Category: telling history


Published in the December 2010 online issue of Underground Voices.

Railroad Bill

I’m putting up some  collections of folk tunes I’ve been working on for a while – they’re going up as “pages” rather than posts – but I think this one deserves its own actual post, not only because hearing “Railroad Bill” being picked on the guitar is one of my earliest memories, but also because my great-grandmother, who spent most of her life in Lowndes County, AL, wrote about Railroad Bill in her memoirs.  She writes,

Railroad Bill was a young black man that could board a train without being seen until he stepped out of nowhere and robbed the baggage coach and sometimes the passengers of the train and then vanish completely. It was said that he was invisible. Posses would be close on his track and all at once they would lose him. Even the blood hounds could not track him down.

This was in the gay nineties when the young people were happy and singing “After the Ball,” “Two Little Girls in Blue,” and other popular songs of the day. Then someone would ride up and announce that Railroad Bill had just robbed the North or South bound train and had vanished with the loot. Everyone began trembling and wondering if he would come by and harm them. Railroad Bill had become notorious.

I was a small child about 8 or 10 years old and hung around Papa’s store and post office. Men would gather from miles around to meet the mail which was due at eleven o’clock from Claiborne by way of Perdue Hill and Monroeville, from Beuna Vista by way of Burnt Corn and from Evergreen by way of Belleville. The heaviest mail came from Evergreen as the only railroad came through there. It was interesting to hear the news from surrounding communities, and every week or so, the mail carrier would come with the news that Railroad Bill had thrown loot off the train. One time it was a box of meal that weighed a hundred pounds, other times it would be a barrel of sugar, a barrel of flour or other goods. At times someone would get a glimpse of Bill as he dropped from the moving train.

Life was brutally harsh for settlers and outlaws alike, and after many such mysterious crimes committed by Railroad Bill from Mobile to Montgomery, a reward was offered for him “dead or alive.”

A posse was gathered in a store to make plans for tracking Bill down. While they were in the front of the store talking over their plans one man who was late came in the back door with his pass key. There sat Railroad Bill on a barrel listening to the men making the plans for his capture. He failed to hear the man enter, and the man quickly drew his gun and shot Railroad Bill. The railroad company had him embalmed and put him on the train, on a day announced and stopped at every station between Mobile and Montgomery and charged $.25 for each person to look at him. Two of my brothers went to see him.

Railroad Bill was so notorious at that time that a song was written about him, but all I can remember of the song, the closing sentence which said: “and that was the last of Railroad Bill.”

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Crooked Still – Railroad Bill

Doc Watson and David Holt at Merlefest ’08 – Railroad Bill

some guy on youtube picking Railroad Bill, Freight Train, Make Me a Pallet

The Mudcat Cafe discussion on Railroad Bill (if you are into folk tales and folk music and you don’t know this site, go there NOW)

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page links to Shule AgraSt James Hospital, the Trooper and the Maid, Omie Wise

So my new shrink thinks I have PTSD, and I don’t know if she’s right or not, but I do know that if I have it, the Army didn’t give it to me.  I was good at being a soldier because constantly scanning the horizon and imagining the worst-case scenario and thinking tactically was already second nature to me.  Anyway, this most recent bout of therapy has me thinking about the Army a good bit lately, and pulling out some old tidbits from the “writing fodder” folder to polish up. This one isn’t polished yet, and this one does in fact have an epilogue that it didn’t have when I originally sketched it out in 2008.  But “what really happened” isn’t really the point anyway, not in stories, and not in trauma either.  I have this gigantic complicated theory about trauma and about PTSD being an illness of time and it involves Tim O’Brien and Emily Dickinson and Deleuze and Guattari and it’s probably utter trash.  But I do remain convinced that the exact order of events, the exact details, isn’t finally the important part when you’re talking about the kind of story or event that can shape, or end, or save, or change, a life.  What matters is that the story makes you feel, that it interrupts and reroutes temporality and touches something from another time and space – and it makes that something irrupt into the supposedly seamless surface of the this/now and makes things go inside out a little bit. So it’s alright that this story is (now, due to a different type of irruption of time/space) not (any longer) exactly true.

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At my last duty assignment, I had one of those completely punishable-by-UCMJ love affairs that I tended towards. It wasn’t so much that I hooked up with people you couldn’t take home to mom as much as people you just couldn’t take to the battalion Christmas party and introduce to the Command Sergeant Major. The reasons were varied, but it was almost always something that would get me into a world of fucking trouble one way or the other.  All the best ones were like that, anyway.

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When I was a wee thing, a bucktoothed, brown-haired short girl who lived in books and sketched guidelines for utopian societies with byzantine rules of conduct on scraps of paper and hoarded them away because I sensed, even at that age, that there might be something odd about my interests, I was very very shy. I grew up with family that got drunk and cussed and threw food and raised their voices to get a word in edgewise; among cousins who played Survival and formed strategic teams for which you never, ever wanted to be picked last lest you find yourself tied up and left too close to an antbed after your team got its ass kicked in bottlerocket wars; with an artist mother who hated poetry and music and a musical father who would play the guitar and sing you to sleep in between disappearing for three days at a time on a bender. I wasn’t sure what to do with my voice at first. People usually didn’t act like I expected them to, didn’t respond like I thought they would, and were a little bit… volatile… and I had a keen sense of tragedy and injustice and embarrassment, like most 9 year olds, and did what I could to avoid getting called out on anything at all.
It’s a blessing that books were always valued, or I probably wouldn’t have survived childhood. Even Granddaddy, who would come home drunk for the Foreign Legion at 1 a.m. and put the basenji, Mohammed, on the mantlepiece, wake my grandmother to have her clean and cook turnip greens that a friend had given him in a paper bag, rouse the kids to feed them pork skins or some other Southern dainty that he had acquired on his nightly beer-soaked pickup truck journeys – even granddaddy read. You would tiptoe in on Sunday afternoon and find him on the sofa, asleep, with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a copy of National Geographic or Kahlil Gibran or Edgar Cayce on his plaid-shirt-covered belly.

