Uncanny America: folklore, fakelore and the bazaar of the bizarre
Guest Blog from Eliza Thomas, the Folk Whisperer.
This blog is intended to be a true(ish) account of a road-trip taken from Asheville to San Francisco, early November, 2017. It’s a long journey – all 2594 miles of it – and so I’ve just focused on the highlights here, filtered by my own academic penchant. It was done in a 2001 Dodge Dakota Pickup 4WD, pulling a silver trailer, with London our mahmout bodyguard. Enjoy the ride!
Day 2: Tennessee to Arkansas
The next day we made pilgrimage to Graceland – more for my culture-vulture benefit, than J’s whose been there before. She stayed in the trailer with London while I did the ‘stations of the cross’. It’s incredible to see what an icon the ‘King’ has become, and how the minutiae of his lifestyle have become the relics for modern day pilgrims to idolise, perhaps feeling they will imbibe some of his shamanic aura. He had such powerful charisma, whatever you think of his music. I’ve never been a massive fan, I must admit – my Dad liked him, so I associate him with that generation. He seems to appeal to over-the-hill menopausal males with their beer bellies and dyed quiffs. It brings out the pub-singer in all of us. Fortunately, we hit Memphis during ‘Elvis Week’ and so the streets were swarming with lookalikes – a wonderfully surreal experience. Less joyous was the KKK ‘Great Wizard’ memorial – an unsavoury monument to an unpleasant chapter in America’s past, reminding me I’m deep behind ‘enemy lines’, here in the Bible Belt. Racism, jingoism, small-town xenophobia. These are some of the negative values that linger here like a bad smell. And yet the majority of folk we meet seem pleasant and easy going – but don’t talk to them about liberal politics or religious tolerance! As we crossed the border into Arkansas I breathed with relief – whether this was misplaced, who knows, but I must admit it was a relief to escape the kitsch for a while and head to the Hot Springs national park. To be surrounded by real natural beauty again was balm to the soul. We pulled up outside the tourist ‘mecca’ of Little Rock, the state capital, in a leafy picnic area that London was delighted with. We went for a dip and dried off in the sun. It felt a million miles from anywhere. It turns out this neck of the woods is ‘Clinton Country’ as the tourist signs proudly state – the childhood home of the former Chief Executive. Presidents are the equivalent of Kings and Queens over here (maybe one day they’ll have a female in the White House? Please!). You can visit where they studied (Bill Clinton’s High School is just up the road), ate, slept, danced, drank, dumped… America seems to like it’s heroes to have feet of clay. Perhaps it makes them closer to the common man – and thus feeds into the American Dream, that everyone has a shot at the top, everyone can make it, and even a son of Arkansas can become President of the USA. Arkansas is a peculiar place – alongside the Clinton arcana, Hot Springs boasts as its other attractions Mermen (well, a dodgy stitched-together freak show exhibit at the Alligator Farm), telepathic racoons (in the ‘Zoo with IQ’), and a tiny town. We were not tempted by these delights, but wended our way to ‘authentic’ attractions like the Boggy Creek Monster (a local Bigfoot-type, now with his own Monster Mall and photo-opportunity: I gurned for the camera from inside it); and the supposedly runic stone of Paris, Arkansas.
Yet the highlight of this Hick-chic state was unquestionably Aza – the Gaudy Goddess of Feminine Cosmic Energy. Adora Zerlina Astra (“Beloved One Created of the Stars”) manifested in her corporeal form at Turpentine Creek. Created in late 2012 by sculptor Bruce Anderson, She is ‘a non-denominational goddess’, a composite of various deities that Anderson says ‘celebrates the feminine energy of the cosmos’. Despite her cosmic pedigree, Aza was built for the owners of Eureka Springs’ chilli restaurant on their lawn, which overlooks a downtown park. From it, Aza looks down upon us Earthlings with an inscrutable gaze. J and I took a stroll up to pay our respects. Our Lady was made of turquoise stained cement. She holds an orb in one hand and a heart-shaped sceptre in the other. Up close we notice the hand-cut tiles which cover her, inspired apparently by the Hubble Telescope. Astronomer bling. Aza has a Mona Lisa-esque smile – perhaps inevitably when you know the punchline of the Cosmic Joke. She’s been variously interpreted as Roman Catholic, Hindi, Egyptian, even Atlantean, yet she’s hardly mermaid material. Here J and I reflected on our day, enjoying a cosmic ice-cream. Tomorrow we head onto to Oklahoma. But that’s enough cultural edification for one day.
The journey continues tomorrow…
Eliza Thomas is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are the connections between folklore and folk music in Lowland Scotland. She is the co-convenor of the now annual SIDHE (Scottish International Dialogues in Hermeneutic Ethnomusicology) Conference, and a contributor to The Cone and The Bottle Imp. She blogs and tweets as the Folk Whisperer.