Back to the Future & boxes of books

When Back to the Future begins, it’s 1985 and George McFly is in every sense a loser. Then his son Marty travels thirty years into the past and sets off a chain of events that rewrites forever the whole family’s reality. When the movie ends, it’s 1985 again, but it’s a different 1985, one in which George McFly is no longer a loser at all. He’s a writer. And in the last minutes of the movie a box arrives in the mail, full of the first copies of his first book. The family opens up the box and it’s stacked with hardback copies of A Match Made in Space, a novel, with George McFly’s picture on the back.

I loved that movie when I was a kid — I still love it now — and that little moment thrilled me every single time I saw it. Because even then (I guess I was eight or nine), I wanted to write books. And so that tiny, unlikely moment at the end of Back to the Future became for me, for a few decades and running, what I imagined it must look like to be a writer. You were just a sort of regular guy (a little nerdy, maybe, but no loser), but  then sometimes a box would show up on your doorstep, full of the books you’d created. I never could imagine much in the world that might be better than opening up that box.

Usually the way something looks in the movies isn’t much like it looks it real life. So when my book Doc first came out, I was surprised and delighted when it happened just like it did in Back to the Future, in that scene that was still so much in the back of my mind. A box arrived on my porch, and my heart raced, and I opened it.

I’m working on another, brand new book now — an outgrowth and kind of sequel to the first one — and I can’t wait for the day its first copies arrive on my doorstep. But in the meantime another happy milestone happened today: Doc has just come out in its first paperback edition, and this afternoon I got a box full of the things.

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I’ll admit, the delivery this time was a bit anticlimactic: the release date was yesterday, but there was a glitch with the distributor. A release party and reading, scheduled for last night, had to be postponed at the very last minute, so we pushed it all into the new year. (If you’re in Birmingham, mark your calendars — it will be on Thursday, January 10, at the Little Professor Bookcenter in Homewood, come hell or high water.) But still it was satisfying to open that box. I’m very happy that this book is out at last in paperback. I hope it’ll get Doc Adams’s important and inspiring story out to a new world of readers. And it’s $15 cheaper than it was before, which is no small thing in itself.

In 1955, Marty McFly tells his future dad, George: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Later, in 1985, George McFly opens up a box of books, hands one of them to Marty, and tells him the same thing.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

On Mortality & Barbecue

1. A few days ago, searching for something else, I came across this ad in the pages of the Cleveland Call and Post newspaper: Hot Sauce Williams — “The King of Barbecue Men”!

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Hot Sauce Williams, it turns out, had lots of ads in that paper in those days. I’m sure his meat and his sauce were really something.

2. Tonight a dear friend broke to me bad news: what may have been my favorite barbecue restaurant on the planet — Allen & Son Barbecue, just outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina — has now closed its doors forever. I grew up on Alabama barbecue, and for a long time I refused to believe any other barbecues might be better.

Allen & Son — may it rest forever in peace — made me rethink everything.

3. Back in Alabama, in the town of Nauvoo, my other favorite barbecue place shut its doors several years ago — another awful, sad shock. The Slick Lizzard Smokehouse was the last vestige of a dead town, which had also been called (sometimes with two z’s, sometimes with one) Slick Lizard. It was an old mining town, and it got its name from the way the miners looked when they crawled up out of the ground, all black and wet and inhuman. The restaurant served good food, and its walls were covered with old photos and news clippings documenting the history of the town. There were sawmill blades on the wall, painted with pastoral scenes, and the waitresses brought you sweet tea in big mason jars. As with Allen & Son, I have many happy memories in that place.

They had a memorable slogan, too: “Fill Your Gizzard At Slick Lizzard.”

And now, alas, that place is gone — the last place there ever was that bore the Slick Liz(z)ard name.

It’s no small loss.

4. Be careful, of course: keep one eye on your health, so you can last as long as you can.

But in the meantime, be sure you enjoy your favorite barbecue joints, as often as you’re able. Because one day — very suddenly, and maybe soon — they won’t be here.

5. A long time ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem called “Ozymandias.” For many years, if you don’t know, Percy was really, really famous, way more famous than his wife Mary. But — once, on vacation, as a kind of a bet — Mary Shelley wrote a story that turned into Frankenstein. And now (for now), everybody but English majors remembers her, and not him.   

It’s a good poem, though, “Ozymandias,” about the fallen ancient statue of a once great king. As I thought tonight of Hot Sauce Williams, the King of Barbecue Men — and as I mourned the fall of Allen & Son, and relived in memory the day I drove up, hungry, on the Slick Lizzard Smokehouse, and first discovered it gone — Percy Shelley’s fourteen lines came to my aching mind. 

