I’m driving, as ever, on the wrong side of the road. And I’m listening to Howlin’ Wolf. And the Carolina sun is sweet and warm. And she’s with me.
We pass Wendy’s and Biscuit King and Taco Bell and a sign that says, simply, ‘Vote’, and I think – because it’s the kind of thing I’ve done since long before Carol Barnard told me on an eighteenth birthday card to ‘stop worrying about Afghanistan’ – about Tolstoy’s question, his ‘simplest, unanswerable question’: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?”
I’m asking that question and I’m driving down towards Uwharrie Forest, searching for the soul of John ‘Chopsticks’ Nelson, the man who wrote ‘Greensboro Blues’, the man who may or may not have had a relationship with Nina Simone, the man who once wrote, in a letter to Woody Guthrie, “In the end, all we have are our parents’ histories and our children’s futures.”
At Horneytown there’s a tight cluster of shops – shacky, wooden, a little tired and worn. I stop there, jump out, go into the general store, buy two bottles of water. Nelson mentions Horneytown (and the small townships of Erect and Climax) in his notorious ‘No Fuck NC Blues’, the song that broke him (in all meanings of the word) back in ‘72. But there’s no sign of him here, no sense, no memory, no dream, so I ignore the dogs barking at me, the flag fluttering proud across the road, the kid doing community service picking up trash, and I head south again, Emmylou still there, vague, in the passenger seat, gently singing ‘Women Walk The Line’ and then ‘Love Hurts’ and then ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ and then – typical! – refusing to sing anymore for me until she’s drunk all the sweet tea I’ve brought with us.
We pass through Welcome and Silver Valley and a few miles on – I knew she would – she asks me to drop her off at the New Jerusalem Church, says she has something to give to Gram. I turn into the car park, stop, look for a few seconds at the names on the gravestones in the small, lost cemetery. Emmylou says nothing, gets out. I watch her walk up to the front of the church, open the door slowly, turn to me briefly, turn back, walk in. The door closes behind her. I know I’ll never see her again.
White and pure and light-drenched: I take a picture. of the church and I think about the snake preacher who died down the road last week, the man whose own father had himself died thirty years before, bitten as he too put his trust in the God of all our ancestors. I get back in the car and I feel a rush of cold, sharp darkness from the empty passenger seat and I turn the radio on but there’s nothing but big-hair rock music and news of fire and blame.
I drive. And drive. Just before Healing Springs, I see an old man, his thumb out, a bowler hat on his head, standing by the side of the road. For a moment I think it may be Nelson, but he’s too smooth, this man – too calm, too long-past-suffering. I decide I need him. I stop. He gets in the car. He has a long, groomed white beard, a waistcoat, and a voice like Tom Waits.
‘You going to Jump Off Rock?’ he says, and I tell him, ‘Yeah. I’m hoping to meet someone there.’ He laughs, leans over, turns the radio on. ‘Greensboro Blues’ is playing. I turn to look at him. He’s staring straight ahead, soundlessly singing along, a quiet smile on his face.
By the time we get to Ophir, I really need a cigarette. I gave up twenty years ago but times like this – times of fear and memory – I really, really want one. I ask the man with the beard if he has any and he says, ‘Nope. I quit the day I died.’ Great. Stormzy’s on the radio now and his snide-spit anger stabs me, shakes me, wraps me in a kind of sour homesickness. ‘Can never tell what these people are singing about,’ says the man with the beard and I start to respond, then stop myself. No time left for righteousness.
I take a breath. Then another. I loosen my grip a little on the wheel. A kind of peace descends. Until – oh yes! – I remember the song you sang that sweet spring morning in Raleigh.
Five, six miles pass. ‘Turn off here,’ the man with the beard says, as I knew he would, and I slow the car, ease it onto the forest track, the track I last drove down the night of the flood, the track to Jump Off Rock and the dusk of our lives.
It’s cold now, the sun’s gone, the radio’s switched itself off. All I can hear is the breathing of the dead man next to me. Do you remember those sleepless childhood nights when all you could hear were the creaks and groans of the house and the blue chatter of your thoughts and the ancient echoes of the day? Do you remember wondering if this night would last until Judgement Day? Yeah. It all feels like that. The earth is changing and the white hoods are here again and it’s time to drag us all back from the clasp of the past, as the song says.
It’s afternoon still – it must be – but it’s pitch black and I turn the headlights on. I look round, start to ask the man with the beard the question, the question you’d want me to ask him, but he’s no longer there. His bowler hat’s sitting, mocking, on the passenger seat.
