Some Birthdays & Obituaries & Lives Well Lived

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. 

Book of Ancestors: Juliette Hampton Morgan

Juliette Hampton Morgan, the latest in my Book of Ancestors (a work in progress):

Juliette Hampton Morgan

Morgan is one of the many unsung heroes from behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her story is inspiring and utterly tragic, her life one of the heartbreaking casualties of the era.

She grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, like me, but a couple of generations before I came along. For   high school research papers, I spent time in the downtown library that’s named in her honor; I’d never noticed the library’s name, and I certainly never knew the story behind it.

There’s more fine print on this portrait than on most of my Book of Ancestors tributes; I wanted to get as much of this story on the page as I could fit, since there’s so much here to tell, so much that might otherwise be overlooked. So, here’s that fine print, in case you had trouble making it out, above:

Juliette Hampton Morgan (1914-1957): Montgomery Librarian & A Champion Of Justice “One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days…” – Letter to the editor, Montgomery Advertiser, Dec. 12, 1955. * A granddaughter of the Confederacy, born into Montgomery’s social elite – as an advocate for racial justice, she was vilified, shunned, and harassed. Morgan frequently protested injustice in letters to the editors of Alabama newspapers, she attended & organized interracial prayer meetings in Montgomery, and she argued for anti-lunching legislation, the elimination of the poll tax, and the end of segregation – all while friends & family abandoned her. “The cuts from old friends, the ringing telephone with anonymous voices, I know how it feels when butterflies in your stomach turn to buzzards.” In July of 1957, a cross was burned on her lawn; the next day she resigned from the library. That night, she took her own life. Today, the Montgomery central branch library is named in her honor. “The angels laid her away; may she rest forever in power.”

… And still, for lack of space, plenty more details had to be left out. There’s this: that white citizens of Montgomery demanded the library fire Morgan for her outspoken politics; and when the library refused — a notable stance, for that time and place — angry citizens burned their library cards in protest.

Think of that.

And there’s this: that Morgan suffered from panic attacks all her life and as a result couldn’t drive a car. Otherwise a woman of her social position wouldn’t have found herself relying daily on public transportation. But it was on those Montgomery buses, in the years leading up to that landmark boycott, that Morgan’s social consciousness found its essential cause. More than once, when she saw a black passenger mistreated, Morgan pulled the bus’s emergency brake and brought its wheels screaming to a halt. In one letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, she took care to single out by name the few white drivers who treated their black passengers well (Mr. Alton Courtney, Mr. Eliot I. Newman); then she turned her pen angrily toward the others, those drivers who hurled slurs and insults and took their black patrons’ money, then sent them to the back entrance of the bus, only to shut their doors and speed away.

She compared the protestors in Montgomery to Thoreau and to Gandhi.

Some old friends declared her insane.

One night during the boycott, Martin Luther King spoke to a meeting of the Council of Human Relations in Montgomery. Juliette Morgan sat that night with Virginia Durr: another white woman, another descendent of privilege, and another outspoken advocate for change. A member of the racist White Citizens Council infiltrated the meeting, and Morgan recognized the man.

“You know,” she told Durr, “I feel like somebody is pointing a gun at me.”

Dr. King remembered Morgan in Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the boycott. “Miss Juliette Morgan,” he wrote, “sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community.” Because here’s, tragically, what happened in the end. For a while Morgan stayed her pen – the library said they’d stand by her, but finally asked her to lay low with the letters – until in 1957 she wrote the editor of the Tuscaloosa News. Attempts to integrate the University of Alabama, her own alma mater, had erupted in violence from the local white community. The News publicly editor denounced the violence, and Morgan commended his stance in a private letter — which, with her permission, he printed in the paper.

In Montgomery, the sky fell. Since the library wouldn’t fire her, the city of Montgomery reduced the library’s funding, by exactly Morgan’s salary. Things started happening fast, and the story veered to its gut-wrenching end. The Klan burned its cross in Morgan’s yard. Morgan resigned from the job she loved. Then she took her own life.

*

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Pete Seeger brought to Carnegie Hall in New York a program of the songs that he’d learned and sung in the mass meetings and marches down South. As he led the audience through “We Shall Overcome,” he introduced the final verse like this:

“The best verse,” he said,

was made up down in Montgomery, Alabama.
It says, “We are not afraid.”
And here you and I up here,
like every human being in the world,
     We have been afraid.
But you still sing it!
     We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.

In that last, best verse, the familiar someday of the refrain becomes, powerfully, today — “We are not afraid, to-day” — and somehow in the singing the singer is transformed. Because in belting it out that we’re unafraid, in pretending aloud that we’re fearless, we gain power. We become what we say we are, for at least as long as we’re singing.

When I learned about Juliette Morgan, this verse — born in Montgomery, like her — came to my mind. Morgan’s story’s end is heartbreaking, because finally that fear caught up with her, the consequences of her courage became too much for her to bear.

But the end of her story will never change this: that her courage along the way was profound, her example a lesson for us all.

Because there’s no bravery whatsoever in not being afraid. Real bravery means being terribly afraid, and acting anyway like you’re not.  Because courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s how you live in fear’s presence.

My heart breaks that Juliette Hampton Morgan didn’t make it through. But I’m grateful for what she did, and for who she was, while she was here.

*

Note: Most of what I’ve learned so far about Juliette Hampton Morgan comes from her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama or from this article in the Montgomery Advertiser, which quotes one of her letters to the editor in full. The exchange with Virginia Durr appears in Durr’s autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, and the MLK quote appears in Stride Toward Freedom. After writing the paragraphs above, I ordered a copy of Morgan’s biography, Journey Toward Justice, by Mary Stanton. I’m about thirty pages in, and it’s a fascinating read.