Friday, February 7, 2020

"Ms. Erin is a fine wordsmith and a helluva gal": Neil Elwell on your Sunday Plans

"Ms. Erin is a fine wordsmith and a helluva gal... You probably ought to go."

—Neil Elwell on why you should attend the party for Hezada! I Miss You

Neil Elwell
(photo by Erika Jones)


Story about how I met the blues, and twenty years later, Neil Elwell

I don't remember the first time I heard the blues. If anyone would have shared the sound, it would have been my father, but he listened mainly to jazz on the cassette tapes he'd plug into his van's stereo while driving country roads in search of something to photograph, or just something. He never found it.

But I do remember when I started a relationship with the blues. I was both in love with a musician and taking a class at Indiana State University on the history of blues/jazz/rock. He and I decided to drive to the birthplace of the blues. He'd been there before, years ago. He knew the map. He'd gone when he was in college, also during learning about the blues; he and some friends decided to skip class and drive to Mississippi, a mere seven-hour drive. His story went that upon their return, the professor asked why they'd skipped--where have you been?

We wanted to learn where the blues started, they said.
And the professor couldn't be too angry about that, could he?

It was a late October when we drove South. It was my first time past the north boundary of Kentucky. I saw how the sides of the roads turned red. How the land flattened out. How villages appeared and disappeared, and had disappeared inside themselves, remnants. How the old wood had gone gray-blue like the roads I'd grown up on. 

I remember the ache in my throat from seeing, finally, what I'd read in Faulkner, Lee, Williams, O'Connor, Morrison. 

Seems like we arrived in Clarksdale, Mississippi on a Sunday. It's where the blues is said to be born. It was deserted enough to look for signs of living. I took a picture of the water tower that I still have and run across when sorting memories for the thrift store. I keep it every time, if only because who else would? 

There were signs of a future museum for the blues; this was twenty years ago. It was either closed because Sunday, or nearly close to opening. We walked its porch, peered through the windows. It was a long, rectangular building in my memory. 

Later, we would drive back toward Indiana and stop in Memphis. We'd walk Beale Street by day, by night. I remember the thrumming of such a street. What it does to a body, its circuitry. In a few hours, I'd fall in love with more than one street musician in that kind of immediate brightness that the world sometimes punches into your stomach, showing you what life you might live if you lived here in the dream you allow of yourself.

It was that trip that would send me with my best friend down the train tracks to New Orleans for a non-traditional Spring Break where we stayed in a hostel, daily wrote in our notebooks while seated in the shadow of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. It was because of that trip that I sent all of my graduate writing applications south. I nearly made it South, but ended up a little west, in Texas. But even in Texas I found the blues. At the time Austin had its own bar dedicated to the blues. No searching required.

All of this is to say that twenty years after that autumn trip, I walked up the steep stairs of Spokane's community radio station, KYRS; this time for an annual fundraising drive. I expected to talk about our radio tower--the amount of electricity required to power us--how for only $3 a month you can be a supporting member to your community radio station--how if you call in the next hour, a stranger will double your donation.

All true, but this is what I didn't expect when I sat down across from Jukebox Jennie during her show, Workin' Woman Blues: I would meet Neil Elwell. I didn't know who Neil Elwell was. He sat down beside me. He had a guitar. He'd come on as a favor to Jennie to help raise money for the station by playing live.

Jesus, how he played.

I think this is a story of how everything you've learned about parts of the world wind up returning in the people you meet. How often I seem to think that objects hold my memories, but forget that people can carry memories, too, even when they weren't part of them.

Since Clarksdale, my blues had only deepened. Aside from my family history of having the blues (depression), the course of life had brought more. The musician had driven away in his red car. My best friend who went with me to New Orleans had died. My sister was dead. I was further west in a northerly manner. My marriage was over. I was in love again, but more love doesn't fade out old love, disappeared love, misjudged love. My dad was still dead, of course, because death does that, and sometimes it seems only the blues remembers that. Sometimes, it's only the blues that remembers there's people who walk country roads alone, or drive them, searching, or live in houses where the wood isn't stained and nature starts taking the wood back, because it can.

So when Neil started playing the blues. Dark, right blues. Deep sounding blues. You understand what I'm saying blues, you can see why I had to make this person my friend.

Neil and Henry
And we have done that.

He would play for an artist fundraiser for my friend Breanna amidst the big shows he plays with his well-known band, Laffin' Bones.

I'd learned in that same blues/jazz/rock class about the diddley bo, and a few months later I asked Neil if he'd ever made one. I was thinking of art projects to share with the preschoolers. Not only did he know what I was talking about, he'd made one. He invited my son and me over to see the one he'd made with his son. When we arrived, Neil had started the base of one for Henry to make. A surprise. The best kind of surprises. They finished it together that afternoon.

Later, Neil and I would share coffee while he helped me repair a sculpture my father had made. And on and on our friendship goes, which is as good as the blues and born from it.

And on Sunday, I'll be happy to stop reading from Hezada! I Miss You, and listen to Neil Elwell sing the blues. I hope you'll join us.

Sunday, February 9
2 PM
Cracker Building (304 W. Pacific)
words. music. wine. maybe cake.
You're invited.
I mean it.