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Tom Graves | Devault-Graves DigitalEditions eBooks

§ Memphis... where's that, you think. Egypt? No, not that one. Memphis, Tennessee, on the Mississippi River, deep in the southern US bible belt in an area first explored by the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and which later grew into a major slave port to provide labour for the cotton and lumber trade. That Memphis. You know it -- the stomping ground of Elvis and the place where Martin Luther King got assassinated in 1968. These days, a population of nearly 700,000, a mix of black, white, and colors in between and some local aboriginal Indians. Could be tense. Could be Jumpin' Jack Flash. Could have a great culture, though, could have that creole vibe where Hillbilly meets the Blues in a heady bootlegger swag of sex and violence and the Third World War.

Tom Graves: White Boy 2019

'I am from a racist family. I was educated in a racist school. I was a parishioner in a racist church. I live in a racist city.'

Well, here we go, the Memphis writer Tom Graves (Crossroads: The Life & Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson) has stepped forward to testify about growing up in a segregated society where racism was as natural as the white lines in a parking lot or the Klu Klux Klan using electric crosses for their vigilante rallies. White Boy is an interesting story, and in at least one respect makes a good sociological comparison to the autobiography of Malcolm X. In his formative days, X trolled the dance halls of Harlem and Manhattan, did the Lindy Hop white girl shagadelic as a matter of political preference. So too, inversely, Tom Graves. Black magic women, Wild Bill's Blues Club, North Memphis, still there today in what one Trip Advisor reviewer describes as a 'sketchy part of town'.

TG describes it as a venue with 'authentic, undiluted electric black blues that played to a black audience, unlike that canned Muzak blues ("Stormy Monday' anyone?) down on the touristy Beale Street...'

'Five dollars at the door and the music would start at 11 pm. They sold beer by the quart and offered three food items: burgers, 'wangs', and fries. One dollar per wang.'

This is where he found them, although he came into contact with some in various Memphis work environments over the years. Strange Brew? Sometimes, although there's a melancholy humor about all this sexual buccaneering. White stoner blondes just weren't doing it for him. And, sometimes, black ladies. For instance, one rendezvous was with a black school cafeteria worker but when he discovered that she moonlighted up-river in Nashville as a stripper (she dressed up in a Catholic schoolgirl's uniform) and had six kids, the fantasy chilled. "I really could not wait to drop her at her house and let that one sink into the swamp of my past."

So much for double-agents... or was it?

It must be a truism that there can no racial integration without sexual integration. All you have to do is look at South America. Today, when you live far away from the Mississippi valley and Ground Zero, it's a liberated TV world where Tiger Woods struts the fairways and greens of white middle class America racking up the trophies both on and off the course and you think there's nothing unusual about it.

'Like Gore Vidal, I don't believe in turning down television appearances and sex'

The politics of race relations is a difficult subject, especially for those of us who only know it by reading books like White Boy or by watching TV. For Tom Graves, it certainly wasn't always love and peace. He describes in some detail his days as a PR writer for the Memphis School Board and the acrimonious workplace disputes with a black female administrator that led to his transfer to a local hell-hole middle-school as a teacher. While much of this autobio is funny, there's little humor in this particular reminiscence. Reading TG's icy scorn for this lady is almost injurious. But, as Dorothy Parker et. al. said, revenge is a dish best served cold.

What to make of all of this? I remember a Professor who married a a blonde Russian woman when studying in Moscow. He brought her back with him to Canada, and after a year or so, she left him. He became quite alcoholic and self-destructive. Why did he marry her? "It was like having my own dictionary in bed with me," he said. And laughed the gallows laugh. Of course he suspected he was being used as a passport out of Soviet Russia, yet he just couldn't help himself. The cultural fascination when personified as a sexual exotic was impossible to resist.

Black Magic Woman

Therefore you can suppose any blues aficionado wouldn't mind having some of that special voodoo on hand, no matter the risk. TG admits that he got involved in his greatest folly as part of a quest to better understand the blues.

How? Early in the new millennium, TG turns his thoughts to West Africa -- perhaps he should go there, research the roots of the blues, and when he's there, check out the women. He gets on the Internet, somehow ends up on a dating site, and before you know it, he's in Senegal entangled with a statuesque lady who fulfills his Bitches Brew fantasy on every level. Too good to be true? A set-up? Could be. He says he was suspicious, did research, consulted the soothsayers. The plot here -- and there is a plot -- is worthy of a novel, and the reader might believe that at this juncture of his story, TG is indeed living in a neo-gothic plantation romance in the manner of Kyle 'Mandingo' Onstott.

Don't laugh -- any man who sells his Peter Green Black Magic Woman '71 Les Paul guitar and his Art Deco collection to make an African romance happen deserves some sympathy for what comes down. Not quite as bad as Oedipus Rex, say, but bad enough. Still, no regrets, he says. He made the lady sign a prenupt. Now, that's rock and roll... and that's a great story.

Some readers will remember Albert Goldman's outrageous biography of Elvis Presley. Tom Graves was a researcher for Goldman on that project, so naturally you might wonder, did black folks like Elvis? You know Miles Davis didn't think much of him but in Memphis, blacks liked him, says TG, and relates a story told to him by Rufus Thomas, a blues funk singer (best known for 'Walking the Dog') and a well-known DJ for the local black radio station WDIA. Thomas was the first to include Elvis on the playlist and even his 5 year old daughter was smitten. Elvis was popular, both sides of the street.

And while TG doesn't touch on it here, it's quite possible that Elvis Presley's hybrid musical style and its popularity at home and across the world had a big positive influence on race relations. Several of Presley's early hits were written by the black pianist and singer Otis Blackwell. And while the ghost of Johnny Ray haunts the Elvis vocal on Heartbreak Hotel, the big emotional influence is surely that of the Delta blues.

How about the death of Bessie Smith one rainy night on Highway 61? Graves sets the record straight. No, Bessie didn't die because she was denied entry to a 'whites only' hospital....

School teachers will like this book, if only for some of the anecdotes about TG's year of teaching the urban poor at a predominately black middle-school. One incident stands out: a black kid whose dad tried to strangle him during a parent-teacher meeting. TG and a colleague rescue the kid, remove him from the room to the safety of a broom closet. When they return, the dad is unconcerned. Says TG, 'He sat there smiling like a mule eating briers." Great simile, although it might be one commonly used in the South.

'Believe me,' says TG, 'in Memphis City Schools, not only do these things happen, they happen every day.' And: 'Every middle-school teacher knew girls were more prone to fight than boys'. Ouch. This doesn't fit the official script.

I would say the root of this book is to be found in Beat literature, although there's nothing experimental about the narrative. The blunt, confessional exposition puts it in the tradition of I Jan Cremer or Chet Baker's autobio As Though I Had Wings. These are counter-culture testimonies, written not as literature, but as social documents. While Tom Graves is a professional writer and tends towards the personalism of the 'New Journalism' -- if you read one of his other books such as Louise Brooks, Frank Zappa and Other Dreamers and Charmers you do pick up some autobiography along the way -- he has limited the thematic sweep of this memoir to the issue of race.

So, White Boy: the confession of a social reactionary? Or raunchy reminiscence of a rock and roll journalist smitten by the blues? Both, surely. In 50's America, if you were white and poor, you were never as poor as a black simply because your whiteness acted as caste superiority. This is a popular sociological view on the matter. And money alone doesn't erase the racial line. Judging by the Tom Graves experience, it takes sex, a little rock and roll... and the universal mystique of the blues.

© LR April 2019

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