Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.
I pack and slip out of the Steele Cottage at 7, having finished every crumb of that hummingbird cake, and head back to Yazoo. Hurricane Nicholas has dissolved, and yesterday’s foreboding drive with it. The morning dawns bright upon expansive cotton fields and what had seemed looming, shaggy monsters reveal themselves to be only overgrown swamp oak copses. I stop to admire a delightfully whimsical folk art construction north of Vicksburg, and find myself singing that perfectly appropriate Dylan line, “Yes I think it can be easily done, take it on down to Highway 61.”
This is fun. After a year and a half of masking up and staying home, zooming my final courses, retiring without celebration, and constantly fretting over the death rate, it feels so liberating to hit the road, even if my destination has been a fortress prison in the Mississippi Delta. Having figured out the game, all goes well at Yazoo. The same kind guard is on duty and processes me into the visitors’ room without a hitch. For three hours, Corey and I jabber at each other with never an awkward pause, always more to say. Today we share the room with other visitors, too: a young woman who drives in from Atlanta once a month to visit her fiancé and a spry elderly fellow and two well-behaved youngsters who have come down from Memphis to see his son, their dad. Atlanta is seven hours away; Memphis three. It’s clear, for all of us, that the drive is worth it. It dawns on me that the rules here — sit six feet apart, no touching, everyone in masks – are the rules we all live under now, more or less. Covid itself is a kind of prison, and with the Delta variant running wild, who knows when we’ll be released?
I plan to drive straight back to Atlanta, stopping only for gas and gnawing on a leftover piece of fried chicken for lunch. When I start the car, the radio blares – wouldn’t you know it? – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic “Freebird” and it’s shouted claim, bleakly ironic in this setting, “I’m as free as a bird, babe, and this bird you cannot ca-a-a-a-age!” Don’t you love these sneaky correspondences, when the one-armed bandit turns up all lemons and the world seems briefly a little less random? I’ve been force-feeding the model this whole trip, testing my Apple Music subscription by calling up obscure tunes by Son House or Blind Lemon Jefferson on a whim, their mournful blues a soundtrack to the movie beyond my windshield. Mississippi has been all Delta blues, but crossing into Alabama I switch to the Allman Brothers and Hank Williams, passing through Birmingham Randy Newman’s essential Good Old Boys album, and hitting the Georgia line R.E.M. and Ray Charles. Navigating the multi-lane freeways in Atlanta, though, the best music always is Outkast, and – back aching, eyes bleary – played loud.
The whole trip, though, I’ve been returning to a Bob Dylan playlist, songs across his 60-years-plus career pouring out in a jumble that somehow fits together. I’d scratched my head at old Bob’s Nobel Prize, but the idea has slowly grown on me. Driving through the Deep South for the past four days, I can’t think of any artist who has so bountifully articulated the tortured psyche of America, and delineated how the lies we (who identify as white) tell ourselves (most glaringly about race) are the keys to our culture’s troubles. Nobody listens to albums any more, but having followed Dylan my whole life (yea, even unto these latter years), I still think of his work in album-sized chunks. From one album to another, his bands, his musical stylings, even the timbre of his voice, change. But jumbled together on a playlist, there’s a consistency to his effort, anchored I think, by his masterpiece Highway 61, Revisited. That tune — surreal, careening, hilarious and dark — exemplifies Dylan’s mission, which seems to me – and though a lifelong fan, forgive my presumption here – to be holding a funhouse mirror to the American carnival, that mirror pieced together from shards of our strangely prophetic folk music, the primary sources that no one else seems to grok as he does. Asked about this, Dylan has said, “The main body [of folk music] is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs.” (In Greil Marcus’ The Old, Weird America.) That’s the well Dylan’s been drawing from in his career-long reflection on our flag-bedecked Midway and its back alleys. Anyway, that’s how I see it on this drive, bookended by the bracing horrors of the Legacy Museum and their current incarnation at Yazoo Penitentiary. Throw in the Civil War glorification at Vicksburg battlefield for good measure, Alabama’s governor diverting covid relief money to build more prisons, hospital ICU’s overflowing with anti-vaxxers…. We’re in a bad place, but Dylan’s music implies that you could jump in your time-traveling DeLorean, pick any era in American history, drive eight hours in any direction on any road, and what you come across would be just as gob-smacking as this trip. Play our Nobel Laureate for instruction on the way. As the elderly gentleman at the Legacy Museum said, “Oh my.”