Among the Canned Preserves—Clark Humphrey
How it all happened is very easy to explain. My fiancee heard there was this mom and pop butcher shop way out in the countryside that was supposed to sell only the best, organic, free range meats, all from local farmers. She’s big on that sort of thing, you know? She’s becoming a standard issue Real Housewife of Seattle via Chicago, I told her in the car. She giggled politely.
That was just about the last “normal” moment we had that Saturday. Within minutes, we had to turn on to a detour route off of the main road. Turned out that the big landslide from weeks before still hadn’t been fully cleaned up, even though she’d said it had to have been by then. No, I didn’t tell her she was wrong. At least not verbally. I’m trying to learn all the little compromises you have to make for your marriage, like my father used to tell me.
Besides, the next several mistakes were all mine. I took one wrong turn after another. Then I thought to follow a line of cars I saw on a road that crossed the road we were on. It was slower than slow, but at least following the crowd would lead us SOMEWHERE.
Which it did. To a long dirt driveway in a grassy field, where dozens of cars were already parked.
Each of the drivers ahead of us was stopped at the end of the driveway by a chubby white guy in a windbreaker carrying a clipboard. He took money from each of them, then told them where to park. But when it was our turn, he didn’t ask us to pay. Instead he gave us directions to a different parking area and told us to meet “Jimmy at the back gate.”
The back gate turned out to be in back of a temporary outdoor stage, bedecked with amps and instruments and mic stands. Jimmy at the back gate turned out to be another chubby white guy in a windbreaker, but younger. Instead of a clipboard, he carried an iPad, with a wireless headset attached to it. He walked up to us as we pulled up in the Sentra. I had to explain to him two or three times, over some loud quasi-heavy-metal music on a PA, that we weren’t in any band, we weren’t performing, we weren’t even performers. He let us stay; didn’t even ask us to pay.
We got out of the car and finally learned where we were.
We were in hell. Or at least in purgatory, if my late father’s church had believed in purgatory.
The name of this particular Demi-Hades: the Sylvana Blues Festival.
Led by my fiancée, we walked across the grassy flat space beneath the late summer sky. Everywhere we looked, we saw the same few variants of white America. White bearded, beer bellied males with T shirts honoring Robert Johnson or Dr. John. Their young adult kids and grandkids, with T shirts honoring the new movie versions of old comic-book heroes. Bored boys staring into smartphones. Girls pleading with their flat-shoed mothers, begging to be bought some of the junk foods sold from booths along the edge of the grounds. Middle aged women desperately trying not to look their age. Lovey-Dover couples bearing matching giveaway tote bags from the local NPR station.
We found the only other blacks in the whole place huddled where we had just been, in back of the stage. They were too busy to talk, and I told them I appreciated that. They very efficiently got their instruments and gear packed up and loaded in an old SUV. I really felt like getting back in our car and following them out of there. But my fiancée had already determined we were going to stay, at least long enough for lunch or something like it.
Even though we’d originally take this trek because she wanted “healthy” gourmet food products, she now really wanted some greasy pizza slices or a cube of French fries from the food booths, and an ear of roasted corn on the cob, and a plastic glass of wine in the fenced-off beer garden. Again, I refrained from any snide remarks. Even though this feast meant staying perhaps another hour at the most uncomfortable place I’d been to so far that year.
She could sense the feelings of fear and frustration I was trying hard to repress. In the line for the greasy pizza slices (which, I had to admit, turned out to be almost a Platonic ideal of greasy pizza slices), she asked me what was wrong. I told her I felt uneasy. I told her I felt trapped out in deep red redneck country, even if some of the local rednecks claimed to be “liberals.” That just meant they’d lynch us and then feel guilty about it afterwards. Maybe go to their shrinks about it, and then give a little money to feed African children.
After having tried all day to keep my foot out of my mouth, I’d just stuffed the whole thing in there. It wasn’t pretty.
Neither was her reaction. She turned right around in the pizza line and glared at me the glare of the world’s most disapproving schoolmarm.
But before she could say anything, the next band started in on the stage. It embodied nearly every white blues cliché in the book. A fat guy who thought he was either Page or Plant; a skinny bald guy who thought he was Thorogood; a glasses-wearing guy who thought he was Clapton. In song after long drawn-out song, they thoroughly removed anything subtle, anything poignant, anything “blue” out from the blues, leaving only a hard brittle shell of macho posturing. The only thing they didn’t do was play “Mustang Sally.”
