Usually I am away from home playing for familiar faces; someone else records it and I decide to share the better parts on the internet in an effort to get you all out to the next gig. That and trying to attract the attention of people outside of my hometown in Minnesota so that they might invite me to come to play where they live. That has of course changed.
The last year had already welcomed a series of new limitations on my life. I have been a bit obsessed with childhood traumas and ancient grown-up strategies (like meditation) for facing them. Memory has also proved essential. When the stay-at-home order was announced I immediately began to remember the generations that preceded me who have never had anything but one another. And not even that has been certain.
I met my grandfather, Jewel Anderson (1927–present), for the first time in 2016, at the close of my 30s and with patriarchal duties of my own. Growing up, I knew about him only vaguely, only what my father chose to relate: that he was in the south on land that the family had been in possession of for some time. That they are religious down there. That–though there’s a certain kind of hood in a city like Memphis–they are better off than our people are up north. Even in Minnesota.
Below is a transcription of an interview taken while I was visiting Jewel’s home near Collierville, Tennessee in (I think) 2018. It was my second time to visit. Among other things, I would discover that we share a shirt size and that he and my father share a ring of blue-grey at the very edge of their brown irises. Why I am sharing what turns out to be a not uncommon set of circumstances is a matter that it will take me a bit to get to. Stay tuned…
Jewel was born on his family’s farm in 1927, moved north near the end of WWII to serve in the armed services before settling into a career at the central post office in downtown Minneapolis. He played a role in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul black-and-proud social scene of the late 40s through the 50s, where he would run with the likes of local jazz greats Percy Hughes, Ira and Oscar Pettiford and a tuxedoed set of black strivers who would form an investment group to keep their dollars black for as long as possible. He also partied. But, after retirement from the post office, he headed back to the family land in Tennessee.
We sat to talk and a thought that rarely comes to me broke-through: you should record this. And I did.
Recently, I took the audio interview, edited it and added to it a field recording of my front porch garden and two bass drum improvisations. No looping or effects added. One drum wears a modern, plastic drum head, the other a calf skin. Both drums are 28”. I am calling the piece “Just Us Crows.” You really need to listen to it through headphones.
It might be auditory naturalism. The realism of The Depression. Jim Crow. Richard Wright’s blues. Hip Hop. Especially rapping. Itinerant bass. The changing-same.
See below for a recording of “Just Us Crows” and an unedited transcription of the interview.
We begin with his father…
Q: So he was born here? His name was?
A: Fred Anderson.
Q: And he was born here after…?
A: He was born in Moscow, TN.
Q: And his father died in 1919…I saw on the plaque.
A: probably so, I don’t know, I never met his dad
Q: And, so, you said you would work til noon, or so, then take a siesta as the sun got…
A: yeah, we would work until about 12 o’clock. We would break for dinner, then we would stay until it got sort of cool in the evening. Then we go back and work until about sundown.
Q: …but then you weren’t picking cotton, you were doing other things?
A: Picking cotton. Chopping cotton. Maybe we were doing corn. Just general farming. Watermelon. Peas. Anything.
Getting hay in for…during molasses. Sorghum growing, you know? Sorghum growing for molasses?
Q: …oh, yeah. Yeah.
A: and you all worked in the…you did that until how old? [blood pressure test signal goes off] When did you stop working on the land? When did you decide to move to Memphis?
A: when did we stop…oh, I stopped when I was about…17, I think it was [approximately 1944]. I went to Memphis.
You start work early when you’re…
Q: …and so you end early [laughs].
A: [with a smile] Right.
Q: You give out early…
A: you start when you get big enough to do something…
You, know, you might be a waterboy.
Q: [interrupts] …were there other people from the area who worked on the farm? Was it all family?
A: On our farm it was just the family.
Q: …but you ran water for the family?
A: Yes, bring water to the family.
[announces blood pressure reading]
Yes, just bring water.
We work until…well, we’d plow and plant and after the crop get up you have to thin the grass and thin out cotton to thin out your stalks…whatever… your cotton, you had to thin it out
Q: because they need how much space to grow? Like a foot or something like that? [measures with hands]
A: well, about 4 inches apart or so. 4 to 5 inches apart.
And after that, in the fall, you get ready to pick cotton. Pull corn. Do hay.
