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TRAVEL: Musical postcards from the U.S.A. – North and South Carolina and Tennessee, July 2015

©2015 Stefania Ianne – All rights reserved. Twitter @stillarte

Why do we travel? Too many people travel just to tick boxes and share pictures on social media. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Boring, and shallow. For other people there is an all-encompassing need to see, breathe the air, touch the water, feel the earth, learn. In my case, sometimes it is travel for the sake of travelling, with no must-see destination. Sometimes there is a musical theme to my trips. Sometimes there is the need to tell a story behind a journey. Visiting family and friends is always a good excuse to get out of your comfort zone and travel. Even better when  they live in another continent. This time the destination is North Carolina. Not the most obvious of destinations. Not many glossy brochures advertising North Carolina. I am a fan of getting to know the places I visit the hard way, like a local, living in their houses, shopping in their shops, living the quiet routine of daily chores. I’m not particularly interested in showy attractions and touristic spots.

You do not need to travel far in the U.S. to find the same lifestyle, the same houses, the same shopping malls, the same people in the same Range Rovers, the same fake whitened teeth and the same ambitions to spend their way through life and to show off. Consumerism hits you the minute you land: any state you go, the minute you walk down the street, the minute you switch TV on. It is interesting to observe the fake plastic lawns and the perfectly manicured people and places. At the bottom of it all there is a quiet despair, easy to miss if you believe the façade. If you manage to escape all this, you might enjoy travelling in the States, you might enjoy even living in the States. Forget about the plastic sheen and get dirty and simple. Navigating the States is as simple as navigating your own backyard. Most of it is well signposted, you really need to make an effort to get lost. North Carolina is the beginning of the South. History is written in the streets in the United States. In North Carolina, signs describing the civil war are everywhere. Signs telling the very recent and painful history of the struggle for civil rights hit you at every corner. Despite everything, segregation seems well alive and kicking. People stick to their social group and their ethnicity. There is no mingling, no melting pot, no exchange. I did not feel unwelcome – I am after all a potential customer – but I felt I did not belong there.

North and South Carolina

The ocean is cold as ice at Myrtle Beach, in South Carolina. Cape Fear surrounds you on all sides: the actual cape, the river, the basin. In the surrounding bay, thick with monumental gothic trees engulfed by Spanish moss, it feels like at any moment a psychotic Robert De Niro might overturn your car at every bend, in a Hawaiian shirt, no matter how reinforced your 4×4 is. The sun is high, the shadows are heavy, hundreds of kilometres of immaculate beaches are flanked by all-inclusive, family-friendly infinite resorts, all replicated, all offering unlimited stereotypical ‘fun’. Sidestepping the gaudy attractions, I take in the scenery to the East, ignoring the big colourful hotel boxes to the West, all organised in a long horizontal line with many vertical spikes to maximize the ‘room-with-ocean-view’ offer to justify the impossible prices. Unexpected platoons of brown pelicans scour the surface of the ocean for fish. They arrive as silent and massive as stealth bombers, intent on their task. Their amazing sight keeps catching me by surprise and their presence is the highlight of the weekend, together with the rickety-legged baby seagulls, also looking for food. Leaving the ominous shadows of the gothic trees behind, we turn inland. Our lazy Northern Carolinian evenings are enriched by two totally different musical experiences.

First, off to the state-of-the-art Manifold Recording Studio in Pittsboro, in the middle of nowhere. Located in the proximity of the Jordan Lake Natural Park, the presence of the studio is unknown to most, including the rangers in the park who work a few feet away. The excuse for us to go there is the recording of Chopin’s Préludes by well known pianist Kimiko Ishizaka. What makes the experience unique is that she is actually going to record on a Pleyel piano from the Kenan collection of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill that Chopin himself played and loved and which was built by the same person, Camille Pleyel, to whom the Préludes were dedicated. A philologically accurate performance and recording, then. The instrument, which had lay abandoned for years in a warehouse, has recently been restored to be as close as possible to its original sound. This is the last date of Ishizaka’s Chopin world tour and it will be recorded in high-definition audio and video to create a lasting archive of this precious instrument to be shared under a Creative Commons licence. The 1842 instrument is an ancestor of what we now call a piano: the keys are smaller and it feels heavier and clunky. The pianist really seems to need throwing all her weight on the keys to be able to create a natural, flowing sound. It is painful and slightly nerve-wracking to experience her struggle, but all the more rewarding knowing that this is how it may have felt to Chopin himself. The second event sees us in Carrboro, at the centre of one of the most glamorous university campuses in the U.S., the UNC campus. The venue is the Cat’s Cradle. The occasion is a concert by the magnificent Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (JSBX). It could not get more exciting than this. Jon Spencer himself exudes energy and charisma in equal measure. The venue is exploding, while the JSBX delight us with new pearls extracted from their latest release Freedom Tower interspersed with killer tracks from their back catalogue. This evening alone is worth my trip to North Carolina.

