X and I sit in my room and nod with tiredness, look around at the walls, at each other, at nothing. We’ve reached the point where only black American roots music will help us, I tell him, sitting up. Sit still and listen for once, I tell him, as I look up Alan Lomax Archive. We sit and sip, smoke and sway as I put on song after song, from field hollering to prison chants to call-and-response preaching. Pure music, I tell him, the most moving music ever made, the voice of the body and mind in deep pain and joy. Country blues played on homemade instruments in raw recordings. A capella gospel. Shouting blues, soft plaintive blues, piercing harmonica blues. We go back and forth, listening to various versions of Cocaine Blues and Stack-O-Lee. I put on Appalachian songs and bluegrass, but return to black music. Black music conquers all, I tell X, it’s as powerful as a bottle of whiskey, if this doesn’t help us nothing will. I put on Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I put on the blind bluesmen, the ones who couldn’t work and learned to play the blues instead, the few who got recorded, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Gary Davis and the great Blind Willie McTell, and here we take a detour to Dylan’s homage song and his two great cover albums from the 90s as I read the liner notes of World Gone Wrong aloud to X, neither of us understanding them. We go from The Mississippi Sheiks to Skip James to Tommy Johnson, the tortured Robert Pete Williams, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. We go from Son House to Big Bill Broonzy to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Willie Brown and back again, then to Ali Farka Touré who gives us a glimpse of where it all came from – tomorrow it’s African music, I say, tomorrow we’ll sit here all day and listen to African music… Then back to Robert Johnson, the greatest of them all, the one who transcended the genre once and for all, the one with the purest cry, and we feel buoyed and even allow ourselves a smile. What was it about the Delta? I ask X. Was it the heat, the swamps, the suffering?
Any authority, any originality I could hope to have is always derived from him, from his, which I know he would detest. It is that detestation that I love. That was Blanchot’s gift, his gift to me who would accept it openly and without guilt.
— James Griffith (via here)
Do you remember when we walked up Mount Sinai? X asks me. In the middle of the desert? How long ago it seems now. Woken up in the middle of the night by our Bedouin guide who’d forgotten his torch because they can see in the dark? Trudging over desert rubble in the deep black except for the lights dotting the surrounding mountains, which our guide told us were the hermits’ lights? You almost shed a tear, didn’t you? You told me you could have been one of those, and I told you you were an idiot. And then you were bitten by that camel you got too close to in that pitch dark, weren’t you? And I laughed. That was the best part of the whole thing. We stumbled into a group of Bedouins we couldn’t see until we’d bumped into them. Calm people, the Bedouins. Maybe just bored of taking people up and down a big rock day in day out. But they must make many times their average wage, you said. We trudged uphill for hours to get to the top by dawn. No way old Moses could have done this without these paths and steps, you said, this is hard enough, and I laughed at you and told you you were a fool. How old was Moses anyway? you asked, and I said what does it matter, he obviously he never did it. So the whole tribe is waiting for him down there, you said, that must’ve been a bit stressful. You haven’t even read the book, I said, what do you know where they were? The bald German woman who’d brought her poor uncomplaining little girl and who blanked you when you smiled at her. What kind of help was she expecting at the top? What were you expecting? Some great revelation? No, even you were beyond that by then. What were we then, tourists? I felt ridiculous. I hated you for getting me out of bed, for dragging me into the desert in the first place. I half expected you to start mumbling the Jesus prayer. Christ, I would’ve pushed you down the mountain. People wound their way up the mountain from different directions like streams of ants. Are we all going the same place? you asked. Where did they come from? and I laughed at you. The sky getting lighter as the climb got harder. Strong tea brewed by the Muslim Bedouins at outrageous prices, about the same as Caffe Nero. You started whingeing about vertigo. And when we got up there, do you remember? It was cold and overcast, not much of a sunset. I was bored and cold and tired and hungry. Well just think how those poor people felt walking through the desert, you said. They didn’t, I said, they wouldn’t have survived. Where did all these people come from? you said, and I sniffed. What the fuck am I doing up here with this asshole? I thought. Grey-faced Europeans singing their dreary Protestant hymns, drowned out by a group of exhausted old South American Catholics chanting their erotic prayers and waving their arms about: Abra tu boca, Seňor, dame tu lingua… They’ve probably saved up for this trip for years, you said. A few pale Eastern Europeans leaning on rocks. And the bald grumpy German woman with her child, giving you the evil eye. How you worried about that! And then, in the morning, knackered and dusty, after we’d generously tipped our Bedouin, eating breakfast in the monastery and taking a photo of the burning bush which the Orthodox monks still lovingly tend. Remember? The photo that came out bleached by the scorching sun, which you take everywhere we go? Ah, that was actually moving, wasn’t it, it moved both of us, didn’t it? It moves us both each time we look at it, doesn’t it? he says.
Mirrors: no one has ever known how
to describe what you are in your inmost realm.
as if filled with nothing but sieve-holes, you
fathomless in-between spaces of time.
— Rilke, from Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 3 (tr. S. Mitchell)