Aboard the only home I know these days, the Amtrak trains rattling around the United States of America, I remembered I had The Help as an audio book on my phone.
I remembered this ‘cos of a comment made by the man I sat next to on the bus from Jackson to Meridien.
He was born and bred Jackson.
He said all his friends were talkin’ ’bout this new movie and he wasn’t gonna see it, ‘cos it dissed his home town.
‘The way they tell it,’ he said, ‘it wasn’t like that. Maybe itty bitty bits, but me and the black kids all played together, we was all po’ together.’
And I thought, yes, poverty is a leveller.
And I thought it must be quite sumthin’ when folks thinks they know all about you – what you do, what you think, what you believe – just ‘cos they saw a movie.
And the dirt is red. Which surprised me. The colour of the dirt from home.
I had to get the bus to Meridian, the only way I was gonna to get to Atlanta without goin’ all the way back to New Orleans. In Meridian I could meet the train.
Meridien. I have loved that word since Alice Walker wrote a book with the same title. And I’ve been singin’ Emmylou’s song since I learned I was headin’ to the US of A.
The bus was packed with America’s down, but not out. And Bill, born n bred Jackson, Mississippi.
He said there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out that the unions created the middle class. Before that there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.
In Meridian I boarded that train, settled in with my audiobook and rattled my way across three states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia – listenin’ to Southern voices tell me a story.
I laughed out loud with the book’s opening – it’s set in Jackson, Mississippi, right where I just came from, and she wonders out loud about 200,000 people livin’ in Jackson and where are they all?
I had the same thought myself. In a city carved up by big roads, it is impossible to see where that many people are livin’ – and I’m sure there’s more there now than there was in 1962.
Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia.
What a world.
Here are the lyrics to Red Dirt Girl – as a picture, the song is utterly brilliant.
Me and my best friend Lillian
And her blue tick hound dog Gideon,
Sittin on the front porch cooling in the shade
Singin every song the radio played
Waitin for the Alabama sun to go down
Two red dirt girls in a red dirt town
Me and Lillian
Just across the line and a little southeast of Meridian.
She loved her brother I remember back when
He was fixin up a ’49 Indian
He told her ‘Little sister, gonna ride the wind
Up around the moon and back again”
He never got farther than Vietnam,
I was standin there with her when the telegram come
Now he’s lyin somewhere about a million miles from Meridian.
She said there’s not much hope for a red dirt girl
Somewhere out there is a great big world
Thats where I’m bound
And the stars might fall on Alabama
But one of these days I’m gonna swing
My hammer down
Away from this red dirt town
I’m gonna make a joyful sound
She grew up tall and she grew up thin
Buried that old dog Gideon
By a crepe myrtle bush in the back of the yard,
Her daddy turned mean and her mama leaned hard
Got in trouble with a boy from town
Figured that she might as well settle down
So she dug right in
Across a red dirt line just a little south east from Meridian
She tried hard to love him but it never did take
It was just another way for the heart to break
So she dug right in.
But one thing they don’t tell you about the blues
When you got em
You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom
There ain’t know end.
At least not for Lillian
Nobody knows when she started her skid,
She was only 27 and she had five kids.
Coulda’ been the whiskey,
Coulda been the pills,
Coulda been the dream she was trying to kill.
But there won’t be a mention in the news of the world
About the life and the death of a red dirt girl
Who never got any farther across the line than Meridian.
Now the stars still fall on Alabama
Tonight she finally laid
That hammer down
Without a sound
In the red dirt ground