It is time to move from the research triangle of Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill towards the hippy West. While we approach the Appalachians, it feels like travelling back in time as well as moving to a higher ground level. The first city worth a detour from our planned trip on the Interstate Highway I40 is Asheville, a hippies’ nest of free spirits and independent artisanal shops. We welcome the total lack of the ubiquitous chain stores and feast our eyes on the colourful shop windows and people around the streets in this beautiful sunny evening. We establish our quarters in the cheapest-looking motel in town, the Mountaineer’s Inn, owned by an elderly gentleman of Russian lineage. His oversized coat makes us feel as if he is shrinking in front of our eyes while we exchange a surreal conversation including lions and spears. We hit the town for a gourmet dinner at Lulu’s, a welcome break from the plastic pre-packed food on offer everywhere in the American circus. Ever since hitting North Carolina, we have become aware of a new trend in the production of local bitters, which are all labelled with unlikely names and brewed in people’s back gardens. Waiters are always ready to recommend the local bestest and we can only follow their advice, given the excessive sweetness of the local wine. The evening is getting under way while the night falls, and from my window seat I can see a small crowd gather around a trio of improvised musicians under the improbable statue of a gigantic iron (yes, an iron to iron clothes) the size of King Kong. My eye wanders to follow a shape that looks very much like a pregnant man strolling by, when my attention is suddenly caught by a mobile acid green sofa, rolling fast on the pavement: a wheelsofa! An extremely comfortable substitute to your average mobility scooter or possibly wheelchair. While I ponder which of the two it could be, the sofa is already miles away, leaving behind a trail of bemused bystanders. In the meantime, the action has just started in the surrounding streets. Musicians have magically appeared at sunset and have scattered themselves at strategic corners in town. Every possible music  genre is covered, from techno to tribal through the ever-present all-pervasive country-folk extravaganza. People of all ages and shapes join in, under the attentive eye of the local police. On our way back to our motel, we see people chalk up their priorities on a mural dedicated to ‘must-do things before you die’, a cinema advertising free screenings on Tuesdays while a billboard announces a concert by Harry and The Potters.

The morning after, it is time to join the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) for a ride along the crest of the Appalachians. Spring is well behind on those mountains, and the dogwood trees reign supreme with their extraordinary simple and geometric white blooms. The ride is simultaneously awe-inspiring and distressing for the total lack of protection guard rail at the top of the mountains. This section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is particularly blue and particularly steep, as opposed to the lower, more gentle sections higher north. Still, it’s always a very pleasant journey into a nature unfettered and uncluttered by modern commodities and after the overload of billboards advertising weapons and gigantic plastic food – the “Y’all hungry?” slogan is unwillingly forever carved in my mind. The BRP can be closed without warning because of high winds or any sort of dangerous weather conditions and this is how our panoramic drive comes to an end. We are diverted out of the Blue Ridge Parkway for no apparent reason and down the steep side of the mountain, towards what proves to be the most spectacular of our drives in North Carolina. We need to find an alternative route to the Smoky Mountains, although the route we are currently on is wonderful, following the course of a river in a green valley scattered with isolated bungalows, a myriad of diverse constructions, all with a different story to tell.

