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Partial to Home: The tour guide's dilemma

 

Birney Imes

 

 

Most of us, one time or another, have been called upon -- or taken it upon ourselves -- to serve as a tour guide. The call came for me a couple weeks ago. An eminent musician would be here for three days and his host wondered if I would give him a tour, share with him some of the "historical richness" of our community. 

 

Where to start? OK, there's the obvious: the antebellum homes and Friendship Cemetery. Then what? The Rosenzweig Arts Center? The WPA mural in the downtown post office? The Pruitt photos in the local history room at the library? 

 

Maybe local historian Rufus Ward would be willing to introduce them to early settler and tavern-keeper Spirus Roach, the four women responsible for Memorial Day or any number of steamboat captains. 

 

And, then there's this, an audio-driving tour.  

 

Cue the tape, please ... 

 

That voice: lilting, high-pitched, with a hint of a drawl -- words drawn out for effect. It's Tennessee Williams reading from his play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Thomas Lanier Williams' first home was the building that serves as our town's welcome center. He wasn't long here before his grandfather, an Episcopal priest with whom the family lived, moved to Clarksdale. By age 8, Tom was living in St. Louis. 

 

Through his 20s, Williams labored in obscurity as a poet and playwright. When he was 30, he changed his name to Tennessee and four years later "The Glass Menagerie" opened on Broadway to immediate acclaim. The play enjoyed 45 curtain calls on opening night. 

 

"Over a remarkable 15 years, Williams wrote 10 plays that transformed U.S. theatre, securing his place in the pantheon with Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller," wrote Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. 

 

The next voice, a raspy growl, comes courtesy of bluesman Booker T. "Bukka" White as we drive east toward the Sandfield neighborhood on Southside. The song, a blues, is his "Columbus, Mississippi Blues." 

 

The song begins ... 

 

 

 

Well, I was fixin' to cross Tombigbee River on down, 

 

I am fixin' to cross Tombigbee River goin' on 'cross, 

 

Well I'm goin' to Columbus, baby, I'm goin' to settle on down. 

 

Well, Columbus, baby, Columbus is my old home 

 

Well I'm goin' to Columbus, I'm goin' down to Sandy Land, 

 

You know that's where they all, old drunkards hang around. 

 

Goin' down to Columbus, that ain't but 20 miles from Aberdeen 

 

Well I was over in Columbus down in Sandy Land, 

 

Well I was over in Columbus, down in Sandy Land, 

 

That's where all the poor peoples go, down where they raisin' sand. 

 

Play it now! ...  

 

 

 

Though Aberdeen claims him (White also wrote "Aberdeen, Mississippi Blues"), Bukka White was born on a farm outside Houston. He spent much of his professional life in Memphis where he helped his cousin B.B. King get on his feet professionally. 

 

In 2012, White's recording of "Fixin' to Die" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He was in good company. Among that year's inductees were Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street," Paul Simon's "Graceland" and "Anything Goes" by Cole Porter. 

 

After looping through Sandfield, I would push into the CD player "Opening Day with Bob and Red" and head north to Forth Avenue North, the first home of another Lanier, Walter Lanier "Red" Barber, the acclaimed play-by-play baseball announcer.  

 

As it happens, Barber was a distant relative to both the poet Sidney Lanier and Tennessee Williams. And, listening to recordings of Barber calling a Brooklyn Dodgers game (and later the Yankees) is like listening to poetry. 

 

It was said that from 1939 to 1953 when Barber was calling the Dodgers' games, his clipped Southern drawl wafted from windows and storefronts of Brooklyn to the extent you could walk the streets of that borough during a game and never miss a pitch. 

 

Red developed yet another generation of fans with his Friday radio visits with Bob Edwards on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, which went on for more than a decade until his death in 1993. Edwards and a handful of baseball notables came to Columbus for the centenary celebration of Barber's birth in 2008. 

 

After Red's home we'd shift to a Disney soundtrack, something from Cinderella, Peter Pan or the classical soundtrack from Fantasia, all movies Josh Meador had a hand in creating. A historical marker at the corner of Sixth Avenue North and Ninth Street notes Meador's childhood home. 

 

After studying at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, Meador took a job with Disney. There he would become supervisor of special effects. His team won an academy award for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Meador also directed special effects for Disney's "Forbidden Planet" and "The Absent-Minded Professor."  

 

After our drive about, we would take a breather at one of the downtown coffeehouses where as we enjoyed our drinks, Mother Goose would sweep through the front door and give our visitor a welcome as only Mother Goose can do. Unquestionably, there is a lot to see in this place the Choctaw once called Possum Town. 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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