Nothing bonds like suffering. Nothing isolates like suffering. Within this dichotomy lies the parallel yet intertwined experiences of Jews and Blacks. Jewish is not an ethnicity and Black is not a religion so there has been mutuality and overlap across the centuries yet there exists generally identity distinction in the American sphere of history. These two remarkable groups like no others in Western civilization have grievously similar while distinct cultural experiences of unwarranted hatred, genocide and persecution. If there were to be a bond in suffering it would be most appropriate among Jewish and African Americans. One such poignant moment was when a white Communist Jew (back in the early, naïve days of Communism when it was thought of as a hope for some communal brotherhood of laborers for the greater good and not a corruption of perception controlled by homicidal language tyrants) and a Black prostitute drug addict singer of the Harlem Renaissance. The serendipitous merging in “Strange Fruit” of the soul of the word poet Abel Meeropol with the soul of the vocal poet Billie Holiday calls out from the horrors of public murder that often defined slave “discipline” and continued on into the Jim Crow terror strategy of lynching while presaging the charnel houses of the Holocaust as yet to come in a manner perhaps unmatched except by Kafka’s “The Burrow” or the more chilling “In the Penal Colony.” Through a focusing of the Sassurian parole on concrete imagery and allowance of a particularly American coding to transform the specific into a symbol of institutionalized brutality, Meeropol manages to place the New Historicist audience directly into the victim’s melting skin whether it be 1920’s mobile or 1940’s Buchenwald. With this explicitness he surpasses even the greatness of Kafka’s mystic metaphors pleading as through a victim’s last plaintive howls across generations for an empathetic response. Here the historical identities of a persecuted righteous religious group and a persecuted noble race writhe a ghastly danse macabre with each playing.
While “Strange Fruit” is a song of synchronicity and agenda, Marc Cohn’s iconic and haunting “Walking in Memphis” echoes that strangely exquisite harmonic empathy through a quest tale. A Jewish American again dives into the beautiful music of African American agony and enlightenment. The main character and narrator seeks revelation within the inexpressible torment of being and becoming through the inexplicable ecstasy that is blues music. The search evolves in a setting where white usurpation of black musical genres has been one of the great Capitalist success stories of America. As all uniquely American music finds its roots in Black culture, this profiteering at the expense of a legally excluded caste is just one more example of the human bones upon which the United States has by the people for the people and mercilessly of the people built its formidable foundation. Within this perspective of a subconscious white privileged blindness, Cohn reveals a quicksilver moment of oneness which exposes the immateriality of identity.
This interpretation is not meant to be an exclusionist New Critic application. It recognizes the openness of Reader Response and the loose psychology of Psychoanalytic theory. Structuralism through the process of exploring semiotics is part and parcel of the discussion while all discussion of ethnicity must likely include some Colonial or post-colonial thought as well as Race theory. Where is feminism and gay criticism? Where is Marxist theory? They all hover about the fringes and impose as they might. Ultimately, opinion is transience with just the stability of Bacon’s scientific method as creaky platform.
In his analysis of the semiotics of Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story,” Robert Sholes emphasizes the distinctive approaches structuralism offers for unpacking a text. He distinguishes the recit, or author’s word by word telling of the story, from the diegesis, or the plot as a separate abstraction from the authorial version, a plot which can be retold in as many ways as there are voices to retell it. Sholes makes a point to note how even with a different recital of the plot, key words, especially proper names, come coded with cultural and historical messages to which the audience responds as their cultural memory dictates. So, within the title of Cohn’s piece there exists already a coding and the essentials of plot. “Walking in Memphis” provides the major action of the story wherein a persona of Cohn, the not-Cohn, every not-born-a-blues-singer-on-pilgrimage-to-the-American-South, recites his experiences during a walk in Memphis as Cohn reshapes an autobiographical moment into the dramatic curve of fiction. The name of the city evokes much American history, especially as a portal for Southern black folk, gospel, blues and rock music to be recorded and sent out to the nation, and as the location of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also as the home of Graceland, the mansion and estate owned by the “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley, the man who perhaps most represents the success talented white performers could attain through the mimicry of Black music filtered and finessed to be presentable to a white audience flush with money and eager to have an acceptable avenue down which to travel just close enough to the dark side of town to hear the music and see the performers without breaking cultural morays and prejudices and without having actually to pay royalties to or respect for the segregated musicians. This music piracy began in the 1930’s with the white big bands touring and profiting from the New Orleans’ sound, but exploded in the 1950’s with the outright theft of song rights and royalties as well as the on stage performance choreography of Black musicians and singers. It is this deep economic division, this American thievery corporation and the subsequent worship of the greatest of pirates, the King, which codes the musical history of Memphis. So within Cohn’s narrator, this division between what is genuine and what is a false idol affects his coming to peace with his stated conflict: “Do I really feel the way I feel?” The collective sin of theft, and worse that of pride of false accomplishment haunts an otherwise genuine soul. Equally does Lucille Clifton’s Lucifer feel this gravitation toward a greater thing and a concomitant need to befoul it when he says of humans “in my own defense//what could I choose//but to slide along behind them,//they whose only sin//was being their father’s children?” Perhaps suffering the fallen one’s seminal envy of humanity, another white performer is drawn to follow the segregated innocents, dazzled by their voices, wanting them for his own. The walker in Memphis suffers inconsolably. F. Scott Fitzgerald catches this white hunger for alliance through music alluding to a W.C.Handy hit during the Renaissance, that brief window of liberal madness where prejudicial caste and mores were rejected by the pale drinking masses whom Prohibition made criminals and so aligned with the separate-but-equal racial outcasts, in The Great Gatsby where Fitzgerald writes that “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.” The feckless Lost Generation and the Memphis walker do not know what they are feeling but they know that they should be feeling something in the nothingness of being. There is suffering so there must be feeling. But what does not come naturally might be appropriated from the calls, responses, souls and music of the South.