On our way to Cherokee, the getaway to the Smoky Mountains National Park, we go through what looks like a small but fascinating city, the type of place that makes you want to stop or drive back 100 miles when you hit your destination. Then you suddenly realise it is just a strip of touristic stores where supposedly native Cherokees improvise a rain dance in their full costume in an effort to outdo each other and attract more people to their store. Basically, a touristic trap, selling nothing worth buying, overcast by the shadow of a humongous Casino, an unimpressive brown square building hosting a music venue where this evening Loretta Lynn will be singing to sold-out audiences. We quickly make our way into the park to leave ‘civilisation’ behind and drive on to the centre of the park, where North Carolina turns into Tennessee and the best view in the park reveals itself to us. Some panels on site explain that pollution hampers the clarity of the view and considerably reduces visibility. Still, the view in front of us is breathtaking. No wonder this site is so popular both with locals and tourists and the main observation points are crowded. We drive on, surrounded by mountains, green and water. The wildlife hides from the ubiquitous human presence. In the layered side of the mountain, profiles of slaves and Native Americans form in my mind as if sculpted in rocks. The water flowing constantly on the jugged edges seems to be crying out from the rocks. It’s a vivid and powerful picture of what is known as ‘The Trail of Tears’, the route where five Native American tribes, among which the Cherokee, were violently pushed West out of their own territories and into starvation and disease by European settlers following the Congress-approved ‘Indian Removal Act’ of 1830. Another tacky theme park welcomes us on the West side of the park in Tennessee. Huge billboards advertise the presence of Dollywood, the Graceland for Dolly Parton fans. The ghost of the country music queen follows us at dangerous proximity, but eventually eludes us. It’s a long drive back to Raleigh on the I40. We decide to call it a day.

Miami or Memphis?

For some inexplicable reason, my partner in crime, to everyone asking where we are heading to, would answer ‘Miami’, even to a hostess sat next to us on the first tiny plane to Charlotte. ‘Miami? Obviously you are on the wrong plane…’. It was Memphis. U.S. airports are more similar to coach or train stations. Never glamorous, often half-empty. And so is the airport in Memphis. The odd musical note in the background strengthens the music theme. Our accommodation is a room in a private house located in mid-town Memphis. We could not have landed a better spot. The house oozes history and kindness through its charming host, Sherry. The house is grand, the host welcoming and informative, the sun is shining. We feel privileged. We find our way to downtown in the late afternoon heat, welcomed and greeted by the locals enjoying a beer and chilling out on their front porches. We reach Beale Street. The party in Beale Street is in full swing. There is live music all around, people dancing with large smiles and even larger glasses containing fluorescent fluids to quench their thirst. The street has been decorated with stars to remind us that the history of modern music was made right here, in this street, a few steps away from the mighty Mississippi, the equivalent of Broadway in New York but in a version for the poor and the disenfranchised. Music was a dirty business once, raw and unmitigated. Memphis was a magnet. This is the place, in segregated America, where black musicians got signed, where their voices started to be heard, where white musicians built their careers on stealing from street music and labelling it blues, soul or rock’n’roll.

It is impossible to avoid Elvis in Memphis. Even if you deliberately try to stay away from the kitsch grandiosity of Graceland, you can’t. Elvis is everywhere. From souvenir shops to the golden statue in Beale Street, Elvis is a business and the main tourist attraction in Memphis. I’m  not sure what impressed me most in Memphis. Elvis’s microphone and cow hide acoustic guitar case held at Sun Studios? The WHBQ Radio Studios inside the Chisca Hotel that launched his career? The red rose and anonymous ‘thank you’ note left next to an intense portrait of Johnny Cash at Sun Studios? The mighty, silent, shiny, deadly Mississippi? The preacher in a tuxedo on Beale Street? The Cinderella pumpkin carriage coaxing tourists in the street? The aristocratic white dog posing on a seat in one of those carriages? The Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King was shot on 4th April 1968, now transformed into a National Civic Rights Museum? The Ernest C. Withers Gallery displaying pictures of the Civil Rights Movement? The smile of the pianist at the Peabody Hotel who improvised Yesterday for me when I mentioned I was visiting from the U.K.? The anger of the protester outside the Lorraine Hotel accusing local authorities of exploiting the legacy of MLK? The ‘I Am A Man’ mural painting that portrays the sanitation workers’ strike on the eve of MLK’s assassination? Too many to choose from. While in Memphis, I had to remind myself several times that the United States were racially segregated when these facts were happening. The starkness of the reconstructed MLK room at the segregated Lorraine Hotel was a powerful reminder. Memphis is a city of contradictions, frozen in the past and struggling to get modern. The creative musical past is kept alive mostly by the numerous tourist attractions. Large sections of the city look post-industrial and abandoned, despite the large crowds expected for the Beale Street Music Festival happening during the weekend of my visit. Something that must not be missed in the festival overload, given the special location, is the park flanking the banks of the Mississippi. The weather is glorious, a large group of bible bashers loudly tries to stop us from ‘entering the gates of evil’ while we approach the northern entrance of the festival. Unfortunately for them, though, the devil has the best tunes, so we pay no mind and proceed to enjoy vast amounts of live music and beer. We find ourselves on a plane back far too soon. The southern charm of Memphis is in our veins, and we are ready to go back any time.

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