Shit. There’s mist now, rain, I can hardly see anything. I put my foot on the brake and the car ignores me, try again and feel it start to speed up. The rain’s pounding on the windscreen, the mist has become fog, the steering wheel’s jammed, solid, unswerving. Faster, headlights are switched off now, faster, just blind darkness ahead, faster, feel the head-on-roof bumps and jolts of car on forest floor, faster, fear the scratching and knocking of branches on the roof, faster, sense the wolf-howls and the voice of Nelson in ‘63, faster, hear the sore cry of his guitar, faster, close my eyes, faster
I open my eyes and see sunlight edging towards me through longleaf pines. I’m on my back. The ground beneath me is bumpy, unforgiving. My head’s sore. I can hear the nagging chatter of cicadas, smell the harsh clasp of campfire smoke. I slowly sit myself up. Pain everywhere. You know that Johnny Winter song, ‘Be Careful With A Fool’? I can hear that coming from behind me, try to turn towards it. I cough, cough again. My chest’s tight, crushed. I’m finding it hard to breathe. I feel consciousness fading. I try to keep my eyes open but I can’t, slump back onto the ground and disappear into the dark, locked library of my mind.
‘I rapped on the office door and asked for God.
The manager was bald and apologetic.
The manager told me God was out.’
On Suicide Hill, in 1937, 375 members of the British Battalion of The International Brigade died fighting Franco. Christopher Cauldwell was one of them, brave poet-boy from Putney. Nelson’s song, ‘Kingdom Of Heaven Blues’ mentions Cauldwell by name, alongside MLK and Thaddeus Stevens. In my Carolina dreams, I can hear that ringing opening A7 chord, the chord that first wrapped me in Nelson’s magic, the chord that beckons us each toward some messy redemption, the chord that set me on this journey.
I wake again. I feel like I used to when I’d drunk too much the night before. The man with the beard is standing over me, smiling. ‘Get up,’ he says, holding his hand out for me to grab. He starts pulling me up. I feel sick, dizzy. I push his hand away, clamber to my feet, swaying a little. I look around. We’re in a clearing. There are derelict farm buildings on three sides. I look the man with the beard in the eye. ‘Where’s my car?’ ‘Over there.’ I see rusty red tailfins poking out from behind an old barn, start to walk towards the only home I still have. ‘Go back to High Point,’ he says. ‘Right,’ I say.
The keys are in the ignition. The bowler hat’s still on the passenger seat. I stick the gearshift in reverse, ease out. The man with the beard’s standing, proud and taunting, in the middle of the clearing, looking like a Confederate Hagrid. He wants me to run him down, I know. But I drive slowly past him, onto the track and into the forest. I breathe. The radio turns itself on. It’s Magic Sam, the man I share a birthday with, doing ‘Black Magic Blues’. I think about Jump Off Rock and I feel glad – glad with a rush of love – I never went there. It’s not too late, it’s never too late, but my soul isn’t ready. My soul was never Cherokee, my soul was never American.
Candor. Erect. Liberty. Climax. With each small, mocking town I drive through, I feel smaller, more distant, more… unhere. I read once that 10% of the blues came from English folk music and I always wondered about the strange arrogance of giving it a percentage, wondered too if there was any truth in it. I can hear the hope of my parents’ hymns and the pains of the famine and the fears of the trenches in the blues but I can never hear the old voices of the English, except perhaps as a low, low murmur of threat and rage.
I head west, pass through High Point. In a few hours I’ll be in Tennessee. I’m tired. And I know I’ll probably never find Nelson: even the ghosts of his ghost have been elusive here, hinting themselves into awareness, then winking away in a moment. I wonder – not for the first time – if he was ever real. But I have to keep searching.
Miles pass. The news comes on. They’re tear-gassing kids down at the border. I turn the radio off, sure it will turn itself straight back on again. But it doesn’t. There’s just a cold, marshy silence; even the sound of the engine has gone. All I can hear are the twisting arguments of my thoughts. Miles pass. And then the thoughts slip away too. There’s a stillness, a half-holy, half-immersed stillness. I let myself float, let myself be.
Miles pass. Just beyond Asheville I hear Nelson’s harmonica playing, sweet and tough, quiet at first, then louder. The music’s here now, suddenly, right here in the car, alive and filling the world. My heart jumps. I smile, turn, thinking for a moment he’s sitting there next to me. And, just for a moment, he is.