We’re going to so many places so quickly that feeling like I need to report on those places is a drag right now. I don’t want to skip anything, though! I’ll try to spare myself by being brief and quoting someone else for this one.
We’re still traveling south down the Natchez Trace Parkway, and we added a day to our stay in Florence, Alabama, one of the quad cities known as the Shoals. We stayed directly on the Tennessee River, we went to a brewery (duh) and ate chicken wings and fried green tomatoes. We slowed way down when talking with locals. We saw Helen Keller’s home, a Frank Loyd Wright house, the radio station where Sam Philips started his music career, and of course every venue associated with the Swampers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
If you’re not familiar with this area: four session musicians were wildly good at what they did at the local FAME studios, and when they opened their own, they were the first American musicians to ever do so. They proceeded to play on and record hit after hit after hit, so many that people say the small concrete building is charmed.
Bands came from all over the US and Europe (and Jamaica) to get some of this magic in their recordings. The one-hour tour we took of the studio was a name-dropping whirlwind full of stories of which musicians drank too much and fought about recording decisions in the parking lot, which singers preferred the office closet to the vocal booth, on and on.
A distraction for Tracy and me is that there are many photos of Lynyrd Skynyrd on the walls, and they didn’t record a single record there. (They did learn that one of their roadies was a classically trainer pianist when he wrote the melody to Freebird for them while they were out to lunch. They didn’t lay down the lp though). I’m betting Lynyrd Skynyrd fans come to Muscle Shoals because of that line in Sweet Home Alabama about the Swampers, so they’re catered to on the studio tour. Onew I saw how many photos of them were up, I noticed that maybe 95% of the faces on the walls were White, when many, many Black musicians recorded there along with the Swampers.
I’ll leave with a quote from that podcast I’m infatuated with these days, A History of Rock and Roll in 500 Songs, by David Hickey. He says in episode 95, “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander:
“The Black musicians tend to be regarded as people who allowed the white musicians to cast off their racism and become better people, rather than as colleagues who in many cases somewhat resented the white musicians — there were jobs that weren’t open to Black musicians in the segregated South, and now here were a bunch of white people taking some of the smaller number of jobs that *were* available to them. This is not to say that those white musicians were, individually, racist — many were very vocally opposed to racism — but they were still beneficiaries of a racist system. These white musicians who loved Black music slowly, over a decade or so, took over the older Black styles of music, and made them into white music. Up to this point, when we’ve looked at R&B, blues, or soul recordings, all the musicians involved have been Black people, almost without exception. And for most of the fifties, rock and roll was a predominantly Black genre, before the influx of the rockabillies made it seem, briefly, like it could lead to a truly post-racial style of music. But over the 1960s, we’re going to see white people slowly colonise those musics, and push Black musicians to the margins. And this episode marks a crucial turning point in the story, as we see the establishment of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as a centre of white people making music in previously Black genres.”
You can guess none of that attitude was anywhere to be seen on our tours.
Still, my goodness, Aretha Franklin.
On a lighter note, it’s my birthday, my fourth on the road! I’ve celebrated at the beach near Apalachicola, in the beautiful desert at Death Valley, and kayaking on the Mississippi in Arkansas.
This year I’m on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, enjoying the warm sunshine. Feeling lucky, no matter where I am.