|I can no more explain what the South is, exactly, than I can explain why Mama's cornbread was perfect. But, a Southern person would understand what I meant when I said Mama's cornbread was perfect, whereas a person from outside the South might not have a clue.
A friend of mine from Minnesota had some interesting things to say about the South. He's an engineer and had travelled to numerous countries throughout the world setting up his company's machinery. He'd work side-by-side with locals in Korea, Thailand, and all kinds of other places far from America. He'd eat the local food, drink the local beer, and in general, immerse himself in the local culture during his three-month stay in a given place. Then my friend from Minnesota got sent to Macon, Georgia--which is how I met him. He told me that the South was as much another country as any place he'd ever been.
My experiences as a touring musician provided me with the opportunity to see a lot of America. I've been to 41 states. My main activity while travelling was striking up conversations with locals. Most of my 40-odd thousand miles of touring was spent seeing the backroads and small towns of America. I learned several things during the course of several thousand conversations over coffee. One thing I learned was that most people have never ventured far from their home, and are fascinated with people from other places. Another thing is that most folks outside the South base their impressions of the South on Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, Deliverance, and images from civil-rights riots of the 60's. Probably the most interesting thing I learned was how much alike people were everywhere I went.
There seems to be a special fascination with the South. In some way or another, almost everybody wants to be a redneck. I heard country music playing in the most unexpected places--New Jersey, Maine, California. And if you think about it, what American music doesn't have Southern roots? All American music descends from some combination of the blues or mountain music, with those two musical styles merging and giving birth to a buck-tooth, cross-eyed baby named Country, a dapper youth with a string tie named Bluegrass, and a smoky pair of twins wearing sunglasses named Jazz and Swing. These children gave birth to further offspring, from the baby wearing leather diapers named Rock and Roll to the finger-popping child named Soul, all the way down to the present incarnations of this strange and beautiful family descended from mostly illiterate outcasts who found a way to express joy and pain with instruments and voice.
I saw as many "Confederate" flags flying in Central Illinois as I do in south Georgia. Many rear windows and bumpers of vehicles across the Northern and Midwestern parts of our country feature what are commonly called the Stars-and-Bars. I asked a couple of Illinois men why they had a Rebel flag on their truck. "What, you got some problem with that?"
I laughed, and pointed to my Georgia license plate.
"Oh, then, I guess you understand."
"Well, yeah, I think I understand how I feel about it, but why do YOU have that flag on your truck?"
"Oh, for me, it's simple. It means I don't want the government bothering me. I want to be left alone."
Hmm. That sounds familiar--it sounds just like something a Georgia boy would say.
"So, in your mind, that flag has nothing to do with race?"
"Hell, no, it's got nothing to do with race."
That's funny, isn't it? A man in Illinois, home of the troops that burned their way across Georgia in 1864, far from "the South" and never having been there, understanding something about the South that "the Media" doesn't seem to get at all. Why is that? I don't know. All I know is that there wasn't a single restaurant in his town where I could get cornbread.
I was talking with a woman outside a diner on the street in a small Massachusetts town. We had met at the counter, and had a good conversation over several cups of coffee. Outside the diner she said: "You know, it's really a shame how you people in the South treat the blacks."
I had been in this town for five days and hadn't seen the first black person. I asked the lady what she meant.
"Oh, everybody knows you hate the blacks down there and treat them badly."
"Have you ever been down South?"
"No, but everybody knows it."
"Oh, really? Who do you dislike in this town?"
She looked down the street, and there was a group of dark-skinned men walking towards us. "Those people right there--those damned Portuguese that come over here every year to dig cranberries. We hate those people. They're dirty and nasty, and they commit a lot of crime."
I didn't ask the lady anything else about the Portuguese and her intimate knowledge of the South. She had to go back to work. She crossed the street so she wouldn't have to walk past the Portuguese men. They walked past me, and smiled and spoke to me when I spoke to them.
I spent the afternoon in Poughkeepsie, New York, talking to a sixty-something year old black man from Georgia. He'd moved up there when he was a little boy with his parents. He was one of three black men in New York who told me the same basic anecdote: "Down south, a man running a restaurant will say, 'Get outta here nigger, we don't want you in here. 'Up north, they'll say, 'come on in, sir,' and then they spill hot soup in your lap.' I'd rather have the man down south anyday--I don't like what he says, but at least you know where you stand."
