The Smell of Cape Jasmine

23 Jan

As a historian, I have never been interested in studying the past of my region, the South. I have heard about the Civil War and other aspects of its history all of my life and never really wanted to go behind the scenes of the stories and anecdotes of my childhood. However, this does not mean that I have turned my back on the South. As written in other posts, I have traveled throughout the United States, but I have never considered living anywhere but here. It is my home and everything that is associated with that word. Family. Friends. Familiarity. The “Three F’s” I suppose. I study the West, but I am a child of the South. But, like many others, I am not sure what it means to be a southerner.

Does it mean that I should be ashamed of a heritage of slavery and rebellion? Or, does it mean that I should be proud of a heritage of southern Founding Fathers like Washington and Jefferson? Does it mean that I should be proud of being raised in the Bible Belt? Or, does it mean I should be ashamed to be a native of a region that still argues over teaching the theory of evolution? Before answering those questions, I should explain what being a southerner is all about (at least for me).

It is eating black eyes peas and hog jaw on New Year’s Day for good luck.

It is going to college football games on Saturday’s in the fall.

It is visiting family on Sunday afternoon.

It is watching “Smokey and the Bandit” and realizing that you know a sheriff just like that.

It is going for a ride on a country road.

It is pulling over to pay respects to a passing funeral procession.

It is saying hello to a stranger that you pass on a sidewalk.

It is having a meal of fried chicken and turnip greens.

It is going to the National Walking Horse Celebration and wondering why the federal government won’t leave them alone.

It is being baptized when you are eleven years old because that’s what you are supposed to do.

It is wishing that people in other parts of the country would understand that you are not stupid because you talk differently.

It is thinking that people in New England talk funny.

It is being proud that Blues, Country, Rock ‘n Roll, Southern Rock, Bluegrass, Gospel and just about every other genre of music came from the South.

It is knowing that not all southerners would make this same list because we all don’t fit into the southern stereotype.

Notice that the list does not include driving a pickup truck; hunting or fishing; flying a rebel flag; drinking beer in a field; being a racist; having no teeth or shoes; or handling snakes in church. Of course, there are people who fit those descriptions. Just like there are people all over the country that fit those descriptions (except for maybe the snake handling). I am proud to be from the South and accept its good and bad qualities, but I have never known how to explain that pride. Maybe this post has done it. If not, then I will finish by writing about a song that I have always liked. It is country (which is strange for me), but I feel a connection to it. I will try to explain why.

“Good Ole Boys Like Me” by Don Williams

When I was a kid, Uncle Remus he put me to bed

With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head.

Then daddy came in to kiss his little man

With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand.

He talked about honor and things I should know.

Then, he’d stagger a little as he went out the door.

(Uncle Remus is a collection of stories that were passed down from the days of slavery. They are mostly fables and tales that teach lessons. However, they are racist in the way they present Uncle Remus, a docile African-American man. Disney made a movie based on the stories which has faced a racist backlash as time has passed. I never heard these stories when I was a kid, but I was told plenty of stories along the same lines, namely the story of Little Black Sambo. Despite this experience, I did not grow up to be a racist or a member of the Klan.)

(Stonewall Jackson was a Civil War hero for the confederacy. While most southerners did not have pictures of Civil War officers hanging in their houses, this line aims at the importance many southerners still place on that terrible time in our history. Southerners have tended to forget what the war was about and focus on the fact that the South lost. For generations, this created a sense of inferiority. Of course, the economic conditions didn’t help. I once read an article with the theory that the debacle of the Vietnam War did not affect the South as it did other parts of the nation because the South already knew how it felt not to win.)

(My dad does not drink, but he is very religious. He has been a deacon in the church and complains about why I don’t go. However, this line hits home because I still call him “daddy”. I saw George Carlin (my favorite comedian of all time) in concert, and he made fun of grown southern men using this word. It may be dumb, but we still do it. It is not a childish act but an act of respect. The gin and Bible part is very southern because both play an important role in southern society. Honor is also an important part of southern ideology and society. Heck, that was one of the arguments for the Civil War – the north was challenging southern honor. There is a reason that dueling was legal in the South longer that it was anywhere else. And, it is still important in the South. It isn’t polite to air your dirty laundry in public.)

