June 06, 2017

On the morning of August 28, 2005, I evacuated New Orleans with my parents, less than twenty-four hours before Katrina came ashore, driving fourteen-foot storm tides ahead of it. We spent hours on the five-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain, watching Lawrence of Arabia in the back seat while waterspouts spun beyond our windows. When I woke up the next morning in Nashville, a newscaster in a dry poncho was standing near the Superdome; she talked only of wind damage. 

August 25, 2020

An essay from the Place Issue

As a music writer and amateur New Orleans obsessive, I’ve known of Buddy Bolden for years—known what there is to know, that is, about a musician who left no recordings. The shotgun on First Street was deemed a New Orleans Historic Landmark in 1978, but the last ten years for this house, his longest and final residence, have been a saga of demolition by neglect, the City Council’s term when levying fines. 

October 27, 2020

An essay from the Greatest Hits Music Issue

I first met Skip James at Dick Waterman’s apartment in Cambridge in the summer of 1965. I sought him out because, quite simply, his music had overwhelmed me: the blues that he had recorded for Paramount Records in 1931 on piano and guitar, four of whose sides had been reissued on collectors’ labels in the early ’60s, had struck me as unfathomably strange, beautiful, and profound.

 

June 01, 2013

Some people come to the old Jazzland amusement park by way of the service road off Interstate 510, bringing their cars directly onto the grounds. Before the city stepped up security, I once saw a blue Corvette and black Chevy S-10 pull up and proceed to chase each other at top speed around the central lagoon, then disappear to the far end of the abandoned park. But if you come on foot, it’s best to slip through the hole cut in the chain-link fence, picking your way through the broken glass and shards of scrap metal in the parking lot.

June 11, 2019

Thomas Jefferson, Pharrell, and more notes on the state of Virginia 

Now, when strangers ask me where I’m from, I say, “Virginia Beach. We gave the world Pharrell. You’re welcome.” Pharrell was the black cosmopolitan force that proved my home wasn’t country. He was a living rebuke of what Thomas Jefferson wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, his only book, in which he says you would “never . . . find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”
August 25, 2020

An essay from the Place Issue

I visit Mileston more than I do my parents’ graves; it is here in the Delta that I can again imagine them as vibrant people, a way of dimming the memory of the pain of watching their decline into illness and old age.

November 10, 2020

Originally published in our North Carolina Music Issue. 

I wanted to start with the wild weeds and the creaking wood on the front porch, walking up to Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. I wanted to start where she started, imagining her daddy playing jazz standards on the piano, her mama cooking something good and greasy in the cramped kitchen with siblings zooming around. I envisioned myself, like Alice Walker looking for Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave, shouting Nina in the derelict home, hoping somehow she would appear, gloriously phantasmagoric, and answer all of my incessant probing questions.

June 11, 2019

Mike Frolich’s artistic legacy in the Saturn Bar

One of my many justifications for keeping the devil was Frolich’s claim that his paintings were created in part for the children of the Ninth Ward, more of whom run through our house than the Saturn Bar. Kids need a relationship with their devils as much as adults do. Instead of renouncing or banishing them, children should know their features and particular hues, their habitats and gestures. Keeping them in steady sight, they’re easier to manage.

 

August 10, 2020

An essay from the Place Issue

Today, I venture proudly and safely into the straight world outside the confines of bars and clubs once designated specifically as “gay” spaces. I can be free. This wouldn’t have been the case a generation ago. Within my lifetime, queer behavior has put people in jail, in exile, and in danger. For many who faced their truth in the decade before Stonewall, often the only safe choice was to leave the small towns where they were shamed and muted and to run away to cities—though even in Atlanta, a town with well over a half million people in 1960, the year Frank arrived, gay bars were dangerous and illicit places. 

June 11, 2019

Zora Neale Hurston’s lessons in writing a love story

At one point, sitting in the Beinecke Library, I closed my eyes and let my fingers fall on random sentences of Hurston’s masterwork. Word for word, sentence for sentence, Their Eyes Were Watching God was damn near flawless.