I've never heard anyone tell anyone to get out of a restaurant in the South, nor have I seen anyone spill soup in anyone's lap up North. Maybe those days are gone, and no one stops to think about them being gone.
Quite a few black folks have told me they thought the South was racist--until they moved up North. Some of them came back South for that reason. There's a difference in the two cultures. In the South, whites and blacks have lived together for almost three hundred years, if not longer. In my own county, there are black and white families who've been living near each other, working together, and knowing each other for five generations. In the North, you've got people whose family hasn't even been in America but two generations, and they're "just not quite sure what to do with all these blacks" that keep coming around. Of course, now that expression is extending to Mexicans as well.
By the time most of us Southern boys were in the fourth grade, we could quote the books of the Bible, tell the story of how America was born, name most of the Generals from both sides of the Civil War, and tell all the stories of Jesus and Moses. We were steeped in a culture of myth and legend, filled with characters of monumental proportion. All of us growing up in Middle Georgia knew someone whose Grandma still talked about "the War" as if it had just ended the month before--and they were talking about what is properly known as "The War Between the States," or, as many still call it, "The War of Northern Aggression." Some of the old, old folks still call it "The Recent Unpleasantness."
I don't know if being steeped in all these character-studies was good or bad, but we sure learned some history. And somehow or another, I think all of us Southerners share some common understanding about honor, glory, pain and suffering, about why Freedom matters and what it costs in human terms, and a wry sort of understanding about how a man named Sherman will never be forgiven.
A man in Illinois mentioned to me that "you people in the South still haven't gotten over the war yet." I asked what he meant. He said he was on his way to Florida and stopped to eat in Georgia. "I thought they were going to whip me before I got out of there. All I did was tell them I was from Illinois."
Ah, there's the mistake of the thing--location, location, location. I asked him: "Tell me this, how would you feel if a bunch of Georgia boys had burned their way across Illinois, raped your Great-grandma, burnt her house down, stole her silver, and took her last hog?"
"Oh, that's easy. I wouldn't like Georgia people one bit if that had happened."
"Have you ever heard of General Sherman?"
"Yeah, he was some guy from the Civil War, right?"
"Yessir, he and his boys burnt and raped and stole their way across Georgia. And you might want to remember, next time you go through Georgia, that the boys who were with him were mostly from Illinois. And the chances are pretty good you'll meet someone everywhere you go in Georgia who's descended from someone who got hurt personally by those boys."
"I had no idea of that."
I wanted to say, "uh, that's obvious, sir," but I didn't.
He had no idea that some of Sherman's boys did quite a bit of damage to the reputation of the Union Army while they visited our fair part of the land. I told this fellow about an older man I know who was raised in the same house with his Great-Grandma, who remembered being a little girl when Sherman's men came through on their way to Savannah, and how her Mama had taken her and her brother and sister out in the swamp to hide.
Their neighbor decided to stay at home, figuring they'd cooperate with the Union soldiers. This little girl never forgot hearing their neighbors screaming, as the Union soldiers tied the neighbor lady and her children to the side of the barn and set it on fire. And then these soldiers "had the gall" to take the dying family's cow. Needless to say, this older man's sense of history is somewhat different than my friend from Illinois.
One will meet few natives of the deep South who don't have some similar story in their background.
My own family, on my Mama's side, entered America back in the late 1700's. They probably came in at Charleston, as did many of the Scotch-Irish who came here either as indentured servants or as free men left to scrape out a hard-scrabble existence in a land still filled with Indians and not much else. My great-great-Grandfather ended up venturing across South Carolina, apparently getting into a mishap with another man just shy of the state line. This prompted him to cross into Georgia at Elbert County, which was the only place to cross the Savannah River back in 1830. He married a gal in Elbert County and headed on over towards Jackson County, just east of what is now Atlanta.
James Jefferson Wilson never owned any slaves that I know of, being one of the majority of poor whites who scratched out a living with their hands and the help of a dozen children. Three or four of the boys died in the Civil War, and the old man was injured and came home. After the war was over, he and a couple of the boys--along with a lot of the other people nearby--left their home east of Atlanta because of what are known as "carpetbaggers and scalawags."
People don't stop to think about the South having been an occupied country for about fifteen years or so after the Civil War, with many of the Northern politicians intent on punishing the Southern people. Small acts of vengeance, such as dispossessing men of property and any title or station, as well as removing them from duly elected office and replacing them with black men who couldn't read or write, really went a long way towards helping the general "good feeling" of "reconstructed Southerners" towards their "brothers in the North."
