ELEGY REVISITED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY CHURCHYARD….

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)

Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…

(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.

Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).

WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).

WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).

At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.

That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.

I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.

But I don’t like to run from the past either.

If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.

Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen”  was an old man in the army of the CSA.

And it’s not like I have to project.

When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and reached its turn-back point in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.

From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.

But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.

Even from this distance.

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”

Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.

Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.

 

THE CAULDRON (Mississippi, 1890–1935)

Some fun facts:

Charley Patton               (b. circa 1891–Edwards, Hinds County)

William Faulkner            (b. 1897–New Albany)

Jimmie Rodgers            (b. 1897–Pine Springs)

Son House                     (b. circa 1902–Riverton)

Skip James                    (b. 1902–Bentonia)

Eudora Welty                 (b. 1909–Jackson)

Howlin’ Wolf                   (b. 1910–White Station)

Tennessee Williams      (b. 1911–Columbus, moved St. Louis, 1918)

Robert Johnson             (b. 1911–Hazlehurst)

Sonny Boy Williamson   (b. circa 1912–Sara Jones Plantation)

Muddy Waters                (b. 1913–Jugs Corner, Issaquena County)

B.B. King                        (b. 1925–Berclair (Indianola)

Bo Diddley                     (b. 1928–McComb, moved Chicago 1934)

Sam Cooke                   (b. 1931–Clarksdale, moved Chicago 1933)

Elvis Presley                 (b. 1935–Tupelo, moved Memphis 1948)

In a space of 45 years, one of the least populated, least affluent, least educated regions in the United States (or, for that matter, the history of the industrialized world)–a region the most talented citizens were evidently desparate to leave (hence the traces here of the Memphis/St. Louis/Chicago diasporas which would be even more pronounced if we extended the trend to adulthood and cross-indexed it with opportunity)–produced about eighty percent of the world’s most important blues performers, the century’s greatest American novelist (Faulkner), the century’s greatest American playwright (Williams), the “father of country music” (Rodgers), the “man who invented soul” (Cooke), the “king of rock ’n’ roll” (Presley) and the auteur of the world’s most famous backbeat (Diddley).

I’m not the person to do it, but somebody really should write a book that explains why this was–or was not–a statisical fluke.