Cohn’s narrator, the not-Cohn, is an outsider who has “touched down in the land of the Delta Blues” after having donned a pair of blue suede shoes and boarded a plane (presumably from the north). The superficiality of fashion, in this case regionally and historically specific, matches the mode of transportation, an airplane and particularly a first class ticket. Those shoes, upon which Presley launched his legend, the not-Cohn wears without fully recognizing how economic class excepts him from the sensibilities of the Black blues originals who would more likely have not flown anywhere but rather taken a train or bus or hitchhiked, perhaps along Highway 61, or even simply walked, not in Saturday night suede but rather one foot after the next as Medgar Evers did 12 hot and dusty 1920’s Mississippi miles to earn his high school diploma. Nevertheless, not-Cohn feels “as blue as a boy can be” and seeks understanding perhaps redemption perhaps an experience he cannot even imagine as an outsider. He does not even see the irony of his tender shoes in a world of make-do. For him, they authenticate through the King’s own diegesis.
Ah, but he is in the Memphis of his mind, that city coded so profoundly with musical meaning. He is euphoric, both floating with celebration and unable to touch the hard truth of dirt. He calls for his first blessing to W.C.Handy and feels entitled to it. So be it. Such is the wonder of the tourist, a riot of unspecified feelings running through him. Still, first class, blue suede shoes and the blessing of the founder of the blues market does not satisfy. So not-Cohn turns to Elvis, as Cohn himself and Bruce Springsteen and so many others are purported to have tried to do to jump-start their nascent careers (all admirable efforts in a million-to-one chance industry), but Elvis has left the building and only his ghost haunts the premises.
It is significant that Cohn’s recit specifies Union Avenue, where Sam Philips and his Sun Records company built the core of the white rock and rockabilly movement including the young Elvis. Not-Cohn sees a spirit who either unable or unwilling to be released from the Memphis streets, haunts the roads of his early career whereabouts he translated the gyrations of black performers who inspired him and the sounds of soul, gospel and Appalachian country into a fortune symbolized by the legendary Graceland. It is to this geographic icon that both the ghost and not-Cohn are drawn. Yet not-Cohn only follows the ghost up to the gates and no further, somehow blocked from going through and in as the spirit King does so freely. This lack of entrance calls forth Bruce Springsteen’s reported failed attempt to scale the Graceland walls to lay the lyrics of “Fire” at the then-living King’s feet and hope for the riches which might come from divine sanction. The Boss’s failure was primarily one of impossible timing, secondarily of economic class boundaries along with a deferment of the apprentice-in-waiting to become the chosen ingénue, and all three also affect not-Cohn, though now the woof of time has further separated access for him by the veil between the quick and the dead. Still, both King and follower are drawn to the storied estate, not-Cohn by the gravity of the great performer’s spirit and the spirit apparently to ravish a “pretty little thing waiting for the King down in the Jungle Room.” While Elvis the historical personage is rightfully credited for being a positive influence on opening opportunities for African Americans in the recording industry, Cohn’s recit reduces the King’s ghost to a revenant cycling from his black and country roots into his ersatz monument to possess the spoils of his sexual image in a room wherein a “King” and a “jungle” code a Tarzan figure, the white god to a black world of savages—as unfortunate an image within its psychoanalytical subtleties as could be conjured in a song attempting to explore the depths of synergy which make up the music scene in Memphis. Feminist critics would find much to unpack in the “Jane” image of the “pretty little thing” even to the subordination inherent in the signifier “little” to say nothing of the signified woman who ever lingers to be ravaged objectified literally into a “thing.” This is red meat signage for political feminists. Perhaps the not-Cohn senses an historical deterioration within the Poe-like scenario, a House of Usher where none can survive a legacy of greatness and madness and decay, not even the building, and where the visitor himself is at risk of burial under the rubble of the fall. Perhaps the not-Cohn sees the pretty little thing as a second to Roderick’s sister entombed alive and unable to make herself heard beyond heartbreaking shrieks that bring down the walls of the Usher mansion (though the thing in the tangled growth served up for the wraith of the King has, as so many abused women, no voice). Whatever not-Cohn feels, (after all, he repeatedly asks “Do I really feel the way I feel?”) he is mistrustful of the experience, apparently unfulfilling, so turns away past hopelessly blind guards (the exquisite irony Cohn uses here of tomb guards who are incapable of seeing ghosts must be noted) seeking the spiritual center of Memphis just as things have fallen apart for the canonical legends of the Capitalist music mogul story tellers.