Q: For cows…
A: you had cows. And hogs. Chickens. Dogs. And horses to take care of, you know.
And, so, you do that until about this time of year…about October you’d normally finish. Then you have the winter free. Just feed the cows, milk the cows. Keep to your stocks and things.
Q: So, that’s when you got to school?
A: Yeah. We’d go to school then come home and do our work.
You’d have the summer off from school. From June to August sometime.
You live much like a person lives in the city. You have your work to do. You do it.
Q: How was it working with your dad on the farm? What kind of farm dad was he? [laughs]
A: What kind of farm dad was he? [with serious emphasis] He was strict. [laughs]
He was strict. He tell to do something, you did it.
Q: that’s right
A: there was no, uh…we didn’t rebel too much. We know we had to do it, so we did it. You know.
We was obedient. The time was strict. People were stricter than they are now.
Not evil. Not mean, but just strict. They gave authority…told you what to do…you did it. They didn’t ask you, they told you. [laughs]. You did it.
…you’d get the belt or the switch. Otherwise, we live just like anybody any other place.
Q: But you left the farm before your father died? He passed when you were in Minneapolis?
A: Yeah, he passed when I was in Minneapolis.
He had emphysema. Coal dust because he was a blacksmith
Q: right right right.
[an analog clock marks the hour]
A: so, that’s about it. My mother was a housekeeper. Most of the time she’s come to the field late in the day.
Q: …because she’d been out working…
A: because she had to cook, clean like everybody else. And she’d come to the field when she could. She was always in the garden, though. She believed in her garden because that’s where we got our food. Especially our green food. Produce. Vegetables. She did a lot of canning. Apple. Peach. Pears. Plumbs. Blackberries. Watermelon rinds pickled. All that kind of thing.
That’s about all I can…
Q: You get your first education before you go to school…from mama. She was the…
A: they had a simple education. Back in those days, black people, they didn’t have–especially that live here in Fayette County–the was no school. You had to walk to school. There were no busses. You had to take sack lunches to school. Most boys had to gather wood to keep warm. You had to clean the school. You had to draw water for your drinking water…during the day. It was a terrible life.
There wasn’t much education you got. No books. You take the hand me down books from t he white schools you walk to school–I don’t care how far you had to go–you walked to school. After school boys had to gather up brush, wood to keep warm. The men, they’d furnish, cut wood, but they never cut enough because they had other chores to do in the fields.
Q: You said earlier that you’re fortunate in that, because you all owned the land, you never incurred any book debt. And, so, weren’t indebted to white folks such that you…
A: No we weren’t no indebted. Maybe for misc stuff like some bread or a sack of flour. Were never indebted to white folks.
Q: because you owned everything that you produced you were able to barter…
My dad was a blacksmith. He did work for almost the whole county of Fayette county.
Q: the church in the community back then…how big was it? About as big as the one…
A: [pointing] yeah, about as the one down there. Just a one-room church.
Q: Your family, I’d imagine as pretty…your mother and your father were involved in what was happening with the church?
A: Oh yeah. Everybody almost. Most were involved with the church; what else did we have to do? Any social life wasn’t like it is today.
Q: you would find that later in Memphis? [chuckles]
A: Well, uh…yeah. I was young. Twenty years old, I’d run with the boys [says as if a cliche]
Go to a dance, or go to movies.
Q: the old Beale? Not the new Beale. Not that new thing they call Beale street.
A: Yeah. Beale street wasn’t like it is now. Beale street belonged… mostly jews and blacks.
Wasn’t much of white involvement on Beale Street.
They’s just since I been gone that Beale changed to what it is now. Beale street wasn’t like it is now.
Q: You told me last time I was here that–who was it?–you grandfather who played drums in picnics in Mississippi?
A. Yeah, my father played drums.
Q: …but he didn’t bring that up here. Did he do any playing in Memphis or anything?
A: no, he wasn’t that kind of… he wasn’t playing with a band or anything. Maybe solo. Take a solo. It wasn’t that kind of social life.
People would go to a picnic. You might have one guy up there playing guitar or some singing. Maybe you’ve got a drummer sitting over there drumming [points]. Wasn’t no band.
Q: [recalling that it has been about 15 minute since the clock last struck] Alright.
[end of interview]