Becky McLaughlin

Singing The “Stuttgart, Ark.” Blues With Bukka White, Or, How I Utterly Failed To Be Like Elvis

          “For Elvis there was no escape in art; his original triumph was his very artlessness.”
                    —Peter Guralnick,
Lost Highway

Divorced for the second time, I am alone tonight, an almost inaudible drizzle softening the hard edges of loneliness. I light a cigarette, take a sip of wine, and rub my mouth with the back of my hand to catch an errant dribble. Then I pull back into the present when I see a blotch of lipstick at the base of my thumb. How did that get there? Oh, yes, I remember now. A little spillage caused by inattention. In these moments of abstraction, I wander off into a space cross-hatched by past and future, the only registration of the present, small things such as the flesh on the outside of my upper thigh, which I press with my free thumb, making an indentation that I stare at with a fascination equal parts delight and disgust. Small things such as the hat on my head, which I change frequently, dissatisfied with my look although for no apparent reason since there’s no one here to notice except me, and I don’t count since I don’t make love to myself. (1)  But, then, one can never tell who might be observing from some obscure corner of the world, I think as I swab diligently at the lipstick blotch with my left hand, massaging until it becomes nothing but the memory of a blush. Small things such as the milky-blue tendrils of smoke that rise and curl from my cigarette like the cursive letters of a message written on the wind to an unknown correspondent. Smoking in the dark is no fun, but one can always smoke alone.

It’s New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2003, and I’m sitting in my bathrobe in Mobile, Alabama, trying unsuccessfully to keep warm in a poorly insulated house and feeling like a bad blues song. The temperature outside is probably not much lower than fifty degrees fahrenheit, but the dampness of the night air makes it register in the bones as thirty. I shiver and, after contemplating its neatly-arranged contents, break into my “sausage and cheese gift box” from Wal-mart, which someone has given me in a friendly holiday gesture. I examine the cylindrical packaging of the smoked cheese, finally snipping the end off its plastic casing with a pair of scissors and squishing the soft cheese out in the same manner that I will later tonight squeeze toothpaste from a Colgate tube. I take a sip of cheap but nicely-chilled wine, rolling the crisp flavor of the sauvignon blanc against the smoky flavor of the cheese, and turn my attention to Bukka White, who is singing with enthusiastic nostalgia about Stuttgart, Arkansas, the small town roughly halfway between Little Rock and West Memphis where, if push comes to shove, I must say I grew up. Although I’m alone on this most social night of the year, I am not exactly lonely, only slightly bemused by the fact of my isolation. A perfect night to reject the illusory offerings of a necessarily murky future and focus on the past, a perfect night to inhabit and be inhabited by memory.

But in a moment of delay, typical of the writer stalled somewhere between a fear of beginning and an absolute horror of not, I become fascinated by the burn marks on the surface of my kitchen table—still, black spots different in size and shape that represent the many nights spent seated here with wine splashing into glasses far too frequently and a chain of cigarettes burning to ash between our fingers, the occasional forgotten cigarette left too long on the edge of an ashtray, which finally falls unnoticed to the wood beneath. What are these burns but black marks on the page, decipherable only by those intoxicated enough to forget that smoldering ash does burn, does leave a trace, is precisely a carbonic residue of words spoken the night before?

Put the blindfold on me, then, my dear, and I’ll tell you a story that we can revise in the morning over coffee, oranges, and the screech of a green cockatoo. For, in the end, what are we but the stories we tell of ourselves, a series of constructions and reconstructions built on congealed words and gestures, some so tiny as to be almost imperceptible and others so grandiose as to be laughable? You tell me your story, Bukka, and I’ll tell you mine.

