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October 22nd, 2003

  Alabama Diary, Part 1

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[Readers have been grumbling that I didn't render a full report of my trip to Alabama. I was in that state from September 25 to October 1, doing various kinds of business and catching the sights as best I could in between times. It was the first time I'd been to Alabama, and I was glad to make the acquaintance. Here are some notes from the trip — an Alabama Diary. There is too much for one posting, so I have split the diary into two parts. This is Part One. The second part is here.]

The real New England.  I think I had vaguely expected a sort of low-grade rain forest effect: swamps, Spanish moss, magnolias the size of dinner-plates, exotic bugs, and so on. In fact, I was surprised at how English Alabama looks. Driving around the back country, I could almost have been in the place where I grew up, the English East Midlands. Gently rolling hills, small farms, grazing cattle, even some hedgerows — pretty much like the countryside I spent many happy hours bicycling around in my childhood. (Though the hedgerows of Northamptonshire are around a thousand years older than Alabama's. Anglo-Saxon land title deeds often refer to hedgerows that still exist.)

The general Englishness was accentuated by the names of the people I dealt with. Around me in New York — and I mean no offense to my neighbors and colleagues, wonderful, wonderful people all — are Kuznetsovs and Sanfilippos, Wongs and Nagaswamys, Wojciehowskis and Makarajians, Nordlingers and Ponnurus. In Alabama it's all Freeman and Hutchinson, Thatcher and Bryce. This is more like England than New England (which is not, as a matter of fact, anything like England at all). Of course, the illusion of being back in the old country evaporates at once as soon as an Alabamian opens his mouth to speak.

How are yieouw?  Now look: I have a license to make fun of them, because they started it, making fun of me. Alabamians smiled to hear me pronounce "Montgomery" as if it were spelt "Montgomery." After a while, a kind friend took me aside and coached me in the correct pronunciation: Mungumruh, with a low rising tone, a Mandarin third tone, on the second syllable. Further lessons followed, and I now feel I could write a book about Dixie pronunciation. Those glorious vowels! To my dull British "How do you do?" Alabamians reply with a broad grin and a cheery: "Well, and how are you?" Except that the "you" is pronounced with a triphthong or tetraphthong: yieouw. "Head" is something like hayuuud. "Airport" is practically a sentence all by itself: ayuh-poe-uht. The Queen of England can pronounce the word "extraordinary" in just two syllables ("strawn-ree"); in Alabama they can get four syllables out of "cow."

Roadside exhortations.  One of the tinier pleasures of driving around the South is reading the little exhortations displayed outside churches. Some of them are very ingenious. My favorite one this trip, outside a church near Alexander City:  GIVE SATAN AN INCH AND HE WILL BE A RULER.

State cuts spending!  Another pleasure in Alabama was reading the local political news. A while before I arrived, the state had realised that it was headed for a budget crunch. The Governor thereupon set out to raise taxes. This did not sit well with Alabamians, who do not like taxes. Struggling to shore up his case, the Governor made a clumsy speech implying that it was the voters' Christian duty to support tax hikes. This ticked off the citizens even more, and in a September 9 referendum on the topic, they decisively voted down the Governor's tax increases.

What's a politician to do? If this was New York or California, the Governor would just have hiked taxes anyway. In fact both the legislature of New York State and the Mayor of New York City have responded to their respective fiscal crises by raising state spending! There's always a way to override these annoying referendum results — a ruling from some friendly judge generally does the trick. Then, to fudge those equally annoying numbers, the boys in the back room would have cooked up some fancy new kind of bond, putting citizens in hock for thirty years in order to pay the next three years' current expenditures. That's how things are done, isn't it?

Nope, not in Alabama: Governor Riley called a special session of the legislature (this is one of those sensible states where the legislature's normal session is limited to a fixed number of days — two per annum would be fine with me, but Alabama allows 30 days in a 105-day period), and they set about cutting state spending! Private agencies that have been getting state money for years will now get none. "Teacher professional development" boondoggles (i.e. get a Ph.D. while drawing a state salary) have been cut; so has "classroom technology" (i.e. computer games to occupy your kids while the teacher works on his Ph.D. thesis); so have welfare services. Can we get Pataki and Bloomberg down here for some lessons?

A distant drum.  I very much wanted to see the site of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. This did not disappoint. Like a surprising number of battle sites, Horseshoe Bend is an exceptionally lovely place, kept well-groomed by the National Park Service. Here, in an eight-hour fight on Sunday, March 27, 1814, Andrew Jackson and a mixed force of U.S. regulars and Tennessee frontiersmen defeated the Creek Indians under Chief Menawa. This was a critical battle in U.S. history, as it opened up the Southeast to European settlement. It also, of course, put Andy Jackson on the road to fame, and eventually the Presidency.

There is nothing to see now of the Creek village and its fortifications, but again, this is usually the case at battle sites. You need to use your imagination. The visitor center has a small exhibition, a good selection of books, and a short movie about the battle. Take your time, get yourself in the mood, try to arrange things so that you are the only person present if possible (I did), and you can bring the whole thing to life.

