A Trip Through the South Shows There Are All Kinds of Monuments A LETTER FROM NASHVILLE

October 06, 1991|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ | RAFAEL ALVAREZ,Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

In Nashville, people are moving to build an invisible monument to an invisible man.

The friends of Otis Blackwell, the largely anonymous composer behind many of Elvis Presley's early hits, are moving fast here in Music City to complete his memorial before the great writer passes from this world to the next.

If they are successful, their tribute to the stroke-debilitated author of "Don't Be Cruel," "All Shook Up," and "Return to Sender," will be unlike any of the monuments I saw on a road trip of 3,200 miles through the American South this summer.

On that trip, in the mountain town of Marion at the far end of southwest Virginia, I waded through the book-cluttered apartment of John Mason Rudolph, a hustler of great literature, bad horses and his own legend.

The legacy of this native Baltimorean is scribbled on countless thousands of sheets of paper under the title, "Notes to Myself," a scrap collection amassed over the last quarter-century.

"I don't even know of a case history like mine that is on record. . . . If there is, I'd sure like to read it," reads one of the notes, written, like the others, on napkins and the back of coffee stained envelopes and filed in any crack that will hold them. "Thomas Wolfe tried to unearth the Earth. He ate the world, spit it up, and ate it again. What am I unaware of?"

Just outside of Marion in the hills of Troutdale I went once again to see the stone and timber mansion of Sherwood Anderson, author of the enduring "Winesburg, Ohio" and a kindly inspiration to Faulkner and Hemingway. The house by Ripshin Creek is marked with a bronze government plaque claiming it for the historical register, but the plaque doesn't say why.

Read "Winesburg," and you will know.

From Virginia, it was west to Tennessee, home of the twin rhythm cities of Nashville and Memphis.

Nashville boasts the Parthenon, an exact and mighty replica of the principal temple on the Acropolis in Athens and one of the most stunning sights, all of the New World: a monument to Nashville's centennial above modern highways and gas stations on 60 columns, housing a statue of the Goddess Athena 41 feet and 10 inches tall.

It is in Nashville where Otis Blackwell fights for his life every day and it is to Nashville I will shortly return to tell you about the monument without mortar being erected to the 59-year-old Blackwell.

A quick 210 miles away to the west, the river town of Memphis sits at the crown of the Mississippi Delta. There stands a besieged monument known as Graceland, generator of big tourist dollars and the former home of Elvis Presley, who is buried under the lawn.

The man who supplied Presley with so many million-selling songs had repeatedly refused to meet Elvis before the King died in 1977, believing it would break the spell. "Elvis and I both had a thing going that was super," Otis said in 1982. "Call it superstition, but I wanted to keep it."

From Memphis the tour headed south on Highway 61, the blues gateway immortalized for middle America by Bob Dylan, and I stopped in Clarksdale, Miss., to rattle the locked doors of the Delta Blues Museum and pick through records at the Stackhouse on Sunflower Avenue, buying a copy of "Negro Fife and Drum Music of the Deep South" for $7.99.

Steadily rolling south down the double-lane of 61 through Leland, birthplace of Johnny Winter and home to James "Son" Thomas, I took a little turn to pass through Rolling Fork, where on April 4, 1915, a boy named McKinley Morganfield was born. He grew up to be a man, a son-of-a-gun known from Baltimore to Tokyo as Muddy Waters.

The clerk at the convenience store didn't know, and the desk sergeant at the local police station didn't know, but I kicked around the deserted Sunday streets of Rolling Fork long enough to find a sign that the sleepy town at the crossroads of Highway 61 and Highway 14 had given birth to a monumental American artist.

On a little scrub of land near the corner of China and Ash streets stands a pathetic, unfinished wooden gazebo, the kind you might see in a suburban backyard, unmarked and lopsided, a make-shift testimonial to the man who informed the world: "The blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll. . . ."

Staring at the gazebo, I thought of Graceland and thought that even Elvis would have been shamed by the inequities of fortune.

Farther south I toured the vast Civil War battlefields of Vicksburg, where the monument to Illinois war dead alone has enough marble to duplicate every set of white steps in Baltimore; and several dozen miles below Vicksburg I stumbled upon the remote splendor of the Windsor Ruins.

Out beyond Port Gibson, in the green and lush middle of nowhere, tower Greek Revival columns rising to support nothing, a void conjuring wonder.

So beautiful was the Windsor Plantation that it moved the Union Army to spare it the wrath of victory; it burned to the ground a decade later during a grand ball. The columns and a historical marker remain.

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