In June of 1969, Bukka White was at the Memphis Blues Festival, singing a four-and-a-half-minute song called “Stuttgart, Ark.” In June of 1969, I’d never heard of Bukka White, but, at ten, I was just about to experience one of those major adolescent set-backs that would make me sing a tune about Stuttgart very different from Bukka’s. For Bukka, leaving Stuttgart was the heartbreak and returning, his fondest dream. Although he’s around sixty when he sings this song, the persona he adopts as he sings is that of someone much younger, someone who is looking forward to his twenty-first birthday so that he can take a Greyhound bus back to Stuttgart, a place reputed by Bukka to have “some of the prettiest women . . . that you men folks ever saw.” You don’t have to listen too hard to his lyrics to hear the high esteem in which he holds Stuttgart.

My mother and father take me from Stuttgart, Arkansas, when I just was only five years old. Yes, my mother and father take me from Stuttgart, Arkansas, when I was just only five years old. You know I used to hear so much about Stuttgart, Arkansas, I told the people that’s where I was bred and born. You know I said when I count twenty-one years old, I’m going back to Stuttgart, Arkansas. Why you going back there? Oh, yes, if I grow up and get twenty-one, I’m going back to Stuttgart, Arkansas.

While Bukka and I might have agreed that Stuttgart women are awfully pretty, the lyrics of a Chester Burnett song would more accurately have summed up my opinion of the place: “I’m leavin’ you. I’m going to have to put you down. If you can’t treat me right, there’s no use in my hanging ‘round.”

I am not a musician, but perhaps what I’m trying to do is not radically different from what a certain type of musician does, if there’s any truth in Peter Guralnick’s analysis of the performers who figure in his book Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. What Guralnick writes about is, as he says, often called “roots music,” music in which performers sing “from the heart,” music “that is deeply engraved in [the performer’s] background and experience.”(3)  According to Guralnick, these “roots” musicians. . . all recall a boyhood in the country, on the farm, a shared experience that links them inextricably not to the undifferentiated mass audience that television courts, but to a particular, sharply delineated group of men and women who grew up in circumstances probably very much like their own, who respond to the music not just as entertainment but as a vital part of their lives.

And yet, as Guralnick points out, the oddly contradictory thing about these musicians is that the very ones who sing from the heart about home are the very ones who felt most alienated in and/or have become most alienated from the place they grew up. Elvis, for example, sang of himself as a stranger in his own hometown, and, according to Guralnick, the very first artistic impulse of musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Feathers, Jack Clement, or Charlie Rich arose in response to “their alienation from the world in which they grew up[,]” and thus Guralnick concludes that “it might be difficult to say that success has distanced them from their origins any more than traits of character or personality distanced them to begin with” . Obviously, I can’t identify with Guralnick’s roots musicians on the basis of their talent, success, or musical genius, but if there is any foundation for my belief that we have something in common, it is surely to be found in this contradiction. For the place I grew up never embraced me, nor I it, and yet it haunts me like the ache of an old wound, the kind of wound that never quite heals, the kind that can only be made by someone or something you love deeply enough to be deeply hurt by—hence the need to write about it.

In looking back, I realize that I’ve seldom if ever lived in a place where I felt a true sense of belonging. Perhaps this feeling of alienation is a common one. Perhaps no one feels really at ease anywhere anymore. Or maybe there are people who feel secure wherever they go, carrying with them some internal faculty that allows them to understand the temporal life in a less personal or more detached way than the rest of us. Or maybe my inability to feel at home stems from the fact that by the time I was ten, our family had already moved ten times—from one coast to another, from one state to another, from one town to another, and even from one country to another. These moves were never undertaken haphazardly, however. There were always impeccably sound reasons for them. For instance, the move to Richmond, Indiana, was made so that my father could attend a Quaker college, where he and my mother became steeped in the Anabaptist tradition, political activism, and the pacifist stance toward war and violence. Or the move to the Belgian Congo, where my father trained Congolese pilots and farmers in aerial agriculture when the Belgian colonizers began leaving en masse. Or the move to Little Rock, where we could attend a bi-racial Presbyterian church and live in a mixed neighborhood. Given this history of movement, the real aberration was settling down, and it was only then that I registered most acutely the feeling of not belonging.

