These Fading Places, By Matt White
In the third week of the new year, I have crossed the Mississippi River from my home state of Arkansas and am passing slowly through little Mississippi towns like Rolling Fork and Cary under winter sunlight so pretty I wish it would never end. The Sunday streets are deserted, and the closer I get to the Louisiana border, it dawns on me that everyone is inside, glued to the Saint’s playoff game. Though not apt to follow sports closely, I appreciate high stakes and will always root for all things New Orleans, the great American city that she is. I am listening to the nail-biter on the radio and thinking of everyone I love in the Crescent City. On my approach into darkening Vicksburg: the crushing last-minute defeat just down river, a soon-to-be full moon emerging from a field in my rearview mirror. Evening is falling, and every direction I turn looks the way a Lucinda Williams song sounds.
I have come here on a few days free from work to do what I feel perpetually drawn to do: to walk old streets that are new to me; to look around; to see what people are up to. If I should be so lucky, I will capture something special with the camera I bought after my grandfather passed away. Through my growing understanding of photography, I’ve found a medium for the never-ending exploration of my connection to music, to people, to America, to myself.
It is midnight in Vicksburg, and I am falling asleep in a home once rocked by cannonballs blasted from the Mississippi during Grant’s siege. On an upturned newspaper aside the bed, a headline announces a parade in honor of Dr. King a little farther south the next afternoon. At daylight I am cutting through a nearly carless Natchez Trace on Martin Luther King Day, blue chimney smoke rising in the leafless distance. From the radio, the calming voice of the late Reverend Ralph Abernathy, beautifully and painfully recalling his time with our martyred hero. In Natchez, brilliant colors on a bittersweet day. Through my viewfinder, I see the proud high school marching bands, the lovingly adorned floats, hundreds of smiling faces. I am grateful to be surrounded by strangers in a town I’ve never wandered, celebrating the American I admire the most.
In April I am sitting at a lunch table in the town where I was born, shooting a post-beauty-shop portrait of my grandmother at 86. Ora Faye says ” oh lord ” when she sees my camera appear unexpectedly, but is somehow still quick to laugh. The death of her beloved youngest sister a week prior has left her the only remaining child of ten. I love the sound of her name and those of her sister’s born before the Second World War: Nellie, Margorie, Ethel, Mildred, Dorothy, and Bernice. Later that night I’ll look at this portrait in awe of the humanity and kindness emanating from her face. I’ll think about my grandparent’s unfailing generosity that allowed me to buy this camera and how, in doing so, changed my life.
I am merging onto I-55 just east of the dog track and crossing the rusted bridge into Memphis as sunlight streams across the longest river in the United States. I curve south towards the state line with the windows down and big rigs howling. Blocks from the balcony where Dr. King lay slain, I photograph a soul singer on the verge of a worldwide comeback at 74 years old. I tend bar for a living, but through the interconnectivity of the internet, some folks have seen my photographs and ask me to shoot something from time to time. In Memphis I am enamored by the natural light falling across the man’s face, and I feel inspired by such vibrancy of spirit. My shutter clicks and the singer quietly croons ” I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free. ” His eyes shine and he is clearly channeling something powerful I can’t explain. In the months ahead, I will awake to see these images in the most popular music magazine in the country, the byline reading: ” His voice remains marvelous, even though it’s rarely been recorded in the last four decades.” The man will smile and say “I never stopped singing.”
Time goes by, I travel on, and my collection of photographs grow. A portrait of one of my oldest friends on the eve of moving across the ocean. Gazing at her picture, a flood of memories: the faces of her father and brother, the fading streets of our little hometown. A country churchyard in late spring, Sonny Boy Williamson’s headstone in the shadows of the tree line. Orange Trumpet Blossoms falling from a fading shack along the sun-drenched banks of the drowsy White River. Entire homes swallowed whole by the hot green of summer. A stranger squinting from a field in the Delta city of brotherly love. My neighbor Frankie flashing a smile so pure it almost hurts. Magic everywhere on the entrancingly beautiful longest day of the year. Condemned buildings and generations of history rising up like set pieces in Forrest City, Arkansas and Yazoo City, Mississippi and countless seemingly forgotten communities across the South. I feel drawn to these towns facing railroads, built along rivers, not yet overrun by the short memory and unforgiving homogenization of corporate America. There is a sense of urgency to photograph these fading places where people lived, loved, suffered, and died. An old music hall I visit in the spring has fallen in on itself by the first frost.
” Evening is falling, and every direction I turn looks the way a Lucinda Williams song sounds.”
October dawns, and I am winding through the Delta to pay final respects to the bluesmen CeDell Davis in his hometown of Helena, Arkansas. Turning off the highway, I recall taking CeDell’s picture under hot Autumn light one year ago to the day. Looking into his eyes through the back of my camera, I understood in an instant that these photographs would be among the most personally moving and otherworldly pictures I would ever be a part of. In the accompanying magazine article, CeDell told the writer “When my mama didn’t want me to play when she said I’d die and go to hell, my stepfather told me ‘ You keep playing. You keep doing like you doing. Guys gonna be coming for you, wanting you to play everywhere, take you wild places. ‘ He knowed, I don’t know how, but it sure has come to pass. ”
Gone alas at 91, I feel lucky to be among the friends that have gathered to say goodbye. Jimbo Mathus sings “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand.” Someone blows “Amazing Grace” through a harp. CeDell Davis is lowered to rest in Magnolia Cemetery next to his old bandleader, Robert Nighthawk. Jimbo says ” another good man done gone on, ” and I snap a photo of him under a cowboy hat at the bottom of the hill. Dusk lingers and I drink a beer and walk down Cherry Street as black and white folks laugh on the sidewalks of a uniquely beautiful town with a lot of heart. I take a picture of the collapsing brick building where CeDell heard Robert Johnson play as a child. On the drive back to Little Rock and in the glow of the radio, an anguished DJ bids Tom Petty farewell. Back in my apartment, I recreate the day in my head and stare at the photographs in quiet disbelief. FP
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ALL IMAGES © Matt White published here with permission 2019