I didn’t tell my fiancee any of these opinions. I kept my trap well shut as we moseyed from the food booths to the beer garden, while the band conveniently made it hard to talk.
By the merciful end of their set, she was on her second wine. I still nursed my one beer, since I hoped to be driving out of there as soon as possible. Now beyond her initial moment of displeasure, she asked calmy and dispassionately why I couldn’t appreciate that all these people around us were trying, some with more success than others, to learn something from the black music tradition, to find parts of it that resonated in their own lives.
She was being diplomatic, to me and to the scene that surrounded us. I knew I had to be diplomatic back to her, as best as I could.
I told her I DID care about the black music tradition.
Yes, I’d grown up with a church-deacon dad. Yes, he’d scorned any black music that wasn’t Gospel or at least “uplifting,” like the more respectable parts of jazz. Yes, he’d have none of what he called “that old whorehouse music” in our home.
But I’d grown beyond that, I told her.
I’d learned to appreciate, no to admire, the so-called “lower” aspects of black cultural history. That, I told her, was why I couldn’t stand to see it all desecrated like this by a bunch of ignorant hicks.
Yep, I failed at my “be diplomatic” goal, pretty much immediately.
Before she could glare at me again, a young white couple approached our table in the beer garden. The girl was all dolled up like an Ikette; the kind of girl you have to struggle not to look at when your own woman is beside you. The boy (actually, they were probably only five years younger than me) wore a snazzy retro suit, with some strange badges pinned to its skinny lapels. Until these two appeared, I thought my fiancée and I were the only well-dressed people in the place. But compared to them, we were as shabby as everyone else there.
Yes, they asked if we were performing. When I said no, they said they were. My fiancée invited them to sit with us. They said they could only stay for a little while; their set was the one after next. My fiancée asked the boy what his metal badges meant. He said they were logos of old “northern soul” clubs. I said that meant Detroit and Philly, right? He said no. It meant old clubs that held DJ dances in northern English cities, playing old American soul 45s. My fiancée found this fascinating. I kept my trap shut.
Before they left, my fiancée promised the girl we’d stick around to hear their set. That meant enduring one more act before theirs. That act turned out to be more tolerable than the one before it. Low-key, folksy stuff, by a tall muscular guy who stood in one place the whole time. One vintage-looking guitar; one amp; total concentration; no BS.
My fiancée took my hand and led me out of the beer garden, back toward the stage. She said I looked a lot more relaxed than I’d been an hour ago. I had to admit I was. I didn’t even mind it as much when the soloist’s set ended and the hoary, “blusey” heavy metal music came back on the PA. It helped that I knew we’d be out of there before long.
And before long, the dressup kids’ band got underway. The Ikette girl announced the group’s name as “Cherry Preserves.”
How completely, utterly appropriate, I thought. After all, you put up preserves, or you did in my grandmother’s day, by cooking all the life and texture out of fresh fruit, then sweetening up what was left.
The other band members turned out to be a young man who looked like something from the “Quadrophenia” movie, a young woman who looked like something from an ’80s new wave band, and another young man who looked like the guitar player from that band Cheap Trick. (How did I come to learn all this trivia in my head about old white music? Don’t ask.) As a whole, they looked like they were pretending to be something they weren’t, but they sure weren’t pretending to be black.
Then they started playing, and prancing about on the stage. Their moves, even the Ikette girl’s moves, had nothing to do with the dance moves in old soul-music film clips or “Soul Train” videos. This was jerkier, more angular, less fluid.
Then it hit me. I’d been an idiot who finally got a half a clue.
Of course these kids weren’t trying to be black.
They were trying to be English.
They were reaching out to their OWN motherland.
Even if that meant imitating people who’d already been imitating a piece of black American culture.
These kids were trying to find their own soul, their own souls.
After that, the rest of the day went OK. The man at the main gate gave us workable directions to the organic butcher shop. It turned out that the butcher shop, the blues festival, and a holistic veterinarian’s office were the main reasons any city people ever came up that way.
My fiancée got her gourmet meats; we got on a long but drama-free detour route back to the Interstate and back home. On the drive, I even turned on the local NPR station. It had a show of old blues records. The real stuff.
I told her I still preferred the real stuff. She responded by singing the old line, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”