It's obvious to all of us Southerners that Gomer Pyle really does represent a true character that we probably went to school with. We all know Goober, too, and Barney, and Aunt Bea, and all the rest of the gang in Mayberry. But possibly aside from the accent, doesn't Gomer and the rest of the gang live in every county of this big, wide country? I'd say so, having met a few representatives of this special breed in every place I've been.
Author Flannery O'Connor probably did a lot to circulate ideas of Southern mayhem and weirdness. All her characters were twisted in some way, it seems. One only has to pay slight attention to the daily news to see that these types of characters exist in every state of the Union, but for some reason, people love to hear about them from the South. Maybe it's because humans love to kick someone around, and the South is one group of people who can still be kicked around in today's politically correct world. You don't see anyone standing up for Southerners when those outside the South make cracks about them, and the people down home either ignore the cracks or think they're funny.
People don't realize that most of the South is descended from the Scotch-Irish folks who were being kicked around for quite a while before they came over here. Many of the newcomers to the Southern colonies -- before they were known as colonies -- were banished here by various leaders who wanted them gone. It was expected that they would die in the forests of the New World. Some of them did in fact die. The mean ones survived, and gave birth to the people who became our ancestry. This doesn't mean that Southerners are meaner than other people, but simply to point out that anyone who survived coming to America two or three hundred years ago was a pretty tough old bird, and not likely to take kindly to being pushed around. This goes for Southerners and Northerners alike.
There's probably something a little different about the Scotch-Irish breed, too. From what I understand, my cousins across the water are a breed of people who like to drink, dance, hug, fight, laugh, argue, and cry. They're a tight-knit group of people in the old country who will fight each other until threatened from outside, at which point they will band together and fight the outsider. This description sounds just like some of the neighborhoods of America today.
Most people's lack of travel leaves them to form their views of other folks by watching television. Before TV came along, their opinions were formed by what their neighbors and preacher said. It's probably safe to say that most Americans have formed their opinion of anyone outside their town through having watched a half-dozen television shows. This means the ever-truthful Hollywood is responsible for the opinions of Americans about other people. Isn't this a comforting thought?
Back in 1991, I travelled to Japan. A buddy and I visited a mutual friend living in a small town of 30,000 situated northwest of Tokyo. While riding the train back to Tokyo at the end of the visit, some new-found friends from the small town rode with us. The train stopped at some point to pick up passengers, and these newly boarding passengers walked past us. Our small-town friends said something to each other in Japanese, and laughed. My buddy and I asked our Japanese-speaking American friend what they had said. "They said those people who just got on were hicks." We asked him to ask the Japanese friends why they thought that. "They said they could tell they were hicks because they talked funny."
I had a conversation with a Japanese woman I met near Atlanta. She was working at a Thai restaurant, and had lived in America for several years. I asked what she thought about it. "America is full of different people. It is amazing that everyone seems to get along." I asked her if she thought there was racism in American. "Nooo, no. Not near so much racism as in Japan. There is much dislike in Japan for those not like us."
A Nigerian man I met told me the same thing, even though everyone in his Nigerian hometown was pure African. He said they had intense racism in his village, but it was between Christian and Muslim.
The South is full of good and decent people. So is the whole country, from what I saw. There are idiots everywhere one goes, of course. The main difference in all of us is the way we talk. The people's native accent changes about every two counties in every direction. If you pay attention as you travel you can begin to hear it. I've been told there is a "movement" in colleges to teach "correct English," and that this "correctness" is based upon the sound of an NPR commentator. Obviously, the well-intentioned folks who got up this movement have never travelled across western Kentucky, or northern Alabama, or Central Missouri, or northern Minnesota, or talked to the old-time lobstermen in Maine, or the dairy farmers of western New York State, or ventured into the Tidewater areas of Virginia. Noah Adams does indeed have a great voice, but you won't find his sound-alike much of anywhere when talking to real Americans. His type only exists on the radio.
Southerners love a good story, and take any advantage given to tell one. The truth of the story doesn't really matter so much as whether or not it's told well. It's not unusual for any given story to convey some sort of truth that may or may not be readily discernible to the non-Southern listener. Southern stories often contain references to things non-Southerners might not be familiar with, like different foods, customs, Bible characters or verses, things a certain General did in 1862, or things that every Southerner's Mama taught him.
