Saturday night I went to see Dylan’s band play in Winston-Salem. Two nights earlier I caught them in Charlotte. Attending these shows felt like the right thing to do after Daniel Kramer and his wife Arline Cunningham visited us this week (more soon about that). My thinking was that the two shows might provide content and impetus to finish my long-wandering piece about Dylan and the Piedmont region of America that I mentioned in a previous blog entry, Which Direction Home. So it was worth the splurge.
In Winston-Salem Dylan played in Lawrence Joel Coliseum at Wake Forest University just off of N.C Highway 52 several miles north of downtown. Along with Durham, Winston-Salem was an axis power of the tobacco and cigarette heyday (I’m chagrined that people can’t choose to smoke in bars anymore, even though I’m not a smoker). Nineteen miles from the coliseum up Hwy 52 looms Pilot Mountain, which was known as Mount Pilot on the Andy Griffith Show. Drive sixteen more miles up Hwy 52 from Pilot Mountain and you reach Mount Airy, N.C., which is the real Mayberry. The amount of music that came from this relatively low populated region blows your mind: Doc Watson, Etta Baker, Ralph Stanley, just to name three. Dylan knows this, of course. He probably took his Harley to Deep Gap (Watson still lives there) or Morganton (Baker, recently deceased, lived there) in between his Charlotte and Winston-Salem shows.
What Dylan might not know (but he probably does) is that if you drive twenty-two miles from Lawrence Joel Coliseum in the opposite direction you can reach 118 Underhill Avenue in the city of High Point. This is where John Coltrane lived most of his life until he graduated from high school and moved to Philadelphia in 1943.
After the Winston-Salem show I stayed in a suburban Hampton Inn near the coliseum. It could have been anywhere – Home Depot, Office Depot, Starbucks, Subway, Chick-Fil-A, Wendy’s, Hooters, Cracker Barrel, Bank of America, Wachovia, Exxon, BP – and no way to really walk around. Visually, it could be Phoenix or Orlando or Sacramento. People working in these block and glass boxes are happy to have jobs. Their accents hearken to the Old, Weird America but everything else has been rubbed smooth by sameness. I caught the end of Phillies-Giants and then worked on my Dylan-Piedmont article until two in the morning.
Yesterday I woke up, made two large cups of hot black tea, grabbed a couple of granola bars, and I drove to 118 Underhill Avenue. The house sits one block from the railroad tracks, much like Monk’s childhood home in Rocky Mount, NC (which I wrote about here and made a photograph with Gene Smith’s camera which can be found here). According to the seminal Coltrane scholar David Tegnell, this house was built by Coltrane’s maternal grandfather, Reverend William Wilson Blair, circa 1929. The City of High Point recently purchased it with intentions of making it a landmark or Coltrane museum, but the current situation is unclear, according to Tegnell. The City has let the rental tenants stay put for now. Here’s the photograph I made with my iPhone.
John Coltrane's childhood home. High Point, N.C.
I left Underhill and drove over to High Point’s Green Hill Cemetary and, with instructions from Tegnell, found the graves of Coltrane’s father, John Robert Coltrane, and Reverend Blair. I can’t tell the whole complex story here, but let me say that Rev. Blair was a pioneering figure who was elected as a Commissioner of Chowan County (county seat, Edenton) before the integrated Fusion movement was squashed by white supremacists in the late 1890s. Both of John Coltrane’s grandfather’s were AME Zion ministers but Rev. Blair was the most influential and he had a profound impact on young John. He also cast a massive shadow over John’s father. The two grave stones are pictured below in photos I made yesterday. I had to root around with my boots to find the elder Coltrane’s stone and then kneel on my hands and knees to dig out dirt to make his name, misspelled Coldtrane, legible.
Gravestone of Coltrane's father, John R. Coltrane (1895-1939)
Gravestone of Coltrane's maternal grandfather, Rev. W.W. Blair (1860-1938)
These two stones are in a family plot marked by a big marble stone indicating “Blair Family” (photograph below). David Tegnell was told by John Coltrane’s cousin Mary Alexander (Coltrane’s tune “Cousin Mary” is named for her) that this stone was paid for and installed by John and his mother Alice Coltrane in 1966, a year (or less) before John died (he died in July 1967). John’s mother Alice died in 1977 (yes, Coltrane’s mother was Alice, just like his wife Alice McLeod Coltrane).
Gravestone marking Blair Family plot in Green Hill Cemetery, High Point, N.C.
For me this Coltrane pilgrimage was long overdue, and moving. I tried to imagine what twelve year-old John Coltrane might have been doing on Underhill on a day in 1938 like yesterday (sunny, 72 degrees). What would High Point have been like? Well, undoubtedly, young John would have spent most of the day in church, it being Sunday. He would have heard the familiar passion, improvisation, and dissonance of the African-American church service – services that ended when they ended, not on predetermined schedules. But young John’s life was about to change. In December 1938 his beloved grandfather Rev. Blair died. In 1939 his father John Robert Coltrane died and there were additional deaths in the family. Jim Crow was in full swing, too. In other words, it was a good time to think about moving. Coltrane’s mother and family would begin leaving for Philadelphia in the near future and John would stay behind long enough to get his high school degree, then he would join them.
There are two frontiers in jazz research, in my view, or in American traditional music in general. One concerns learning more about the ordinary musicians and figures who populated the music scenes in the middle part of the 20th century. This frontier is not about iconography. It includes family members and bartenders and festival judges and hotel owners and other non-musicians as well as musicians who never made it big. The second frontier concerns deep research on family histories and cultural backgrounds of the musicians, icons (like Tegnell’s work on Coltrane) and ordinary alike.
Bob Dylan has being doing this kind of research for a long time. He’s nothing if not a historian. Last week Daniel Kramer told us that in his one year following Dylan – August 1964 to August 1965 – Dylan read everything he could get his hands on whenever he wasn’t playing music and Kramer had photos to illustrate it. Dylan, who came from upper Minnesota after his parents came from Eastern Europe, is a caretaker of southern musical traditions. But his shows aren’t just of archival value (although with his foot-lamp stage-front lighting sometimes makes the performance visually resemble old newsreel footage, or Sargent’s famous flamenco painting, El Jaleo). Dylan’s current band is pushing his music to a limit which much of his ticket-buying audience doesn’t seem to enjoy all that much. There’s no attempt to be crowd-pleasing. Those that do enjoy it believe his band might be state of the art in blues rock today.
A deep engagement with history is critical to creating something new and lasting. Monk and Coltrane were historians, too. One of Coltrane’s first compositions, “Goldsboro Express,” was named after the railroad line from High Point to Goldsboro, N.C. on which his uncle worked. Monk cherished old things. When he decided to play tunes other than his own, it was always old standards, nothing before 1932, and he played them in ways nobody had heard before. In his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Vol. 1, Dylan tells of approaching Monk at a club in the Village and introducing himself as a folk musician. Monk replied, “We all play folk music.” Dylan isn’t the most reliable narrator but this anecdote sounds true to me. From listening to Monk talk on Smith’s loft tapes, this sounds like something he would say. In Chronicles Dylan continued: “Monk was in his own dynamic universe even when he dawdled around. Even then, he summoned magic shadows into being.”
More and more, it makes sense to me that Gene Smith laid out his 1969 Aperture monograph so Monk and Dylan were facing each other. Ironically, my Monk article (linked above) was the cover story of the Oxford American’s music issue in 2007 and Sean Wilentz is featured on the cover, too, for a Dylan piece that became part of his new book, Bob Dylan in America (See Which Direction Home and Which Direction Home, Pt. 2). The overlaps are everywhere.