2252941773_3ee27a7f55Claremont, CA – The first thing you see, when you enter the Memphis Rock N Soul Museum, is a front porch.

This front porch is a dilapidated thing, decorated with a few old barrels. Nearby lie the accoutrements of tenant farming: mule harness, cotton bag, scale. It is a scene meant to evoke – and a scene which does evoke – the crippling brutalities of sharecropping life.

Yet what happened on front porches just like this one would amount to a great cultural transformation in the United States. That’s because at the turn of the twentieth century, front porches were where southern sharecroppers gathered to play music.

And it wasn’t just any music. It was improvisational, dynamic, freewheeling – and critically, it was biracial. The indignities of sharecropping were shared across the color line, eventually making southern sharecroppers an integrated exception to the rule of Jim Crow. (This exceptionalism extended well into the 1930s, at least, when the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was one of few labor unions open to all races.)

So black sharecroppers brought with them the songs and rhythms of slavery (its own mashup of the African, Caribbean, and European). They brought the bent notes and slides of the blues.  White sharecroppers brought with them the “old-time music,” the fiddle-and-twang folk songs of southern Appalachia.

The music they made together on those front porches, with the help of a little radio publicity, ultimately set the stage for almost all the music Americans listen to today: country and western, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Like Joan Jett, I love rock and roll, which now I know may have something to do with why I write for Front Porch Republic.

As Patrick Deneen has noted, a front porch is a place not quite private and not quite public. It’s a little bit of both, a blending of the two. That element of front-porchliness reveals itself quite clearly in southern sharecropper culture, to be sure, but since Patrick has already discussed this I’m going to leave it aside.

Let’s be more fun and exciting than that. Front porches are exciting places. Exciting! Think about front porches this way: as improvisational places, sites of spontaneous conversations and serendipitous meetings and impromptu jam sessions. They are places for coming and going, places to expect unexpected encounters.

When black and white sharecroppers gathered together on the front porches of the rural south, they did not have a grand plan to change the face of American music forever. They were just hanging out and seeing what happened. It was an exploration of potential: of the potential of individuals and the potential of individuals who join together in song.

This kind of spontaneous, improvisational conversation – whether in speech or in music or whatever – is imperative in a basically democratic society, especially in a pluralistic one. As scholars of jazz music like Robert O’Meally have argued, improvising is a crucial skill for democratic life.  Spontaneous music and conversation with others teach you to respond to others in the moment, teach you to cultivate form and order from the unpredictable.

Importantly, that improvisational conversation involves more than exchanges of mere words and language. On the front porch, that interaction is bodily: encompassed in gestures and posture, smiles and frowns, winks and nods. It involves something close to the whole person.

It’s also the kind of conversation that does not happen easily on the Internet. As my students and I have discussed often, even the most “casual” e-mail can be the result of hours of hand-wringing and synonym-searching and scheming and plotting. Even “instant” messages can be revised, massaged, and cleaned up before they are sent. And perhaps it is needless to say that internet communication is not bodily, not face-to-face.

Our own forum for exchange here, then, leaves something to be desired – at least to the extent that the front porch is our symbolic model. Given the realities of our own lives, this virtual front porch may be a better among second-bests.

But perhaps even more than writing or reading the carefully crafted missives on this site, we should seek and embrace the spontaneous interactions that we may only be able to have – or, at least, that we may have best – with the people who share our non-virtual neighborhoods.

Every morning, our newspaper is sitting right outside our front door. Our neighbor Jim wakes up early and moves it there, out of the way of sprinklers and passing junior-high students. It is a simple and thoughtful habit – one, Jim tells me, that began rather spontaneously.

What grand and good things may be born of neighborly improvisation.

We may not have a front porch in the literal sense, but we have potential. And potential – the potential inherent in any improvisational encounter – is a big part of what front porches are about.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Ahhhh Memphis…and the Delta. Thanks for the recall and a hat tip to the wearing in we have coming on this crazy little electronic porch of ours. Memphis…..Sun Studios and it’s step back into the 50’s… a block from the politically correct-contested and poorly maintained park and statue commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest, brilliant terror of the Confederacy who could teach West Point a thing or two about insurgency if they would listen. A tour through the Gibson guitar Factory will give one an interesting blend of design, craft and mass-production in Modern America. Aint nuthin like the ribs. Any trip has to include the gravesite of the King at Graceland with an assorted odd flotsam of oriental tourists, blue-haired ladies and young hipsters crying their eyes out at the final resting spot of Elvis, adorned with plastic flowers. The Lorraine Motel frozen in time and it’s superb civil rights museum run by the National Parks Service…..one of our best Federal Bureaucracies. “Graceland Too” forty minutes south in Holly Springs, Miss. …one of the wildest and weirdest monuments to the lovers of Elvis in a village of lovely antebellum homes saved from burning by General Grant because marauding Confederates refused to touch a hair on the head of the visiting Mrs. Grant …..an officer even having tea with her while the boys shook up the town as Grant and his troops were away. We were eating grits and eggs in a wonderful cafe on the courthouse square…distinctly different from the New England Green and my son stopped eating, leaned in close and said “Dad…theres a Confederate Flag out there at the Courthouse, isn’t that illegal?” To which I grinned and replied: “Not in my lifetime Junior, welcome to the South”. Then Oxford….Faulkner and a superb bookstore while if you plan your trip right, you can watch the entire State seem to turn out, in Sunday Best on Saturday afternoon to attend a football game at Ole Miss….the dressed up nature of the folks attesting to a strong respect for civic event…..much unlike the drunken sots I have to endure at piss-stained Giants Stadium in the swamps of New Jersey. And then….an hours or so drive west and one can drink in the epicenter of the Blues :Clarksdale, Miss.. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf …Abes Ribs, the “crossroads” where Robert Johnson did his deed with the “Debil”. If you’re lucky, the absolute best time anyone who loves music and people will ever have :The King Biscuit Blues Festival, in Helena , Ark….in the fall, with low slanting light and cotton blowing about harvested fields. I even saw a Filipino Blues band there along with the Chicago, Texas and Delta Blues played throughout the worn brick ruins of a once prosperous entrepot. The old theatre downtown puts on the most manic gospel competition a person will ever see. Southern cookin aint a problem here. This is deep soil country and it shook me to my depths and started a checkered love affair with the South that I have yet to properly figure out beyond the fact that it is authentic and real and both tragic and happy in an era of oozing deracinated sameness. The South does not have to rise agin…it is there always…simmering, langorous……conflicted and PROUD.

    On the trip from the airport to the hotel in Memphis, our black cabbie gave us a run down on the local scene and then after I told him we were going down into the Delta, proceeded to tell us that:

    “picken cotton was a good job yasssuh , kept a man healthy…dint mind it a bit nosuh….up before light and down at dark, sweatin and beat…never sick a day in my life. Nowdays, young fellahs like your son don’t like to woik, nosuh, they always sick and caint stand the pace….watchin tv all they life and wastin they time and drinken and such, thinken all day long on nuthin…hell, the young fella these days they Git UP Tired”.

    Another cabbie taking us to Beale Street asked us where we were from and when my son told him “Connecticut”…he proceeded to start riffing on “Cuuunnneticut….CO-NettttiCuT!..lets see now, thats where the Minutemen was, turned them Redcoats high tail they did……..Minute Man….minute MAN!…yes good Gawd MINUTE MAN!”

    You want a lesson in dialog? Git ye to the Delta…it is as real a place as we have left in this increasingly unreal country. You can even rent yourself a porch…outside of Clarksdale….the Shack-up Inn…old sharecroppers shacks loaded with Blues Memorabilia and great venue for Blues bands.

    I have a hankerin fro some grits now and am reminded of the question a journalist asked Tom Waits during his last tour that went exclusively to the South after one northern stop in Chicago . “Why did you just go South?”

    The grandly decrepit Mr. Waits replied in his best hangover croak: “Needed some fireworks”

  2. Good stuff, Mr. Sabin, although you know it ain’t half as good as your reports on those cabbies!

  3. And Susan, I loved the museum too, but you can’t forget that most of us have just as much PARLOR in our cultural blood as we do FRONT PORCH.

    And this is to say nothing of the NIGHT CLUB, whose worrisome ongoing transformation in our day into a collective collage-art I-POD that excludes (non-collage) musicians and bar-conversation perhaps reveals certain Carthaginian inclinations that were there from the first, and especially when not in tension with the CHURCH HOUSE. See Geoffrey O’Brien’s disturbing end to Sonata for Jukebox.

    And we can’t forget the damage that the TEENAGER’S ROOM and the COLLEGE-FED BOHEMIAN NEIGHBORHOOD (the latter having an unsustainable front-porchiness)have done to our musics.

    It is those middle-class Americans who too quickly thought knew what the FRONT PORCH was really all about, or who too quickly thought they could combine it seamlessly with the PARLOR, and thus make a lil’ cash, or make a lil’ bohemian splash, that have got us all musically confused.

    Being authentically middle-class, it’s quite a conundrum!

  4. Did I forget? Forget to mention Memphis?
    Home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks
    Do I smell?
    I smell home cooking
    It’s only the river
    It’s only the river

  5. We lived in Jonesboro, Arkansas for three years; just 70 miles from Memphis. We got down there whenever we could. The bbq, the riverfront…great times.

    Susan, you make me resolve to do something more than just politely greet my neighbors this summer. Maybe we”ll throw a garden party. I’ll report back to the FPR if any jam sessions break out.

  6. Now if you gotta play a garden party I wish you a lot a’ luck
    But if memories were all I sang I’d rather drive a truck

    And it’s all right now…

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