From the Editor
I've always avoided long lines in parking lots, some aversion to perceived hype that a long line must bring. Sitting next to Duke Chapel, watching the revolving bridal parties come and go, eating grapes, I was intending to see Tom Wolfe speak at Paige Auditorium, this last weekend in April. The sun was bright, much brighter than any smiles from young marrieds hasseled to have to race through the turnstile altar at Duke Chapel.
It was quite a week at Duke, the best and brightest were supposed to be there to read from their work, to chat about the nature of writing and the world -- a hope better than any CSpan book talk could promise. It was the 2006 NC Festival of the Book, jointly resurrected from the formats of previous literary festivals and made free to the public by NC Central, NC State, UNC, and Duke University Libraries. Wolfe was to speak about "What is the South today?" or "What is Southern," or "The South according to Tom Wolfe," or some sort of definitive thing that would make good copy in the next day's paper. My intention -- I had just finished teaching the Southern Regional Literature class and thought it would be a nice coda to my Pepsi Cola and peanuts.
Immersion · listening to Allan Gurganus and Ann Patchett have their love fest talk about the brilliant teacher and darling student relationship with some pretty good books behind them. Or listening to Jill McCorkle's Lumberton twang ping off the walls in the Perkins Library on the second floor of the aptly named Gothic Reading Room (even the audio equipment looked Gothic). Or finally getting to see Will Wilson's portrait of Reynolds Price, with Wilson's little cryptic clues painted on the margins of books and note paper running off the canvas.
My program was full of checks "to see" -- Robert Olen Butler, Pat Conroy, Kaye Gibbons, CK Williams, Alan Shapiro, and, of course, Tom Wolfe, the man in full, the right stuff, the creative non-fiction fiction shaman of Virginia, the author celebre of the latest big book blockbuster I Am Charlotte Simmons. The attendant buzz was that the book was based on hearsay stories of daughter to father (Wolfe's daughter attended the university) and copious research about life at Duke and, as commercial luck would have it, the book in part describes the lacrosse-sports testosterone culture there. The stage was set for a tell-all show down. And I wanted to be at the corral. Or I thought I did.
The line got longer, stretching out past the book tent, past the bus stops, and into the quad. It was a 3:30 start and it was only 2 pm. In another hour and a half, the line could reach 15-501. Mmmm · what to do, what to do. Let's see here -- this looks good -- Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, and Michael Parker "Southern Soul in Words and Music" 3:30 Bryan Center (live music included). It was part of the effort to loosen up the program a bit -- "breeding lilacs out of the dead land" and mixing in some grits, that is, breeding low culture with high culture, the shotgun approach to cultural weddings. I had heard that was the new plan for the festival, a fun-for-all-cultural-tastes freebie, but I guessed that the folks breezing in and out of the Chapel in their wedding finery were doing it for a hefty fee.
From past experience, or pre-experience, I had learned that the side-show often held more promise than the main show for a variety of reasons -- namely, a shorter line to endure, and for some other mysteriousness, it was somehow more pleasantly revealing -- an honest misdirection from the headliner with all of the baggage surrounding main events -- outcomes predicted, digested, and expectations rendered satisfied. In the case of Tom Wolfe, what could be more predictable? You know what you are going to get, especially in the middle of a book tour. Furthermore, there is something lurkingly unlikable about a stretch limo with you-know-who inside waiting for the advanced team dressed in black (I kid you not) with Mission Impossible earphones and speaking devices, waiting for the right security moment to give Elvis the "go" sign to the hall. Besides, my aversion to long lines was producing dozens of rational equations with numerators twice the size of the denominators, and I figured I could read all about it tomorrow in the Durham Morning Herald.
So much for Plan A. Plan B turned out to be the better deal. Michael Parker introduced this "Birds of a Feather" talk, as the organizers called it, a collusion of fiction and songwriting, and the revolution of Soul music. Parker immediately pronounced in his quiet way, "You made the right choice." And he was right, it was. Not sure what to expect, the audience listened to a seemingly made-up plan: "I thought I would read a little and then ask Spooner and Dan some questions I always wanted to ask, and then maybe they could play a little for us." It turned out that Penn and Oldham were soul legends, White session men and songwriters for the Black and White Soul-famous -- Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, James and Bobby Purify, The Box Tops, et al. Their story carried the stamp of oblique honesty. Spooner Oldham: "I didn't really know if Memphis or Nashville or Muscle Shoals was the place to be, or what was happening, I just followed the sound, it sounded good to me." Dan Penn: "I was just trying to write good songs and have people sing them." They were players on the Stax and Volt labels, waiting for who would come through the door to see what would happen next.
Parker began the session by reading from his new novel If You Want Me To Stay (Algonquin 2005) -- a passage describing a father's obsession with Soul music in the 70s -- how he had defended the integrity of it, the mix of Black and White, and the passion of opposing desires the music described. How the father had researched and documented the deaths of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye, as if some substance could be resurrected by maintaining these details. It was a remarkable introduction to the talk of Penn and Oldham who were the living evidence of anecdotal details about who and when and what happened that day in Soul history -- how "Do Right Woman" got written, how the watch word was "hold back a little and let go a lot," how the phenomenon of Soul music was the result of White country and hillbilly song writers having their songs made-over with Black voices and rhythms and having the Southern church provide the missing chord when needed. Soul was the expression of the South, the new South, a marriage of Black and White, and the changes that were coming.
Copyright © 2006. ECU Department of English.