This is how that poem goes:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

6. Right now in Birmingham there’s a place called Saw’s Soul Kitchen. I can’t imagine life without it; as far as I’m concerned, nothing beside remains.

Look on it, ye Mighty, and despair.

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Jazz Demons!

The latest, from my ongoing Book of Ancestors: Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons.

Jazz Demons, Book of Ancestors

Fess Whatley was nicknamed the “Maker of Musicians,” thanks to the legions of professional jazzmen he trained at Industrial (later Parker) High School in Birmingham. He started the city’s first jazz band — the Jazz Demons, seen here — and for years he led one of the Southeast’s premiere “society” dance bands. After the Jazz Demons came Fess Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and his Sax-o-Society Orchestra. I love this newspaper ad for Sax-o-Society: “a real jazz orchestra,” it promises — “but not that ‘ear-splitting,’ ‘nerve-racking’ kind.”

sax-o-society ad (photo)

One of Fess Whatley’s many talented students was Herman “Sonny” Blount, the pianist and composer who soon enough would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most extraordinary iconoclasts. Sun Ra always claimed to come from outer space, but his real roots were very much in Birmingham, as the ad below demonstrates. Sonny’s band was one of several student bands Whatley sponsored over the years; this ad, from October 1935, promotes an upcoming show presented by Whatley at Kingsport, Tennessee’s Floral Casino.

Whatley presents Sonny

Incidentally, some great, good news: Doc, my book with another Birmingham jazz hero, Frank “Doc” Adams, will be released in its first paperback edition in just a few weeks. Look for it as of December 18, its official release date, though it’s likely to be available to order within the next few days. Both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra figure prominently into the book; Doc played in both of their bands.

I’m pretty excited for a new round of readers to encounter Doc Adams through this new edition of our book. I hope you’ll get your hands around a copy as soon as you can. Thanks.

Listen to this and feel good.

Today on WBHM, our local NPR affiliate, a story aired about my stepdaughter Norah and the letter she wrote to the Jefferson Country Health Department. She wrote the letter a couple of years ago, concerned about the flu shots required by her school; she didn’t expect a response but she got one, and it was beautiful. I eventually wrote about it on this blog, and I posted both letters. A few months after that, WBHM interviewed Norah and Dr. Mark Wilson about their exchange. You can hear the radio story here. (And you can read both letters in my original post, here.)

Weirdly enough, Norah’s mom (my wife, Glory) has also appeared on WHBM, exactly once, seven years ago, when Norah was just three — in, of all things, another story about vaccinating kids. If you don’t believe me, you can hear that story too, here.  Every family has its traditions, I guess.

Of course, we’re proud of Norah, and it’s also just nice to hear something nice on the news. “Don’t ever stop caring about others,” Dr. Wilson wrote in his letter. It’s about as good advice as any kid could hope to get. And there’s this: in the interview, Norah says she was surprised but excited to get a response to her letter — excited just to know “that what I had written mattered.” What a powerful, indispensable message for a young person to receive.

So, there’s your feel-good moment for the day. Now, y’all go get yourselves inoculated, if you haven’t already this year. That flu is some nasty stuff.

A New Zine! (Get It!)

Here’s something!

For next Saturday’s radio show, I created an exclusive illustrated playlist, in the form of a full-color, 16-page, pocket-sized zine. I decided not to announce the song titles and artists on air as I play them next week, but instead to make available this little guide you can use to follow along at home.

The best part: all this can be yours(!!) for a donation of $5 or more to The Lost Child.

Just shoot five bucks, via PayPal, to burgin@bhammountainradio.com. Or, if you like, email me at that address for other payment options. I’ll get it in the mail to you ASAP. Your $5 covers the cost of printing and shipping and handling; any dollars over those first five will be considered a generous donation to this radio show and will help support further endeavors like this.

If you use PayPal, be sure to include your name and address in the notes.

The illustrated show began as a playlist of unaccompanied ballad singing and other sorts of a cappella song; but I started breaking it up with a few soft instrumental ditties and other odds and ends to mix up the flow of things. One highlight: a Galician immigrant to the U. S. — a badchen, or wedding entertainer, recorded in the 1950s by folklorist Ruth Rubin — performs a series of wedding tunes on the fiddle, songs he’d brought with him from the old country. And a Polish immigrant to the states, also recorded by Rubin, sings a beautiful, wordless Chassidic tune. Another favorite moment in the mix: a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York, recorded by Tony Schwartz in the ’50s, translates into English the lyrics of a jukebox lament — a record about the Puerto Rican experience in New York, no less — while the song plays in the background.  There’s also preaching by Brother Claude Ely, hokum by Peg Leg Bates, and a lonesome field holler by Livingston, Alabama’s Annie Grace Horn Downson. Plus ballads, spirituals, and lullabies from North Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, and more. And for just five dollars American, it’s all illustrated and annotated for your own eyes and ears.