The house we first lived in, upon arrival in rural southeastern Arkansas, was located on the grounds of the Almyra Municipal Airport, and the road we traveled to the towns on either side of us, Almyra to the south with a population of 400 and Stuttgart to the north with a much grander population of 10,000, was gravel. Many years have passed since 1969, but even now the Yoder road (named after the Mennonites who created a community there and then disappeared) remains only partially paved, as if the passage of time and progress functions only intermittently in that particular place. My sister and I attended a one-room school in Almyra, where all the grades sat together to do their reading and studying and were only distinguished when called to the table at the front of the room to do supervised work such as fourth-grade history or fifth-grade science. It was at this table that I first encountered the word “fuck.” During math, Brad Schrock, who was sitting next to me, laughed and pointed to something penciled in the margin of my used textbook. I saw a word I didn’t recognize and pronounced it aloud in the form of a question. That semester I made a “C” in math.

This, then, was the situation in which our parents had inserted us, and it was here that we had to find our place. What do kids do when they want to belong? They take their cues from those around them; they do what the other kids do, and the thing that my female classmates did was draw paper dolls. But these were like none I’d ever encountered. They made Barbie appear modest and rather matronly by comparison, for these paper dolls looked as if they had just stepped out of a cartoon version of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. We were little girls drawing seriously adult, seriously sexy paper dolls who wore bikinis and exotic clothing meant to be seductive and alluring. By the time I’d finished the fifth grade, I had drawn so many that I began filing them by name and storing them in a recipe box. This fact, in itself, gives me pause. Why were the drawings of these women so diminutive? And why did I file them as if they could be reduced to specimens or types? And, most importantly perhaps, why place them in a recipe box?

Although I don’t know how I would have answered these questions then, I do know that whatever my classmates had been drawing—even if, instead of paper dolls, it had been something as unsexy as an old tennis shoe or a blade of grass—I would happily have drawn it for the simple reason that I loved to draw. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the way these drawings functioned for the girls around me was different from the way they functioned for me. This is pure speculation, but perhaps, for them, drawing paper dolls had the same value or importance as writing the name of a boy over and over again on a piece of notebook paper, or seeing what his last name looked like coupled with the title of “Mrs.” Perhaps they were drawing what they wished to become, creating a future version of themselves. For me, however, the idea that I would someday become a woman, someday resemble these paper dolls, was so fantastic as to be inconceivable. I drew, then, not what I wished to become but in order to become.

When one is on the brink of puberty, one’s identity is at its most precarious, and thus one often draws (no pun intended) hasty and erroneous conclusions about oneself and one’s relationship to the rest of the world. My hasty and erroneous conclusion was that I was not feminine enough nor pretty enough to ever be a woman, much less a desirable one. And so by the time I had entered the fifth grade, the vision of the life I planned to lead was well established and quite simple: I would live in Switzerland, create art, and never marry. Painting against the sublime backdrop of the Alps, I would make a name for myself, and I would keep it.

Needless to say, when an art competition was announced at school that fall, I flung myself into a frenzy of feverish activity. This was a chance to prove myself, the chance that I, like the inconspicuous flea or tic waiting to attach itself to its victim, had been waiting for. I would continue drawing paper dolls at school, but I would draw something serious for the art contest. Having been influenced by books that reproduced the rich, chocolate browns of Rembrandt, the funky cubism of Picasso, and the giraffe-like edifices and stretched timepieces of Dali, I had come to believe that there was a fundamental difference between “low” and “high” art, and so I chose to draw what I considered to be the height of “high” art: a still-life of a bowl of fruit.

