Somewhere Down South, A Foot is Stomping in a Tenement Shack

Somewhere Down South, A Foot is Stomping in a Tenement Shack

There’s music to writing. Sentences have cadences, characters have rhythms to their dialogue, plots have tempo. A writer’s style and tone can sometimes have a minor lilt or major lift. Authorial voices sometimes have bright timbres or bass rumbles.

It makes sense that music influences writers. Seeps into plots. Informs characters.

I grew up on the rhythms of the South. Blues, soul, gospel and country were the constant accompaniment to the long car rides with my father, crisscrossing Arkansas, towing a flatbottom, a full cooler, and rods and reels and shotguns. In every country store dotting the landscape of the delta there was music; you open the door with a creak and the customer bell rings, a voice thick with tobacco and molasses greets you. The air-conditioner hums and the strains of a gospel choir, tinny and indistinct, sound from the radio above the counter, tuned to the AM band. The hiss of a Coca-Cola being opened and the bright clatter of the cap falling to the floor. The snick of a Zippo. The husky laugh of a woman hefting a child on her hip. Barefoot feet slapping on a poured-concrete floor.

Many places in the south, there ain’t shit but music and the music of the bottle to get us through.

When I grew older, I became a musician – a fair one, in all honesty, not great but competent enough to tour, play shows all over the south. At some point I fell in love with the blues.

I don’t know what there was about it that really attracted me, the blues. Its deep rhythms, maybe. The sadness, the pain all balled up tight with joy and sex and love and loss. The human heart in conflict with itself. The best blues tunes have the makings of a great novel. The legends of the blues, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, they were generous with their legacy, and it spread beyond race, class. It spread into other forms of music and eventually infected my writing.

Music is an infection. Music is a voice.

When I sat down to write Southern Gods, the amalgam of music from a lifetime of living in the Delta welled up and came out, in one way or another. It spilled into my plot, into my style. Maybe into my voice. I don’t know. But I know what I wanted it to sound like. It needed pain and horror and the suck of gravity. It needed the grit and gravel of car wheels crunching on a backroad. It need the static and buzz of an untuned radio. It needed to sound like this:

Call and response. And that’s the relationship between the writer and the reader, each one brings something to the song. The writer sings his line, and the reader rises to join him in chorus. It’s give and take. It’s tension and release. It’s the rise and fall of breathing. It’s the barrel and roll of sex.


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