. Politics | Comments (2)

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By Larry Joseph Calloway ©

 The networks were so unprepared for Donald Trump’s win that my election night switching caught only one panelist who could speak with authority for the key voters euphemistically called “white – no college degree.”  He was J. D. Vance, the black-haired concise-speaking author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” an immediately personal story of his poor and violent family from Appalachian Kentucky.

I was reading it in October along with another pre-election bestseller, the radical history “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg. These books are cultural not political, but they explain something about the “populist uprising,” as Vance termed it in an interview while adding that Trump understood the anger behind it but offered no solutions.

Apart from politics, my research represented an obsession with my father’s hardwood Appalachian roots. He was always wanting something far away. His sisters talked of North Carolina when we visited their farms near Lyons, CO. They were pretty and spoke in sweet accents. My father drank. He died. I was about to set the periodic ancestry project aside when, suddenly, up popped an email from a total stranger in Longmont, Colorado. I’ll get to the deep synchronicity* of it in a few minutes.

Writer-lawyer Vance’s family moved from Jackson, KT, to Middleton, in southern Ohio, so his grandfather could work in the Armco steel mill. It rusts away now under a Japanese name. His grandfather died as an out-of-work alcoholic. His mother, pregnant at high school graduation with his older brother, was more in love with drugs than any of her half dozen husbands.

His elegy is for his grandmother, who raised him. She was a heroic exemplar of the lost mountain culture of pride and toughness. She disciplined him relentlessly to pursue self-improvement through education and even, among other folksy wisdoms, learning golf because “that’s where rich people do business.” (Trump is an international developer of golf courses.)

Mamaw, as he called her, represents the culture lost when the families of several generations were uprooted by economics and dropped dead by economics. “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” as my father used to say. I had his brother-in-law minister, a chaplain of the Arizona National Guard, read it at his graveside ceremony. Vance does not mention churchgoing in Middleton, but I suppose religion was a part of the lost culture because in every North Carolina hollow where I searched for Calloways there was a church — usually Baptist — often looking forsaken. Vance observes out of nowhere, “I wasn’t surprised that Mormon Utah — with its strong church, integrated communities, and intact families — wiped the floor with Rust Belt Ohio.”


The Grass and God in America

Part 1, New Mexico and Oklahoma

October 28, 2014 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

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As we, Patricia and I, began our drive in a Murano loaded with camping gear on a southern route from Crestone to Washington D.C. we established an informal division of blog labor, a reversal of occupational roles. She would be the journalist. I would be the judge. She would tell stories and keep track of things. I would hand down opinions. Soon I wanted to trade jobs because while she could enjoy the ride and report on whatever came down the pike, I would have to think.





I did not want to think about politics — the CNN audio on Sirius radio was all about “government shutdown” and “default.” I did not want to think about, on the other hand, the sad lot of ordinary rural Americans suffering out of sight of the politicians. After some judicial deliberation I chose another category of human behavior to observe and judge: namely, religion. After all, we were driving through the American bible belt. Pat liked this and suggested that on Sundays we should stop and go to church, especially to mega-church if we found one.

So, here we go. Let me first of all define religion so that we will not be detained along the way with argument. (more…)

A Hunger In The Land

Part Two, Oklahoma and The Cherokee Nation

October 28, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (5)

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At a restaurant called EAT in neon letters three feet high I ordered chicken fried steak and gravy, which is the essence of the official Oklahoma State Meal, created by the legislature in 1988 to promote beef and other agricultural derivatives including corn bread and pecan pie. EAT was crowded, and many of the noon customers were voluminous. There is no famine in this land (Gen 26: 1).

Not at least the sort of famine that drove Abraham and then Jacob and his sons into Egypt, where God saved them. The biblical stories of manna from heaven and the miracle of the loaves and fishes require you to suspend disbelief. But what if the famine and the salvation were allegories? Abandoning their God and going down to Egypt, worshiping “the idols of Egypt,” the people were at last brought back, spiritually. Estrangement, being a stranger in a strange land, is the greatest suffering. That is why the prophets and some of the Psalms lament Babylon. Dwelling in exile, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel admonished, brings estrangement from God. Which is to say: Religion is cultural. Suppress it and a way of life declines and dies. It’s in the Book!

How then could Christians ignore these profound themes of the Pentateuch? How could they not know the evil of exiling a people? In Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a set of dioramas at the Cherokee Heritage Center, we saw the tragedy of exile. In the 1830‘s the Cherokee people in the American southeast were dispossessed. Their remarkable acculturation — a high rate of literacy, adoption of constitutional government — did not save them from depredation by frontier Americans under protection of southern politicians. They, men-women-children, were rounded up by the hundreds and marched a thousand miles by U.S. soldiers. The tragedy is now called “The Trail of Tears.” Those who survived were settled here, in “Indian Country.” What remained of their traditions was suppressed. Their children were educated in places like the girl’s school that once stood on these grounds. (more…)

The Music Everybody Knows

Part 3, The Ozarks and New Orleans


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Because much of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is federal, all the campgrounds were closed, so we found ourselves checking-in at the Dogwood Motel in Mountainview (pop. c. 3000). The young man at the desk recommended a catfish restaurant and the Ozark Culture Center north of town.