The South is indeed a world unto itself. We have, for all practical purposes, a language all our own, which can be thickened up to be almost unintelligible to a person from up North. I stopped in The Dixie Cafe somewhere in Wisconsin, sat down at the counter, and proceeded to plainly order turnip greens. The waitress asked me to repeat myself several times, finally became somewhat pale and wide-eyed, and said: "Hold on, yeah?"
The owner came out, looking sort of defensive. "What did you say to my girl here?" I told him I was trying to order turnip greens. He laughed, and said she'd thought I was making an off-color remark. I'm not sure what she thought I was saying, but let this be a warning to you as you travel Northward. Be careful what you order in northern "Dixie" cafes. They might think you're cussing them out or making an indecent proposition.
By the way, you won't find turnips anywhere up north. You might find them, but not at restaurants. They don't know what they are.
A diner in Canandaigua, New York, was filled by men and women talking about the opening day of deer season. Even the waitresses were talking about "the season" and "getting a deer." Finally, the waitress came to my table and asked for my order. I said: "Well, I'll take some turnips."
"What? Turnips? What's that? Where are you from?"
"Oh. I've never heard of turnips. What's the season on those?"
"Well, we can hunt them most anytime, really, but usually the spring and fall are the best times."
"Oh--two seasons a year! What do you hunt them with?"
By this time, the whole place had become deadly quiet, as the locals were listening intently to the funny-talking guy taking their favorite waitress for a ride unbeknownst to herself.
"Well, some guys will use a shotgun, but that usually just makes too much of a mess. They're hard to hit with a bow and arrow. Most people just catch them by hand."
"By hand, wow! They must be sorta slow."
"Well, yeah, they're sort of slow. Turnips only have three legs, you know, and even the slowest redneck can usually run a few down when he wants to."
"Three legs? Wow, things are really weird down South, aren't they?"
Every man had his mouth covered with his hand trying to keep from laughing out loud.
One of the men at the counter finally said: "Damn, Julie." And the place busted out laughing. I don't know if she ever caught on.
It's a rule in the South that if a person asks a dumb question, one has complete license to answer it in the most outlandish way, especially if there's an audience. It's almost considered a solemn obligation to do so, in fact.
A receptionist at a New York City friend's office asked me about pecans, because I'd brought them some. "These pecans--they grow on trees, right?" Her timing was perfect, because the whole office was gathered in the break room, drinking coffee, eating pecans and cookies. Everyone got real quiet when she asked her question. They all backed up so they could stand behind the receptionist, so she wouldn't see them laughing. Then, they all looked at me.
"Pecans? How do they grow? Well, they grow on short-growing vines, real close to the ground. Thousands of people have back problems in the South because of having to spend weeks bent over to harvest the pecans."
"Oh, things are so horrible down South."
The receptionist didn't know that all eight of her co-workers were standing behind her, doing their best to hold in their laughter. One woman had to leave the room because she was spitting Coke through her nose from laughing so hard.
"Well, that's not the worst of it. The really bad part is that every year quite a few people get taken over by the vines because they grow so fast. These people are smothered by the vines, and aren't found until the winter when the vines die back."
"Oh, working conditions have always been so horrible in the South."
About this time, everyone busted out laughing. The receptionist was taken aback. "What? What?" The receptionist then proceeded to get mad at me, of course, even though she had, by all rights, asked for the lesson. I soon left the office, and got on the elevator with a snazzily-dressed stockbroker lady from down the hall. As the elevator door was closing, here comes the receptionist, who put her hand in between the doors and stopped the elevator from moving. "Pecans DO grow on trees. I just looked it up on the Internet."
The fancy-dressed stockbroker lady looked at the receptionist, and then looked at me, raising an eyebrow. The receptionist turned to the stockbroker lady and said: "He says pecans grow on vines. I say they grow on trees. What do you think?"
The stockbroker lady said, with a perfectly straight face: "Pecans grow on vines."
The receptionist gave up, letting the door close. I said to the stockbroker: "You ain't from here."
She looked at me and grinned: "Texas."
She knew about the code, and even though we had never met and hadn't had time to plan it out, we both participated in perpetuating a big, fat, harmless lie to this know-it-all loud-talking Northern gal who just couldn't help but walk into a big trap she set for herself. All we were doing was fulfilling our honest obligation to help her learn.
When I was leaving New York, I was standing outside the airport smoking a cigarette. I was leaning on my guitar case. A blond-haired New York gal was smoking a cigarette with a drawling brunette friend. Suddenly, the blond New Yorker said: "Hey, mister, is that a guitar case?"