Word choice is revealing as not-Cohn seeks out that for which he can’t get no satisfaction. He experiences the sensual and then the spiritual. Catfish are the poor man’s fish. Detritus-eaters and bottom-dwellers, the catfish live parallel lives to the lower social order of the American South. A bony fish, they require care in eating, a care which for many has become integral to the enjoyment of the meal just as the tussle for tail meat is part of what makes crawfish an acquired taste. A meal sought and caught and cleaned, seasoned, fried then eaten with reverence and joy is as sensual an experience as sex. On the opposite pole, though as intertwined as mass and energy, gospel music brings praise to all that is not of the flesh or open to venality. Gospel music arose from the slave spirituals as part of the reaction to surviving an imposed Christianity which seemed to justify the genocide of the triangle slave trade, the Middle Passage, and the godless institution of the merchandising of human life. The helpless and hopeless sought solace in a redemption and equality beyond the physical misery of nameless generations. Not-Cohn experiences the catfish “on the table” and hears the transcendent emotions “in the air.” It is significant that this verse comes as a musical bridge, a wandering away from the rigor of the song pattern, a temporary losing of oneself in the wilderness. Lost and bewildered, perhaps let down by his lack of deliverance at the King’s Mansion of Many Rooms, not-Cohn wanders into a land of others, a Jew as it were far from the Holy Temple in a land of cultural Nod to which Blacks did not intend to travel and where worship rituals were imposed, internalized, evolved and individualized to fit existence in a hostile land. It is significant that Cohn employs a non-specific pronoun here as the people of attribute, “They.” “They’ve got catfish” and “They’ve got gospel” and they are wondrous and mysterious, alluring to not-Cohn’s desires as sirens to lost seamen. “They” are the cultural American untouchables whose names shall not be spoken in public, to whom neither credit, nor royalty, nor praise, nor admittance shall be given, to whom hatred and disrespect are woven into the origin tales of the American belief system even now as a mixed-race President sits in the White House. Not-Cohn is bewildered, maybe even humbled by this joyous population of nether dwellers, confused and doubting faith in his own identity, in need of praise words to raise to a silent northern God, without a prayer. Here, in the rich, Black land of “they,” not-Cohn stumbles into salvation from both male and female spiritual servants, perchance avatars, surely woe-laden human beings.
The male is Reverend Green, for Cohn probably Al Green whose own troubled life led him to his calling to the cloth, though for not-Cohn a welcoming being “glad to see you,” so unlike the King’s specter’s cold shoulder. Note the bizarre quality of male bonding progressing from the blessing of a dead Black male (Handy) through a dead white male (Elvis) until a living Black male’s open friendship provides a portal to a living woman and the release she can and does provide. The good Black reverend does not require any previous commitment to faith. Not-Cohn is welcome even “When you haven’t got a prayer.” In fact, the Memphis ambience not-Cohn has inadvertently pilgrimaged into will accommodate as “you’ve got a prayer in Memphis,” not exclusively for the soul of the young singer but for his direction in life and his career. Not-Cohn, brought so low, passively allows empyrean embrace as so many before him have come dejected and faithless and offering nothing but a soul at risk to be taken in and shepherded with the flock without expectation of reparation. Cohn the Jew and not-Cohn the outsider of lost faith have come to the land of the New Covenant and will not quibble theology, nor are they bid to.
