Sunday 03 March 2002

Bakersfield and Sprott

Jeff Ward at Visible Darkness was surprised to learn that in 1990 Bakersfield, where he grew up, was the 97th largest city in the US and Little Rock, where he currently resides, was 96th.

Shock number three. The 2000 figures show Bakersfield at 396,000. However, Little Rock must be growing faster. The 2000 figure is 548,000. I’m sure this includes North Little Rock, just across the river, which is a fairly substantial place. But damn, I never thought this place was that big either. So much for my small town feeling. I don’t suppose a half a million people qualify as a small town. But Little Rock still has something close to a small town mentality, though I confess that it’s actually less “hickish” than Bakersfield…

Just for giggles, I had to look up the figures for Canberra—313,000 according to the tourist web site. So, the capitol of that continent is smaller than Bakersfield? Now that does make for an interesting picture. Okay, so Sydney is twice the size of LA… that wasn’t the point. It’s just strange trying to picture places you haven’t been. I’m sure Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield, it just seemed like a funny thing to compare. Or, at least it would be funny if you’d ever been to Bakersfield.

I’ve been to both: Canberra many times and Bakersfield just once, in the late eighties, during my mid-life crisis, driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas via Death Valley with a girlfriend little more than half my age. It’s probably true that Canberra has nothing in common with Bakersfield. Certainly, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards never wrote a song that mentioned Australia’s capital city:

I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, “You know you always have the
Lord by your side”

And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran
Twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord.

Far Away Eyes (from Some Girls) Library of Congress: Walker Evans, Sprott, AL

I always loved that song, though not because of the reference to Bakersfield. One of my happiest memories of being married is driving with my wife through Alabama on a Sunday afternoon in the early eighties, listening to gospel music on the colored radio station. We were looking for the crossroads store at Sprott. We turned a corner and there it was, still recognizable from the photographs Walker Evans made there in the summer of 1936. Many of the photographs he took in Alabama for the Farm Security Administration were reproduced at the beginning of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book that he and James Agee produced when Fortune declined to publish their collaboration as a magazine article.

All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns, the county seats, house by house white-painted and elaborately sawn among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon starlight, that it is inconceivable to despise or to scorn a white man, an owner of land; even in Birmingham, mile on mile, save for the sudden frightful streaming, almost instantly diminished and silent, of a closed black car, and save stone lonesome sinister heelbeats, that show never a face and enter, soon, a frame door flush with the pavement, and ascend the immediate lightless staircase, mile on mile, stone, stone, smooth charted streams of stone, the streets under their lifted lamps lie void before eternity.

We traveled through the South, visiting most of the places Walker Evans photographed as well as many of the towns where Robert Frank had taken pictures for The Americans. I just found our itinerary folded in the back of the copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that I carried with me. I realize it’s time to read this extraordinary book again. In his preface to the Aperture monograph on Walker Evans, Lloyd Fonvielle wrote:

The text is an extended meditation on morality, perception, the limits of language, and the deceptions of art, all unified by elaborate descriptions of rural poverty executed with surgical precision and lyric genius. It contains the best of Agee’s magnificent prose, as well as jarring passages of adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension. The result is a work of maddening, frightful inspiration, a masterpiece by any standards but a masterpiece that parades its flaws with poignant, nearly tragic recklessness.

“adolescent self-indulgence, self-pity, and pretension”—sounds just like a weblog. For all of its supposed faults, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains one of my favorite books. I’m glad to have been reminded of it.

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"Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord." That song is running through my mind now, and bringing back some sweet sweet memories of my own. I don't know how to say this and still maintain the rough tough exterior ~that I so carefully cultivate~ but you're writing beautifully these days, Jonathon! Thanks.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 3 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Thanks Chris. There's so much beautiful writing pouring out all over the place -- we really are like mountaineers roped together, helping each other on.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 3 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I am with Chris on this, Jonathon. Minus the rough exterior. Came back through Bakersfield during my trip -- driving through a valley of fog, winding through steep hills, flat deserts. On the trip home, Bakersfield is the sign for me that I'll rest my head on my own pillow that night.

Posted by Burningbird on 3 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Mick may not have written a song about Canberra but he's been in hospital here! He had some accident while making the film "Ned Kelly" in the '60s and was treated at our local hospital when the population would have been around 100,000.

Posted by Jim Gillespie on 5 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour