Peg Simone’s Haunting Secrets
Spend any summertime in the lowland South and it won’t be long until some Cracker Barrel Confucius allows as how it ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity, yessir, it surely is. As in, we tolerate foot-blistering temperatures most every day here, but today it’s the essential air that clutches at your heart, the atmosphere itself that sucks out your breath as you listlessly tread water walking the streets. It’s that damp, febrile atmosphere that singer and guitarist Peg Simone evokes in her recent release, Secrets from the Storm. Well-timed for a season of natural and man-made calamity, Simone employs an electric and slide-guitar folk/blues palette to color tales of the marginal and lost, the pushed-too-far who take one more blow to the chest.
The die is cast with the truly alarming “Levee/1927,” a reimagining of “When the Levee Breaks,” the 1929 Memphis Minnie/Joe McCoy blues side inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. That cataclysm inundated 10 states over nearly a year of endless rain that swelled the Mississippi River to more than 60 miles across near Memphis. The levee in question may be the 8-foot-wide, 5-mile-long high ground near Greenville, Mississippi, to which 13,000 evacuees clung for days as the remains of people, animals and households washed downriver. “Levee/1927” combines the Memphis Minnie account with a catalogue of detritus and death from Simone’s collaborator, poet Holly Anderson. At first exhaled as much as sung, the 22-minute meditation builds from spare guitar echoes to insistent slide feedback under the original lyrics. There are intimations of the work Simone does in Jonathan Kane’s February (and Kane is a key contributor, writing, arranging, producing and playing guitar and drums), but she seems less interested here in disassembling the blues and examining the elements in interlocking riffs than in using the blues toolbox to evoke feelings of time, place and character.
The Memphis Minnie/Joe McCoy original lopes at a brisker pace. It emphasizes urgency and motion, the need to pull up roots and go, to find a better place. Hundreds of thousands did just that after the Flood, adding to the great northern migration of rural African Americans to the northern factory (not-yet-rust) belt. In Anderson’s poetry, the desperation comes from having nowhere left to go, knowing that there isn’t a better place just up the highway, no boxcar ride to a better tomorrow. Where the Great Depression was a restless time with millions of jobless Americans on the move, the songs of our Great Recession may gasp out our shock at being utterly stuck. No way to sell, no place to go.
Anderson’s work employs a pinpoint ear for speech to render the monologues playing in the heads of those fleeing the past into uncertain futures. In “Mirst & Avel,” Simone turns to another pitch-perfect writer, Harry Crews, a true bard of the marginal, for inspiration. She gives two supporting characters in his novel The Gospel Singer their moment in the spotlight, revealing Crews’s long-running high-wire act of describing the shame and exultation in drinking, dancing, and generally raising Cain when there’s not much else to do. Language, especially the deep South dialect of archaic embroidery and nuanced politesse, is Crews’s subject and his own salvation from the fate of his characters. Restless stories of after-hours roadhouses, brushes with death, outrageous lies and ugly truth can be ignited by a single turn of phrase. (Simone’s record recalled to me a Crews nonfiction narrative in which a lovesick pal, “honing for a woman he didn’t get and is never going to get,” intones his unquenched hunger to “feed in her lilies” until Crews knows they must get in the truck right now and run the dogs all night in the sticky Florida woods.)
In Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, Morris Dickstein identifies two threads in the music, movies, and books of the 30s. First, the new populism of artists and writers such as John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Preston Sturges and John Ford. Motivated by the Popular Front, government support, and genuine concern, this reaction to Jazz Age modernism searched for the common man, dislocated by economic chaos and untethered from family ties or pride of work. The second was the one-in-a-million success story, the domain of runaway heiresses in screwball comedies, immigrant gangster kingpins, and overnight stardom on stage or the bandstand. Our Great Recession seems to be playing to type; we see explorations of the traditional and hand-made, and multi-platform attempts to document everyday suffering from the Gulf Coast to Haiti to Asia. We also consume pure diversion in costumed, digital spectacle and reality contests. Though it’s impossible to know if there’s enough cultural energy to portray our current disasters in song and story, Peg Simone’s Secrets from the Storm issues both a challenge and a haunting example.
For more and to hear “Mirst & Avel”, visit Smoke.
CD cover/chair by Jonathan Kane
Portrait by Amanda Bruns
Performance image by David Chaffin