For not-Cohn things become solid and focused. Cohn’s language specifies a day of the week, Friday, when toil may be sloughed off for a time. For followers of Abraham, the Sabbath begins on Friday night. Friday is a holy day for Christians as well only bested by Sunday. It might be significant that the day’s name’s etymologically echoes two powerful Norse or Germanic goddesses, Frigg and Freyja, the two possibly being the same but by whatever name married to Woden/Odin, the most powerful of All-Fathers. These wives are powerful unto themselves and dwell in the highest of sanctuaries. In American entertainment mythology, the highest sanctuary is Hollywood, and it is to a juke joint by that name not-Cohn is piloted to genuflect at the altar of the southern goddess Muriel, an angel particularly associated with the Virgin Mary and all the coding she comes wrapped in. “Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood” so she is a star with her own local legend, complete unto herself. She receives not-Cohn with gladness and apportions her stage and piano to the young man. Overcome and filled with the Spirit (as compared to simply watching the King’s spirit), not-Cohn says “I sang with all my might.” Here is the moment of release, where the micro-politics deconstruct, where religion recedes to purity of belief, where the hour is infinite and no sadness holds sway in a perfect universe. Not-Cohn is rewarded as Muriel exalts him with a question that for her is more of a compliment than any other she has to offer by saying “Tell me are you a Christian child?” The binary operation between Jew and Christian is here erased by music of an order so personal yet so compelling as to be celestial and beyond religion. The Jew is momentarily (while infinitely) Christian-like and the Christian angel compels this brief beatification without any requirement of belief in a Savior, or rather, the angel has allowed the acceptance of Savior to include this demonstration of an ardent soul through music. Judaism needs no approval or renovation and Christianity need not proselytize. They have become old and youthful together, inclusive and irrelevant. Hosanna in the highest! No one asks if cherubim and seraphim are of this devotion or that, this gender, that race. They sing the Highest One, the All Father Earth Mother singularity. And not-Cohn who has not been Christian before this night nor will be after, exclaims to Muriel “Ma’am, I am tonight.” In this heated moment, race, religion, gender, hatred, greed, suffering and persecution are balanced by the weight of what fills silence with light. All banalities evanesce and not-Cohn exults in an artist’s nano-release, as powerful to one human as the big bang to the universe, but also temporal as humanity. On this Friday in Hollywood attended by angels not-Cohn has felt truly alive overcoming his fate of “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Because he has been shown how “the play is the thing” and not-Cohn and Muriel have played so well, there has been escape without death from the “mortal coil.” His pilgrimage is a success when the infinite imbues him fleetingly with immortality and his voice joins the host, rises, then pulses out into the neverland.
Not-Cohn has experienced the supplementation of the social underprivileged over the privileged. The white Christian King has been deposed by the pagan Oshun or Isis through Muriel. The Chosen Jew has appeared to be lost but is once again chosen and redeemed without relinquishing his faith. As the serpentine positions of Derrida but also as the protocols of the universal whirl of energy and mass expose, the corrosive progress of civilization has been deferred by the enduring strength of the original Black gene pool which differs from the white Western world and its belief in the purity of a truth that can never be more than an evolving awareness filled with epiphanies that must themselves be interpreted through an unstable language, audience and cultural perspective. Not-Cohn experiences the insights, many mayhap subconsciously, at a few concise junctures of centricity and deconstruction. In these enlightened instants suffering is overcome by neither forgiveness nor empathy but by being and essence, merging with each other, poured together into a new mold itself evolving, ambiguous and transitory. “The center can not hold.” “This too shall pass.” What signifiers shall we choose to approach the inexpressible?
The last chorus serves a different purpose than simply reminding the audience of setting and purpose. This chorus, coming after the spiritual orgasm of an ambrosial performance, presents a narrator out in the street again still euphoric, “Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale” in the afterglow. But by the end of the chorus, human doubt and the provisional quality of identity permeate his bodhi and his “Do I really feel the way I feel?” appropriates more than his trip to Memphis to include his existence and Cartesian consciousness. The quest for association and identity ends in the quest for association and identity. The path is the destination.
Then it is of a piece that Cohn places not-Cohn where he started, turning back, alone in the “land of the Delta blues” (though it may well have acquired the qualities of the Nile delta at this point), blue suede shoes laced up but ruined in a “pouring rain” of biblical proportion that has gone on within yet without the diegesis of Cohn’s piece. What has changed in the language is the omission of the first class ticket, “first class” being a mere chimera of existence, and the omission of being “blue as a boy can be.” To borrow from Roethke, not-Cohn has awoken to sleep, having passed through a membrane of experience where the signifier “blues” and the signified experience of the blues have become a sign which resists vocalization. There is hope that he has learned something about appreciation of life, of taking his waking slow. After all, as often as not the blues themselves tend not so much toward depressing dirges as toward danceable tunes whose lyrics embrace the struggles of life with irony and humor. The blues begin the day with “Good morning, heartache,” spoken with a wry smile and a mind toward the evening out waiting ahead after a long day’s work and troubles. At last, not-Cohn might be at peace, though as a fiction he is forever doomed to relive his segment of life represented by his plot. But even that is as it should be for him and all of us who might be no better served at the end of our consciousness and “life story” than to be able to celebrate that “I am who I am” and that no more is necessary to have been human and fulfilled.