I suppose that this battle is nowadays taught to our children as a victory by rapacious white savages over gentle, spiritual, peace-loving farming and weaving folk of the "Native American" persuasion. It is therefore with malicious glee that I report the following fact: After a century or so of frontier mingling and miscegenation, the Creeks numbered among their leaders men bearing names like Paddy Walsh, Josiah Francis, Peter McQueen and William Weatherford (a/k/a Chief Red Eagle). Sounds like the Great Manitou had been listening to too much country music.

Mule manure.  Ah, country music. Naturally I took advantage of the trip to feed my Hank Williams obsession. I had better restrain myself here, or I shall be off on another longhagiographical gush. I just want to record the following, which I spotted in one of the displays at Hank's boyhood home in Georgiana. It is from an interview Hank gave near the end of his life.

You ask what makes our kind of music successful … It can be explained in just one word: sincerity. When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings "I Laid My Mother Away," he sees her a-laying right there in the coffin.

He sings more sincere than most entertainers because the hillbilly was raised rougher than most entertainers. You got to know a lot about hard work. You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly …

(I wonder if "manure" was the actual word Hank used?) I'm reminded of a story Reba McIntire tells about her parents. I hope it's Reba, anyway — I'm working from memory here. The parents were country people. The first time Reba's father saw her mother, she was carrying two big buckets of hog swill. "Any woman that can tote two buckets of hog swill is the right woman for me," he said to himself, and started courting her right there. It sounds like something from 150 years ago, James Whitcomb Riley or Mark Twain; yet this was only 1950 or so.

"Tomorrow I'll be right back plowin' … "  Which brings me to another thing that's been on my mind this trip: the disappearance of the white American peasant. Now, of course, "peasant" isn't a word that has been much used in reference to poor rural whites in this country. I have not seen it once in Poor But Proud, Wayne Flynt's book about Alabama's poor whites, which I am reading with great pleasure. That's what they were, though — and what numbers of them there used to be! Three goals of my present trip were to (a) indulge my Hankolatry, (b) see a college football game, and (c) go to a NASCAR race. Well:

Again, this wasn't the Middle Ages, this was fifty or sixty years ago, well within living memory. (We have lost Hank and Bear Bryant, but Junior Johnson is still alive.)

Good times.  I got chatting with Margaret Gaston, curator at the Hank Williams homestead in Georgiana. Born in 1929, this good lady came from just that same kind of background. She denied any feeling of oppression or deprivation, though. "Everyone lived just the same. We didn't know we were deprived, we never thought about it. Looking back on my young years, I must say, I enjoyed them. We had a good time!" The race business? "We mixed plenty — more than now, I think." [Funny how often you hear this.] "The schools were separate, though. We had our school, they had theirs. I don't know their school was any worse than ours. Our school had a stove, theirs had a stove …" Hank? "I saw him perform at the Opry in 1951. Oh, how we cheered him! He got more cheers than anyone. You couldn't take your eyes off him. He was working, though, I mean working — drenched in sweat, like somebody'd turned a hose on him. But that was what he loved to do — perform for people. He loved it. You could see that, he just loved it. He was happy up there on stage, happy."

North and south.  Not that Alabama was entirely a peasant state. My own expedition was a bit one-sided, as I spent most of my time in the southern part. A word-association test with "Alabama" would turn up "cotton" as a first response from most Yankees. In fact, "iron and steel" would be just as valid for twentieth-century Alabama, or "coal" (or "the military," come to think of it — you see a lot of uniforms round the state). In 1920, better than one Alabamian in a hundred was a coal miner. To push the analogy with England, the state was as much Mrs. Gaskell or Charles Dickens as Thomas Hardy.

This puts me into familiar territory — both my grandfathers were coal miners in the West Midlands of England. The stories about Alabama coal miners in Poor But Proud all sound like the stuff I heard in my own family. Child labor was common in both places: 1,384 of those 26,000 Alabama miners in 1920 were aged between ten and seventeen. My mother's father went "down the pit" at thirteen, after a brief career minding sheep on Cannock Chase. Here, from Wayne Flynt's book, is an Alabamian Mr. Gradgrind, also circa 1920:

One employer, whom a journalist described as a man "without ideals and apparently without shame," explained that he prevented labor trouble by hiring no one who knew how to read. The only reason he ever hired a literate miner was because "there aren't enough illiterate" ones to go around.

These are more explorations for a future visit, though. The nearest I got to industrial Alabama on this visit was a one-night stay in the town of Bessemer, obviously named in honor of the steel-smelting pioneer. It was the nearest motel booking I could get to the Talladega raceway. It was also the filthiest motel I have ever been in. My door lock did not work, the carpet in my room was sticky, and there was, to judge from the smell of the place, a rotting corpse in one of the wall cavities. You take 'em as you find 'em when you're on the road, but this place needs a visit from the quality control people at Masters Inns.