In the days before the competition was to be judged, I drew sketch after sketch of a bowl that looked almost boat-like with its mast of firm, upright bananas and its fruit-shaped passengers peering over the side: plump clusters of grapes cascaded down the bow, their vines tangled around shiny apples that nestled up against pockmarked oranges and triangular pears, the slice of watermelon beside the bowl resembling nothing if not a dinghy. When I was finally satisfied with the arrangement of the objects and had achieved what I felt to be the perfect juxtaposition of fruit, I began work on the shading. I thought about light and how it should hit from just the right angle, giving everything the proper glow and shine. Occasionally, my sister would peek over my shoulder and make awe-filled noises. “That apple looks so real,” she would say, almost breathless. Or, “How’d you get those bananas to look kinda bruised?” Or, “What sorta grapes are those gonna be? Purple or green?” We both thought I was creating a masterpiece, and when I saw it tacked up next to the other drawings that lined the walls of the assembly hall, I knew with certainty that it was the best. None of the others exhibited the attention to detail, the concern for realism, or the love of color and shadow and line that my still-life did. It stuck out like a sore but beautiful thumb amidst the hurried sketches of barns with pumpkins and shocks of wheat in the foreground or of empty rice fields with the usual “V” of Canadian geese flying overhead. But I didn’t win. I didn’t even get an honorable mention.

The day the contest winners were announced was one of the most miserable days of my young life. How could it be that Gina, whose barn looked more like an igloo, had won the contest? She wasn’t a good artist, and she didn’t need the honor of winning. She already belonged. Even now, 34 years later, I can still conjure up the overwhelming sense of shame and confusion that wrapped itself around me as tightly as the linen strips binding an Egyptian mummy. Winning had seemed within reach, a just and true outcome, but then the world tilted and everything slid out of place. My sense of identity, my sense of justice, my sense of what made sense—all were thrown out of focus. This was to have been my debut, the first moment of public recognition, the day that would not only set my future on course but also establish with certainty my value to and place in the community.

The red sea of doubt did not part that day, however, and I did not walk through to the promised land. Instead, we moved to Stuttgart the following year, and although Almyra had been the scene of the betrayal, Stuttgart suffered the brunt of my anger. I continued to draw, but it would be nearly twenty years before I publicly exhibited my work again. As the years passed and my female classmates began resembling the paper dolls we had created, their budding good looks giving them the confidence to enter the Miss Mallard beauty pageant and their interest in cooking, the skills they needed to create recipes that would win them the coveted title of Miss Fluffy Rice, I became a staunch feminist, the bitter kind that gives feminism a bad name. (4)  My vision had been blown to bits, and I felt like blowing Stuttgart up in return. If the other girls wanted to use their bodies and faces like a canvas and paint themselves into existence as farmers’ wives, they could do so, but I wouldn’t. I did not want to be a paper doll filed away in a recipe box.

This was my attitude when, at 18, I kicked the delta dust off my heels and left Stuttgart for yet another community in which belonging would be hard to achieve. At 44, I’m no longer angry at Stuttgart. In fact, I prefer flat land to mountains, and there’s nothing as beautiful to me as a rice field just before harvesting time, nothing that moves me to tears more quickly than the graceful swoop and glide of an Ag Cat, Snow, or Air Tractor “dusting” crops in the stillness of a hot summer day, nothing more evocative than the sickly-sweet chemical-smell of stam in the early hours of dawn.

Thankfully, when I look back on the events that took place in the fall of 1969, I find that I have a new understanding of them. If it’s possible to argue, as Guralnick does, that Elvis’s “original triumph [as an artist] was his very artlessness,” perhaps it would be possible to argue that my original failure as an artist was my very artfulness. What I would say now, if I were to occupy the position of judge and comment on that bowl of fruit, is this: very nicely executed, from a technical standpoint, but ultimately lifeless. The apple does not convince me that it’s just been plucked from the tree. The banana does not convince me that it’s been handled by a living, breathing human being. The artist has been far too careful, far too restrained in her treatment of the fruit. Clearly, there’s so much at stake for this artist that she has lost her nerve. She has taken no risks, avoided making mistakes, but in doing so has made the greatest mistake of all. Now, these other drawings, while rather poorly executed, show a kind of hurried dash that suggests life and movement, a raw vitality that the still-life lacks. The still-life is an artful treatment of an artful subject, a representation of a representation, a drawing that suggests an understanding of art so abstract that it is completely alienated from real life. What we’re looking for in a winner is a drawing that doesn’t open the gap between art and life but closes it. The still-life opens the gap so wide that the artist seems to have fallen in.

