Watch this video

Then you’ll understand why I love playing music with my friends.

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a chance to make a road trip down to Carthage.

Art had the voice

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I have mostly given up reading Salon. I find its strident, braying liberalism and misleading clickbait headlines as tiresome as the Daily Caller’s chest-beating conservatism and misleading clickbait headlines.

But occasionally Salon surprises me with an actual gem. Like this morning’s long interview with Art Garfunkel, whose soaring angelic voice gave range and depth to the poetry of Paul Simon’s lyrics. As a duo, Simon & Garfunkel created music that allowed them to transcend the folk revival of the 1960s and secured for them a place in the pantheon of musical greats. They were, and remain, peerless artists.

The interview with Garfunkel is full of wonderful moments. It’s not even really an interview. It’s alternately a reverie, a monologue, an inner dialogue externalized. There are occasional questions and lengthy, sprawling, often poetic replies. Like this:

You know, I walked across America so I got a real feel for the geography. Bloomington’s near the middle of the state, near Indianapolis, right? So this is very American. The land is kind of flat with a little bit of curvature—a very sweet curvature to the land, yes? We think of Bloomington as a college town, correct? So fall means back to school in a very rich way. It’s wonderful, that back-to-school feeling of September. It’s a rebirth. The air gets autumn keen and the spirit sharpens up.

As I mentioned, I’ve walked across the U.S. and now Europe, so I know the land. There are many different version of the land: industrial, wasteland, uninspired land. But campuses are a Walt Disney movie. They’re a dream come true. They’re such a cut above almost all of it. Campuses are so pretty, if only the kids realized it. The rest of the earth is something less than that. The skyscrapers downtown, the used-car lots, the hamburger chains, everything that makes up the normal American scene. But not the campuses. They’re pretty. Those trees …

There’s a lot more like that.

Do you know this about musicians? Making music is a place we go to. It’s a real comfort zone. On the Monopoly board, it’s the box marked Go. When you pass go, you get $200. It’s our favorite box. When you go into a song, when you respect your own God-given talent, there’s something automatic about flexing those muscles. You go to that comfort zone and lo and behold, you find other musicians there. That’s the great thing about making music, but it’s also why Paul and Artie can be very squirmy around each other. We’re so damned different, but when the song and the music is happening and Paul is playing guitar—and Paul Simon plays brilliant acoustic guitar—you go to that place comfortably.

I could post any number of Simon & Garfunkel songs, but for me, none displays the crystalline beauty of Art’s voice as well as “For Emily Wherever I May Find Her.”

Faulkner, O’Connor, and ‘The Wrong-Eyed Jesus’

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A scene from the film “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about the South, where I grew up, and which I fled as soon as I could go north for college. But between trips down to retrieve my daughter from her small university atop a mountain in rural Tennessee, to Alabama to sing, visiting family in Virginia, and the seemingly endless months of drama and controversy surrounding the Confederate flag, it’s been on my mind.

With all that hovering in the background, one of my Irish friends, an artist, sent me a link to the 2003 documentary Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which he had recently watched on the BBC. He described it as, “a wide-eyed bejaysus, a cracking film.” So I had no choice but to track it down and watch it for myself.

What I experienced was a mesmerizing road trip of a film, an occasionally hallucinogenic ramble along backroads, through swamps and bayous, to truck stops and diners, jails, honky-tonks, biker bars, coal mines, Pentecostal holiness churches, and riverside baptisms, with stunning cinematography and haunting, haunted music.

My daughter watched it with me, and where she saw the filmmakers cruely exploiting the crushing poverty, eccentricities, and to our more enlightened eyes exotic fundamentalist faith of rural people, I saw a brilliant example of the literary genre known as Southern Gothic, the province of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Tennessee Williams.

The style features deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters, hints of connection to the supernatural, decayed or derelict settings, and grotesque situations or events stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, and violence.* These elements are all tools for exploring the social values and cultural characteristics of the American South.

Up until now the most recent and most compelling example of this I’ve seen on screen was the first season of HBO’s True Detective, a true classic of the genre. So too is journalist Dennis Covington’s book Salvation on Sand Mountain, about the culture of holiness snake handling in southern Appalachia, which I’ve been reading at the recommendation of one of my Alabama friends.

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus struck a nerve with me that I can’t quite explain. The people, places, and settings were at once familiar and unfamiliar. Mostly it reminded me of just how timeless and a place apart the American South really is once you leave behind the modern sprawl of Atlanta, or Nashville, or Richmond and drive out beyond the interstates, where the hills and trees close in and the roads turn to mud or dust in due season.

You can watch the trailer below, and then follow this link over to Vimeo for the full film. Friends in the UK and Ireland can find it on the BBC iPlayer (sorry, no link since it’s not available here in the states).

*Yes, I am once again relying on the lazy shorthand of Wikipedia for background because I didn’t want to dig out my old undergrad literature texts to craft a one-sentence description. So sue me.