(To hear the show, tune in Saturday, November 17, to Birmingham Mountain Radio, from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central). It will rebroadcast Tuesday, November 20, from eleven to midnight. You can listen in Birmingham at 107.3 FM or stream it online anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. After that, I’ll post it on The Lost Child’s Mixcloud site, where you can stream it anytime.)

Before I sign off for today, here’s a little tribute I just made to the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, for my ongoing “Book of Ancestors.”

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The Delmores had a great signature tune called “The Brown’s Ferry Blues,” which included such lyrics as this — “Hard luck poppa, counting his toes, you can smell his feet wherever he goes” — and which also offered this sad testimony: “Early to bed and early to rise, and your girl goes out with other guys … If you don’t believe me try it yourself; I tried it, and I got left.” The Delmores were born to a family of tenant farmers in Elkmont, Alabama, and they grew up to pioneer first a trendsetting style of soft country vocal harmonies and then a rollicking brand of amplified “hillbilly boogie” guitar. They spent their youths down the road from Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, and as members of the Grand Ole Opry they formed the Brown’s Ferry Four with country superstars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. Today the spot their music memorialized is home to the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Point.

Someone should write a song about that.

Thanks for following along with this blog. See you next time.

Election Day Endorsements (Illustrated)

Happy Election Day!

As of this writing, there’s still time to vote.

In case you’re curious, here are a few of my family’s illustrated endorsements for the state of Alabama.

The first one of these is by my stepdaughter Norah.

felicia!

vance!

auman!

danner!

carr!

milam!

walt!?

There’s still time for you to draw your own favorite candidates, too. Grab some Sharpies or some crayons to help pass the time (and soothe the nerves) while the returns come in. Give yourself just a few minutes per candidate, so you don’t overthink it. I’d like to see the final products, not just from my own state but from other places too. You can email your illustrated endorsements to burgin@bhammountainradio.com, or post them to Instagram and tag @lostchildradio.

Good luck, and may the best candidates win.

Blow, Lynn, Blow! (The Lynn Hope Story)

I’m really happy to be wrapping up a long article, and probably a zine, about Lynn Hope (Al Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad), a  man whose story — which, inexplicably, the world has for the most part forgotten — I sincerely believe everyone needs to know. I’ll share the whole thing later, once it’s done. But for now, here’s a quick preview:

Lynn Hope was one of the “screamers,” the wild r&b saxophone honkers whose horns helped beget rock and roll. He strode up and down bar tops blowing his horn, bent over backwards and wailed, jumped from the bandstand and paraded through his crowd, worked each room he played until it was ready to explode.

He was also, in the late 1940s into the ‘50s, one of black America’s most prominent Muslims. He twice pilgrimaged to Mecca and traveled all over the Middle East, led prayers at a Philadelphia mosque, taught classes on the Koran and the Arabic language, and he brought hundreds of new converts to the faith. Fans and the media loved his jeweled turbans and his long Egyptian robes, embracing the exotic novelty of his performance and persona. But when Hope spoke out against American racism he found himself the subject of smears, blacklisted from the clubs where he’d once been a star. In the 1960s, Hope suffered a series of setbacks — personal, financial, and political — and he struggled to stay relevant in a shifting cultural and musical landscape. By the end of the decade, he had faded into obscurity.

The story would be remarkable enough if it ended there, with Hope’s disappearance from the public eye. But Hope’s records resurfaced in Jamaica, where they became touchstones of the emerging sound system culture and served as an important influence in the development of ska. Hope cropped up, too, in the fiction of Amiri Baraka, whose short story “The Screamers” cast the musician and his horn as catalysts for a new, ecstatic enactment of freedom and community. Hope himself, as Al Hajj Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad, lived quietly into the 1990s, immersing himself in his family and his faith, never returning to the public stage.

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Lynn Hope, incidentally, came from Birmingham, Alabama, and he first learned music from this town’s legendary “Maker of Musicians,” the bandleader and teacher Fess Whatley, whose classroom launched the careers of many scores of jazz players.  Hope’s story is loaded with fascinating details and unexpected turns — and, of course, it comes with a great soundtrack. Check out Hope’s smoldering take on “Summertime”:

Incidentally, I’m still seeking more information about Hope’s / Ahmad’s family life, his role in the Philadelphia-area Muslim community, and his life in general from the late ’60s to his death in 1993. If any readers of this post have first-hand knowledge of these topics, I would love very much to hear from you — please send me an email at burgin@bhammountainradio.com. I’m sincerely grateful for any details that can help flesh out a detailed, rounded, and accurate portrait of this important, overlooked figure.