I doubt that the judges of the contest critiqued my still-life and the other drawings in this particular manner, but what they must have seen when they looked at my bowl of fruit was a drawing that defied the definition of the contest. It was the Grand Prairie Autumn Art Festival, after all, and what did that bowl of fruit have to do with the Grand Prairie or with autumn?

The folks down in the Mississippi Delta don’t make a living off bananas or grapes or apples or oranges or pears. They grow soybeans and wheat and milo and cotton and, most importantly, rice. In fact, Stuttgart is still touted by the Chamber of Commerce as the “rice and duck capital of the world.” It’s the home of Riceland Rice, and while the Ricebird football team may not have had the most intimidating name, they did have a pretty good winning record when I was in school. As for the square dance club my parents belonged to, it was called the Levee Walkers in honor of the farmers who walked the levees to inspect their fields. The town of Stuttgart takes its rice very seriously, and, just as the Irish are said to eat potatoes, the residents eat it at every turn. And when the rice has been harvested, and the fields look empty and bleak under the gray skies of November, the ducks fly in to pick over what’s left, and with the ducks come wealthy hunters from all over the U.S. and Canada. They come to the Grand Prairie and spend money to sit in a cold duck blind, where they drink apricot brandy and wait for unsuspecting fowl to fly by.

If I’d set my bowl of fruit afloat on a flooded rice field, put a wounded duck or two falling from the sky, or sketched Miss Fluffy Rice plucking a piece of fruit from the bowl, I’d probably have won the contest hands down. But the bowl of fruit just didn’t belong in the Grand Prairie Autumn Art Festival. It was awkwardly out of step with place and time just like the hopeful, young artist who had created it. Ironic, isn’t it? The very thing that was meant to mark her place in the community was the very thing that marked her distance from it.

As I take another sip of wine and huddle more deeply into my bathrobe, I feel a sad tenderness for the ten-year-old me who seems simultaneously very near and very far away, and I wonder whether I’d have any song to sing at all, now, if success had come when I supposed it should have, if success had come so early, if success had come in the grave, silent contours of a still-life.


1 I know even as I write this that it’s not really true. Any good Lacanian knows that there is no sexual relation and that when we make love, it is not to or with another person but to or with our own fantasies. Hence the frequent changing of my hat. I look among the costumes for a semblance of the “moi” that the “je” thinks would be desirable to the other. But, then, the self is an other, and, so, I do make love precisely to myself. There is, however, a difference between making love and loving, and this is why I’ve never really liked the phrase “making love,” preferring instead to use the more mechanical, certainly less romantic, phrase “having sex.” One may “make love” to oneself, but one can only love another, and because it is love, not sex, that brings the other into view, we defend against love and thus refuse to see the other. Perhaps this defense and its cohort, refusal, explain why people frequently note the depressive plunge that occurs after having sex in the afternoon. For sex is often used as a cover, the sex act (whatever that is) allowing us to indulge, if only momentarily, in the illusion that we are whole, not irreconcilably split, that we are in accord, not alienated, that we are safe, not in peril, that we are at the center, not hovering in the margin or on the seam. But this illusion is harder to maintain when, rather than drift off into the landscape of sleep and dream, we must rise and dress in order to contend with the decaying of the day in the dolorous paradox of twilight. For although twilight represents that uncertain space between the certainty of categories such as “day” and “night,” its pale light points like a beacon to the anxious certainty that we are neither/nor, only a pulsating subject that appears as it always already fades.

2 Bukka White, “Stuttgart, Ark.,” rec. June 1969, Mississippi Delta Blues Jam in Memphis: Volume 2, Arhoolie, 1993.

3 Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians (1979; New York: Harper and Row, 1989). Further references to Guralnick will be cited in the text.

4 Stuttgart used to have, and perhaps still does, both the Miss Mallard beauty pageant and the Miss Fluffy Rice contest, a contest in which young female cooks compete with one another to come up with the tastiest and most innovative rice dish.