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So today I’m thinking about signing up for Grad Poetry Writing Workshop for next semester. This terrifies me. I took Fiction and Verse Writing from Prof. Baseball at Montevallo in probably 92 or so, and what ended up happening was something like stage fright. I don’t think I wrote a single poem while I was in that class. I brought old poems to class, edited a few maybe, made the occasional comment on other people’s stuff, and was mostly baffled about the Process of Writing Poetry. I did write one original thing in that class — the first and last short story I’ve ever done (excepting the Duran Duran fantasy and slash fic I used to write when I was 12-ish and before I knew that stuff like that had a name. I used to do awful things to Simon Le Bon on looseleaf paper. I burned all of that when I was … probably twelve or thirteen.)

I’m afraid of a repeat. I’m afraid of putting the Muse to the Test. I don’t know and have never known how to construct a poem outside of that manic flow of whatever that hits. I recognize this as a problem and as totally fucking retarded, but that’s where I’m at. And I’m quite frankly mortified by the idea of exposing stuff I write to the “suggestions” of others. Especially if this class turns out like every other class and has its share of total fucking morons in it. There’s something modest, and virginal, and tentative, about writing poetry for me. I have to writing poetry the attitude that good little christian girls have toward sex. Twisted. Hard to explain.

So there’s fear of that. But this is something I need to do.

***

I was thinking today about the time I went to visit my friend Claudia in Germany, when I was about twelve. (It seems like everything I thought about today tied into Roughly That Time Frame). I was thinking about, of all things, how my dad’s voice sounded on the phone when he called me about five weeks into my stay in Rheinfelden. Of course Claudia’s family spoke English around me, but they also spoke German around me too, and five weeks of being surrounded by the tones and accents and pitches and crescendoes of German had tuned my ear a different way. I wasn’t speaking it, of course, I never could, despite the later three year stint in country, but I could understand *some* and read some.

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I’m in that mood, that mode. That feeling that sometimes indicates an upcoming Spot where sometimes Poetry happens. It isn’t happening. But anyway, it makes me realize a few things. One is that I am not apparently capable of writing fiction when something doesn’t feel wrong, when something does not in some way or another hurt me or make me feel a bit sad. On one level, that’s good — it means my destiny is not, apparently, to write Greeting Cards, and I can’t think of a worse destiny than that. On another, it’s bad, because it means — and yes, I’m just now admitting this to myself — that I occasionally let things get a little too far south just for the visceral edge of it, just for the Feeling of dissociation that comes, where it takes a poem to get me back to my body, or get me out of it entirely. I let shit go too far just to Feel. I really don’t care for how that might be read, and I don’t care for what it might say about me — and it certainly isn’t conscious and isn’t always about Poetry. But I’ll leave it without further exploration for now, because I’m not done Walking with my Staff, poking its narrow end into black holes and the spaces between rocks, looking for vipers and seashells and beautiful, poisonous flowers that only grow in the dark.

I can’t write without doing this, you see.

I heard a great story tonight. My friend R’s father just died, last week, after a protracted battle with some particularly nasty cancer. In the time he spent with his family during death-week, and the following painfully mundane post-funeral chores, his cousin told him about the family heirloom. It’s not a piece of silver or some porcelain, not an old carved cigar-store Indian or a ring to be passed from mother to daughter-in-law — it’s a title to New Amsterdam signed by Queen Elizabeth I, granting the land of New Amsterdam to this particular clan, which is descended from that most Commonly named of Uncommonly Mythological Men, John Smith. For his family’s service of 99 years to the Crown. Now, quite frankly, I don’t give a shit about the gaps in this story. What I adore is the idea that there could be a piece of paper in a safe deposit box somewhere, held for generations by a family that has become something we might call a mountain family, written in the hand of an English queen, granting this undeveloped piece of property that is now what it is to this clan of brothers. I want to write this, about what this means, about where it could go depending on what alternate universe I put it in. But that does not appear to be happening.

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2004-04-29 – 12:07 a.m.

I didn’t finish Swinburne and Sappho. But I turned it in. There was so much more to say. I rewrote it three times. I got it vaguely somewhere and I was only 38 minutes late for class to turn it in.

I bit off more than I could chew.

It matters, somehow, or I think it does. But then again, it doesn’t. I don’t think it does. And here I am.

I have to do this again. Another week to do another one of these. Why is writing, for me, so hard? Why does it hurt? What am I putting off, putting on, doing? What I am pretending? What do I doubt? And why do I think everything has to be always perfect?

Took tonight off from research. Read some Anne Sexton. Sad, so sad, I was crying before but I am crying more now.

Therapy screwed me up forever. I have turned my entire life into something to be analysed. Some people just live. Not us, of course, not those of us who feel compelled to simultaneously create and project ourselves out here into a public eye… but some people do. I am sure they do. I am sure life is somehow easier for them. Some people don’t put needles in their own bedclothes, don’t draw maps and encode the directions and forget the key. Some people …. don’t.

Maybe I am so whacked because I stopped therapy in adolescence, when there’s still so much more to say. To see. To get at. Or maybe I don’t have the heart, the guts, to do that anyway, anymore. I don’t think I do. The idea makes me feel weak. Then, there was a mountain to be climbed, a goal to be reached, a place to be “got to.” Out of *that,* whatever that was.

I got out of that. But I never got out of something else. And I never stopped thinking thinking thinking about it.

I have absolutely no idea in the world why I am so sad right now. There is nothing wrong.

There is everything wrong.

There is something wrong.