I can still hear the soft southern winds in the live oak trees.

And those Williams boys, they still mean a lot to me –

Hank and Tennessee.

I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be.

So, what do you do with good ole boys like me?

(Live oak does not mean that the tree is not dead. This is an iconic tree throughout the South and is the state tree of Georgia. Any picture of an old plantation has live oak’s in it. There is a reason that Twelve Oaks is one of the plantations in “Gone With the Wind”. While this may be a natural symbol of the region, it actually has a varied geography – mountains, river bottoms, swamps, hills.)

(The Williams boys shows the variety that the South has offered to American culture. Hank Williams was a legend in the world of country music and a songwriting genius. Tragically, he drank to excess and died in his 20s, but his music continues to inspire musicians and singers. One of the great writers of the 20th Century, Tennessee Williams provided us with plays and literary works that delve into the psyche and soul. “The Glass Menagerie”. “A Streetcar Named Desire”. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. The list goes on and on. The South may have produced rednecks, but it also produced artistic geniuses. These are but two.)

And nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does.

But you ain’t afraid if you’re washed in the blood like I was.

The smell of cape jasmine through the window screen.

John R. and the Wolfman kept me company

By the light of the radio by my bed

With Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head.

(The wind is blowing now, and it is one of my favorite sounds. However, that is not a southern thing. Being washed in the blood is. Baptism is a rite of passage in this part of the world. It is something that everyone I know was expected to go through. Each denomination has a different way of doing things, but most have similarities. At the end of the church service, the preacher asks for those who want to accept Christ to come to the front. If you feel the spirit, then you go to the front. Once the singing stops, the preachers announces to the congregation that you have made a decision to join the church and asks them to affirm it. At some point, you are baptized. In my church, this meant a full immersion under water. There you go – afterlife insurance. I joined at 11. My dad joined at 5. Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but we were saved nonetheless.)

(Cape Jasmine is a white flower known for its fragrance. It is called Cape because people thought it came from the Cape of Good Hope. It actually originated in Asia. There are all sorts of flowers and plants throughout the South due to the warm climate. Some, such as the Cape Jasmine, have brought beauty and an air of social standing. Lots of flower clubs exist around here for the uppity women of the South. This is probably left over from the days of plantations that fancied themselves as cousins of British aristocracy. Other plants, like cotton and tobacco have brought fortune but also infamy.)

(John R. and the Wolfman are my favorite names in this song. John R. was a Nashville legend as lead disc jockey on WLAC-AM, a clear channel station that reached 28 states. He played rhythm and blues and introduced southern African-American performers to listeners throughout his range. John R. became so popular with African-American audiences that they thought he was African-American as well. Wolfman Jack was a more famous disc jockey and gained this fame on the most powerful signal in North America, XERF-AM out of Ciudad Acuna, Mexico.)

(Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, North Carolina, was a great southern novelist. I believe he is referenced in this song for his 1940 work, “You Can’t Go Home Again”. Once you have grown and left your surroundings, you can never go by to that “idyllic” lifestyle again. I put idyllic in quotations because once we look back we realize that it was never as good as we imagined. People often talk of the good old days, but they were never that good. Southerners, especially of the white variety, may think times were simpler then, but were they really? Segregation. No air conditioning. Many without electricity. Few well-paying jobs to be found. A great distance between the wealthy and the non-wealthy, both white and black. We can go home again physically, but we can never return intellectually and emotionally.)

When I was a kid I ran with a kid down the street,

And I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed.

But, I was smarter than most, and I could choose.

Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.

When I was eighteen lord, I hit the road,

But it really doesn’t matter how far I go.

(Much of this song is more appropriate for the experiences of generations before mine. However, this part remains true to today. Several of the people I grew up with and played with as a child have become town drunks that waste their time in the bars a beer joints around town. I realize this happens all over the world, but I know that they never had aspirations of becoming the “town drunk”. Unlike the song, I didn’t leave. I found opportunity in the area and went with it. That makes me lucky. But, it makes me sad to see people with the same opportunity go down another path.)

So, what was this post? I am not sure myself. It is a defense of a region and a critique of the same region. Maybe it’s like family. I can talk about them all day long, but I’ll defend them if someone else says the same. That’s what being from the South is like. We can talk about each other and realize that we have issues. But, other people had better not join the discussion. Now that I think about it, that’s probably what the people who seceded from the country thought too.