I took a drag off my cigarette, looked down at my guitar case, and drawled out: "Well, yes, ma'am, it is."
Her dark-haired Southern friend started grinning when she heard my voice. The blonde then really set the trap: "So, mister, is that a guitar in that case?" The brunette took two steps back so her friend wouldn't see the two-foot grin on her face.
"Well, no, ma'am, it's a swordfish. It's the only way I could get him home. They won't just let you take a swordfish on a plane anymore."
"Where did you get a swordfish in New York?"
"Well, I caught him in the Hudson River this morning."
"The Hudson River? I've lived here all my life and never seen any swordfish in the Hudson River."
"Well, maybe you need to pay closer attention. We just went out there in a little johnboat, and you find a school of swordfish and ride alongside 'em, and pretty soon, one will just jump in the boat. You thump 'em between the eyes, and it knocks 'em out, and you stick 'em in the guitar case before they wake up. He won't wake up good until I get back to Georgia."
The blonde-haired woman was amazed. Her friend was standing behind her, about to wet her pants. The blonde turned to tell her friend: "Did you hear that? He's carrying a swordfish in his guitar case? And he caught that damn fish in the Hudson River! What's so damn funny?"
Meanwhile, I had finished my cigarette and walked back inside. It was my honor to help this lady learn more about her native Hudson in general, and swordfish in particular.
A politically correct friend of mine told me I'm being cruel by playing these pranks. She doesn't think they're funny at all. So, I don't tell her stories anymore, preferring to simply ignore her and her politically-correct pomposity.
All people all over the land love a good story. Rural people in particular seem to have a knack for telling stories, and they also seem to have a real love for perpetuating a good story upon a city-slicker, just for good measure. The good thing about this activity is that it creates more good stories to tell, as the perpetuated story is related over and over.
What I found as I travelled was that the rural people I met were all very similar, with the exception of accent. I met rural people in all the states I travelled in. All of them share certain qualities of storytelling, helping one another, taking time for conversation, knowing their neighbors, gossiping about their neighbors, being comfortable with guns, and not quite trusting outsiders or the government. City folks may share these same qualities, but you just don't see many city folks gathering and talking the way you do rural people. And this isn't to say rural folks are better than city folks, anymore than Southerners are better than Northerners. There are good and bad in all places.
Southerners are a peculiar lot. We know that, and are proud of it, thank you very much. We love to eat, and we love to cook. We fuss at one another, pick on those we love, and are silent to those we're mad at. We can cover the vilest hatred with the most nauseating politeness you've ever seen, causing many outsiders to think all Southerners are liars. We're not. One older lady told me the reason Southerners cover up ill-feelings with politeness is because it's a shame to waste the perfectly good truth on a person we don't like anyway.
We love the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding, James Brown, Hank Williams, B. B. King, and any other great musician you can name, even if he or she ain't from the South. We know and love Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, and we know the stories about them aren't racist, no matter what some people who've never heard them might say.
Thinking Southerners know it was good we lost the war, but we nonetheless take pride in the fact that the Southern boys mostly whipped the Northern boys three years out of four even though they were outnumbered three to one.
Southerners who know their history always find it somewhat comical that the Northern "abolitionists" wanted the slaves to be free but didn't want them to come North. It's taken as an odd twist of historical omission that nobody ever points out that the mills demanding Southern cotton were located primarily in the North, or that the statue called "Liberty" sitting on top of our nation's Capitol was cast by slaves working in its shadow. Anyone questioning these simple things is immediately thought to be in favor of slavery, illustrating the violent complexity of an issue that no one is sorry to be shed of.
We love to laugh and are usually willing to cry. We can usually swear a pretty good streak when we have to, though we usually know better than to swear in front of women and children. We believe in good manners, and those of us who are older find it appalling to hear a kid say "huh?" We usually believe pretty strongly in God, though the common Southerner isn't nearly as quick to claim knowledge of God's plan as some well-known Southern preachers and politicians are.
We understand there's a mystery to the thing, the mysterious thing being life itself. We see it in our families, in our history, in our love of nature, in our gardens, our flowers, and the curiosities of our neighbors and the odd behavior of any Yankees who stop in on their way to Florida (which some claim to be the most northernmost state of them all, the top 40 or 50 miles excepted).
There's a reason Mama's cornbread was perfect. If you understand what I mean, then you understand what the South is, exactly. And if you don't, then, well, it can't be helped.
©Copyright 2006 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.