Lately we’ve been losing some greats — musicians, poets, and icons of various stripes. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Gerald posted these words on Facebook:
“The recent passing of Dick Dale (81), W. S. Merwin (91) and earlier this year Mary Oliver (83) has caused me to reflect on how my heroes have changed. When I was young I worshiped artists who flamed out early: Ian Curtis, Arthur Rimbaud, Jimi, Janis and Jim. The list goes on. Now, I’ve come to admire artists that not only live a full life, but those who continue to do their work until they pass.”
Hear, hear. I’d add to this list the poet Donald Hall, who died last year at the age of 89, and whose Essays After Eighty I adore. For the last few years I’ve kept by my bedside either that book or its follow-up, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I look to Donald Hall’s last books for their wisdom and their wit but above all, I think, for the simple beauty of their sentences, each laid carefully after the next. I hope that something in those books will rub off on me and that somehow, someday, I’ll write sentences that seem so effortless and clean.
Then there’s Andre Williams, the outrageous R&B wildman original, who was funny, creative, irreverent, raunchy, prolific, and gleefully strange all the way up to his death, just a couple of weeks ago, at the age of 82.
He’d released his last album at the age of 80. It’s called Don’t Ever Give Up.
Some of our creative elder-heroes still walk among us. Austin Kleon’s new book, Keep Going, opens with a quote from Willie Nelson. “I think I need to keep being creative,” Willie says, “not to prove anything but because it makes me happy just to do it…. I think trying to be creative, keeping busy, has a lot to do with keeping you alive.”
Willie Nelson turns 86 this month. Last year he released his seventy-third album. It’s called Last Man Standing.
And then of course there’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, still with us at the age, now, of a hundred. For his birthday a couple of weeks ago, he released a new book, Little Boy. City Lights bookstore threw him a huge birthday party. (I couldn’t make it to San Francisco, but I did make him a card.)
Meanwhile, a little closer to home: last Saturday, in Petal, Mississippi, the British-born ballet dancer Henry Danton celebrated his own centennial. He still actively teaches and dances and is writing down the details of his long and celebrated career.
“I don’t have a lot of free time,” he told the Hattiesburg American. “And I want it that way. I don’t want to retire.”
Stories like these keep popping up into my news feed lately. A week or two ago I read about Delana Jensen Close, who just published her first book, a novel called The Rock House, at the age of 95. She started writing it sixty-plus years ago, back in 1955. She told the Associated Press that “It had to come out” and compared its long-awaited release to the birth of a child. “In the days after it was published,” the A. P. reports, “she literally treated it that way — carrying the book around in a basket with a baby blanket.”
The Indie Book Awards gave Close the prize for this year’s best historical fiction. She has two new novels underway.
Maybe, like I did, you grew up on Beverly Cleary books. This Saturday, Cleary turns 103.
Back when she was just a hundred, someone asked her the secret of her longevity.
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.
And here’s my favorite story from 2018: “Alabama man turns 99 this Fourth of July, plans to cast his first vote.” John McQueen of Montgomery voted for the first time in his life last summer, in Sen. David Burkette’s runoff election. (Burkette won.) According to Al.com, McQueen stays active today, working in his garden and singing gospel music. “I still work,” he told the paper. “I ain’t never stopped…. I believe if I stop and rest I won’t last long.”
Here’s McQueen, just before his ninety-ninth birthday, singing at a rally for Sen. Burkette: “You Don’t Know What the Lord Done For Me.”
* * *
All this has gotten me thinking about Stranger Malone, a musician I interviewed at length some years ago and wrote about for the Old-Time Herald magazine. The first time I laid eyes on him he was already past ninety, performing onstage at a summer outdoor festival in Western North Carolina, blowing a clarinet and playing the bones, standing in the hot sun in a heavy corduroy suit. Long before that, way back in the twenties, he’d played clarinet on records by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers and Clayton McMichen’s Melody Men. After he died, he was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest working recording career in history, one that stretched from 1926 to 2003.
Stranger didn’t care to make distinctions of musical genre. “I like sentimental music,” he told me, defining the common thread in his repertoire. “I feel sentiment about life: I think life is a marvelous thing, and I think we should take care of it. And I like songs that express that idea, that this is a marvelous world, we better take care of it.
“So I like that type of music. But the nonsense I leave behind.”
Malone died in 2005, at home and in bed in his Rome, Georgia, apartment. A musician friend found him there, after he’d failed to show up for a recording session. By his hand was a book called Life is Worth Living.
And then there is Doc.
My dear friend, the late Frank “Doc” Adams, told me, in our very first conversation, about his cousin, Arthur “Finktum” Prowell. Finktum was a roustabout, an old carnival worker, a comedian and singer. He was a dirt-poor rambler and a lifelong bachelor; he refused to profess religion, and his own family declared him no good. Doc adored him. No matter what others thought, Finktum was wholeheartedly and unrepentantly himself.
“And,” Doc told me, “when he died, he died singing: ‘Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.’ See, he could sing, man, and he died.”
That, I think, is the way to go.
Doc himself died at the age of 86, in 2014. That may sound old to you, but the news of his death shocked everyone who knew him: Doc was so alive, so fundamentally full of youth and vitality, that the thought of his dying just didn’t compute. He and I had published a book together in 2012, and Doc was still brimming with new ideas every time we met. At the time of his death, he was trying to reunite some old musician friends for a recording session in his basement. He had some poems he was planning to set to music And he’d been working on a barbecue sauce he intended to market — he’d just perfected the recipe and was working on a design for the label. The ideas just poured out of him — for collaborations, research projects, presentations, performances, recording dates — and it sometimes breaks my heart to think of those projects that never reached fruition.
But then again, that’s the only way it could have been, and that was the beauty of the man. If he hadn’t been still working on a million new ideas at once — if he’d finished everything and just sat back and slowed down — he wouldn’t have been Doc.
In our book, I asked him how he wanted to be remembered, and he said this:
“I want to be remembered as a person who didn’t quit.”
And that’s the thing about all these creators — Stranger Malone and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dick Dale and Doc Adams and Delena Jenson Close and Henry Danton and Andre Williams and Mary Oliver and all the rest of them — they’ve shown us how to keep going, to keep creating, to never give up, to continue the work. They didn’t, don’t, and won’t quit.
And, listen: I know we’re just lucky to be here at all, that we’ve got to make the most of the days we’ve got. I’m not betting on making a hundred, or even forty-five. Of course, I can’t help but hope I’m here a long, long time, still creating new things, still getting closer to my best, all the way up to the end; and that when I do come to die, I’ll die singing, like Finktum.
In the meantime, for however long I’m here, I’ll just be doing my best — to learn from a wealth of ancestors and elders, to keep my hand on the throttle and my eye on the rail, and to leave the nonsense behind.
Thanks for reading this blog. If you’d like more, take a minute to hit the “follow” button. You can find my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram and Facebook, and find my book Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man wherever you buy your books. If you’re in or around Montgomery, Alabama, this weekend, stop by the Alabama Book Festival on Saturday (April 13); I’ll have a table there with the Doc Adams book and a whole bunch of zines. Hope to see you around.