Catfish needs no definition. Even anthropologists argue endlessly about culture, but at the proud little state park culture is about music and storytelling and broom making and copper annealing and dress making and wood carving and wool carding and weaving and cigar-box guitars and letter-press printing and quilting. You go from studio to studio where exhibitors show how things were done, as musicians in a pavilion outside sing old-timey songs. Bill Clinton visits here often, they say.

P1000630The printer caught my interest, the quilter, Pat’s. I was reminded how much work it took to hand-set type and justify it and make the impressions right. A printer apprenticeship was five years. The foot-treadle press must have been satisfying work because the printer, not the machinery, was in control of the speed and the paper feeding. The quilter showed Pat how to design and sew a “log cabin” patch, a square that has dark colors in one corner giving way to light colors in the opposite corner — like the cold side and the fire side of a log cabin.



Going In Peace

Part 4, the Natchez Trace


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Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation. Early one morning in Hanoi he took a long line of us walking — slow and mindful, step by step, breath by breath — against the rush-hour torrent of 125 cc motor scooters, as government agents, no doubt, watched.  I am wondering how walking meditation would go over in the small towns of the American South, if I tried it.

The region is mostly Protestant and about one-third Southern Baptist. Our drive through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee on backroads left the impression that another third of the people attend non-denominational churches distinguished from each other by catchy themes. We noted signs proclaiming: Church of Divine Intervention,  Abundant Life Church, Life Changing Ministries, Free Will Baptist Church, The People’s Church and Baptist Ministry churches of New Zion, Old Jerusalem and New Hope of the Brethren.

I imagined many of these were solitary creations of men like Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle.” Take, for example, Jehovah Java in Lake Providence, LA. It is an excellent espresso coffee shop in a Starbuckless world, and it is part of a non-denominational church. It was created by a minister and his wife who love the Bean and the Lord. (more…)

Family In A Perfect World

Part 5, A North Carolina Holler


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Appalachian “hollers” (hollows) are perfect little worlds, or used to be. They provided everything a large family needed: timber, firewood and game from the surrounding mountains, grazing on the descending  slopes, farming in the fertile bottom lands, and even fish in the streams. And in almost every holler was a church and a cemetery next to it. The people were Baptists. They baptized in the water — total immersion. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side were from the Appalachia’s of western North Carolina,  near Mars Hill, which now is a picturesque little college town.

The college was started by the Southern Baptist Convention, but in recent years it has turned to other sources for funding. The region is diversifying. Many of the rural churches look abandoned. They are eclipsed by McMansions on the hills. In one of these land coves north of Asheville, half way between the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, we found Calloway Road.

I knocked on the door of a modular home, arousing a large dog inside. A pretty woman about the age of my daughters hushed the dog and came to the door holding a soft warm cookie with a bite gone. I told her my father’s people came from around there. She listened carefully. I smiled. Finally, she said, “I’m a Calloway. Would you like a pumpkin cookie?” She left and returned with two in a Ziplock bag. Pat and I ate them later. They were spicy with flecks of dark chocolate but not too sweet.

Amanda took us down the hill to meet her mother and father, Charles and Linda (same names as my parents), a greying couple who were at work in their farmyard. They were stacking boards for a communal barn raising set for that weekend. They had a pet mule, some goats, a few beef cattle, a young border collie and a garden. There were other acreages nearby, and Charles affirmed most of the neighbors were family. His grandfather, of the same generation as mine and perhaps from the same river drainage north of there, bought the cove about 100 years ago. He lived into his 90‘s and raised a self-reliant family.

Linda, Amanda, Charles

Linda, Amanda, Charles


Free At Last In Washington

Part 6, the capitol grouds


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P1000985 - Version 2In a time of militant religiosity, when “God Bless America” is the standard ending of most political speeches, it was encouraging to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington’s newest. There is no “God” in the 14 quotations approved by his family to be cut in white stone.  How do you explain a memorial to a powerful minister that does not mention God? Certainly he was not Godless, this man of peace, liberation and non-violence. Suddenly it occurred to me that the divine presence there on the edge of the Tidal Basin on the nation’s spacious capitol grounds is universal Humanity.

One quote of the Rev. Dr. King says:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. . . “

No, the absence of the word God there requires no apology. Rather, the quivering politicians should be asked to explain their use — and I mean use — of God.  The slogan “God bless America” was invented during a time of war with God on our side. It is a declaration of patriotism, even an implicit directive to those who do not fear the Old Testament God. (more…)

Why I Love Black Walnuts

First Posted June 2006

October 27, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

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When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.


Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.


A family tree!


Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!


Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . .  (more…)