The post is also an excuse to analyze one of my favorite songs (even though it’s country). So, if you made it this far I hope that you learned something. I learned that some questions don’t have answers. So, what do you do with good ole boys like me?

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12 Responses to “The Smell of Cape Jasmine”

  1. DyingNote November 7, 2013 at 13:41 #

    Your 2nd anniversary post got me here and I’m glad. Of course, I totally disagree with that ‘just about every genre of music came from the South’ hyperbole

    • Rick November 7, 2013 at 15:47 #

      Ha. Let’s see – country, jazz, rock n roll, gospel, blues. I don’t know. There may be a few that came from somewhere else.

      • DyingNote November 7, 2013 at 15:53 #

        Rick, there’s a world of music out there outside of the US of A or even of the Western World

      • Rick November 7, 2013 at 15:54 #

        Oh, I know that. I have to be proud of what came from here, though.

  2. DyingNote November 7, 2013 at 15:55 #

    I was just reacting to a highly generalized statement, that’s all

  3. Anson Rohr March 30, 2014 at 05:25 #

    Dear Rick,

    I must thank you for what you wrote regarding the South, and what it (for many) means to be a Southerner. I was born and raised in California, but my college roommate was from east Texas, and he taught me many of the traditions and ways of the South, for which I am eternally grateful. I even called my father “daddy” without realizing it, until a relative took notice, and made fun of me for it. But I didn’t care; like you, I know it is a sign of love and respect.

    I especially thank you for explaining the lyrics to Don Williams’ (my favorite Country singer) song, ‘Good Ole Boys Like Me.’ I had searched the internet in vain for an explanation, and finally I have it. Thank you.

    I live in Colorado now, but my days in east Texas are some of the most wonderful of my life, and I remember warmly the kind and gracious, friendly folk I met there.

    — Anson Rohr.

    • Rick March 30, 2014 at 14:06 #

      Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and for commenting. I have always felt connected to this song. A few months ago, I finally got the chance to see Don Williams in person, and he opened with this song. It was an awesome experience.

  4. arcadiacat October 27, 2014 at 00:38 #

    I actually heard the song as a tribute (going to check out D.W. version on youtube shortly here) an Air Force brat until HS when my Da retired (Da being Irish version of Daddy) we hit 3 countries (+USA) and we’re stationed at, we.moved every two years, or traveled through on vacations yet some Texas was as Southeast as we got, and never south of the Mason-Dixie. Though we did hit most of the Southwest states, some Central like S.Dakota.
    I did see a bit of Ft. Jackson, SC when I did my 4 years in the Army in ’78-’82, then more recently spent two vacations in Louisiana (Lake Charles, with visits to New Orleans) I LOVED New Oleans, though I have been informed it is not ~really~ the South, meaning state of mind rather than physical location. Whole I was checking into transferring my SSDisabily to LA Katrina hit, and between no power for my wheelchair, and that stupidity about not taking pets on evac; I’d be hitching, or riding it out in manual chair, rather than leave behind my Chihuahua : P
    Still I like LA, ohhhh, the shades of green after Las Vegas and it’s browns and grey-green plants, I did notice one thing; my (white, southern-accented) friend had mentioned outsiders didn’t understand the race issue, and true enough at a grocery the (black) cashier had a major chip on her shoulder while serving my friend but once she heard my Southwest-/non-accent (been told I have both, lol) the cashier became sweet andl. While this was hardly 100% (more like 1 in 3, maybe) ‘curing’ the racist good ol’ boys won’t solve the issues because both sides are holding on with a death grip on the worse of the past. Pity because the land is some of the most gorgeous I have seen, I can understand the desire to keep hold of it, or perhaps it’s the Irish in me; we understand the need to stand and fight for our small little plot or rolling meadows, no matter the cost…
    Thank you for explaining the words, and for the glimpse of the South from a local’s view point.

    • Rick October 27, 2014 at 01:12 #

      Thank you reading and for commenting. As a native and a historian, I realize that the South is a complicated place. A lot of people view it through stereotypes, but there are wide varieties of people, problems and things to be proud of. New Orleans is absolutely southern. It is just different like all of the other places.

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