May 15, 2011

1 Mississippi, 2 Mississipi

Mississippi's been on my mind lately.  The mighty river's flooding and I've been listening to Delta blues.  The first situation's so stunning and what people in that part of the country are dealing with is so heart-breaking that I can't begin to figure out what to say about it.  Farmland and homes inundated and lost.  Not for the first time, of course--  The Great Flood of 1927 was just as horrendous, but when you see the seemingly passive devastation of water every-freaking-where, it's hard to imagine how anyone can clean up and rebuild from that. 

Flood photos from The Big Picture, more at
As for the music, it's so much easier to think about, so pardon me for shifting gears in that direction.  Two of my latest favorite bluesmen just happen to have been nicknamed for the state that's bordered by the river--  Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt. 

Mississippi Fred played slide guitar in a way that sends chills down my spine and sang with a voice every bit as evocative as any of the better known blues players.  Unknown outside of the hill country just north of the Mississippi Delta until Alan Lomax recorded him around 1960, McDowell made up for lost time by recording over a dozen records within a dozen years before cancer took him.  A case of better late than never, but still makes you wonder what could've been if he'd been discovered sooner. 

Mississippi John's blues had a folkier sound to them but were no less intense in their way, if you pay attention.  In songs such as Stackolee and Nobody's Dirty Business, there's a subtly powerful contrast between the violence of the lyrics and the delicacy of Hurt's voice and acoustic finger-picking.  

The current condition of much of the U.S. south is the stuff of which the blues are made. Though it's hard not to think that, thanks to artists like Mississippi Fred and John, we've got enough already.

May 1, 2011

Baltimore May Day Roll bike ride

As my friend Lyle pointed out, today was May Day. While she's correct that the majority of U.S. citizens probably aren't even aware of this holiday, 40 or so folks did celebrate the day with a tour of 19th-20th century industrial Baltimore-- the annual May Day Roll.  

We started out appropriately enough at the Baltimore Bicycle Works, "Baltimore's only worker owned and operated bike shop" which is located right around the corner from Jack Yates' ghost bike.  The ride was sponsored by the BBW, and led by the Baltimore Brew's Mark Reutter, who provided the historical commentary.

We headed from there up Falls Road in the direction of Hampden, but turned off at the old Mount Vernon Mill Company.   

A few twists and turns through the old houses of the 1800s milltown brought us to the home of Elisha Tyson, an industrialist and abolitionist who was apparently responsible for the freeing of several hundred slaves in pre-Civil War Maryland.  

A swift spin down and into town brought us to Red Emma's bookstore & coffeehouse, whose collective business model helped to inspire the BBW.

From there we meandered further east towards Fells Point, stopping along the way in the alley of Dallas Street to admire both the row homes built by Frederick Douglass after his escape from slavery and a bit of true Bawl'mer.

One of the five homes built by Douglass.  The marble inset reads 'Douglass House'.
This is Baltimore.
Next up was what's left of the controversial St. Stanislaus Church.  The church has been empty and up for sale for years, and the proposed condos for which the parish hall was demolished have yet to be built (though they're apparently now promised for this coming summer).

The highlight of both last and this year's ride was being able to ride through the decrepit Crown Cork and Seal Company.  Today's most fascinating trivia tidbit:  The modern day bottle cap was invented in Baltimore.  Stop and think about that the next time you jerk the cap off a cold one and toss it in the trash.

The last stop was lunch in Greektown at Ikaros.  No photos there, for which I'm sorry.  I definitely should've taken a shot of the gorgeous platter of pastichio, potatoes, green beans, dolmades, and spanikopita that was placed before me.  Of all the many cool sights on the ride, it was truly one of the prettiest. 

Folks headed off in separate directions after lunch, leaving only a handful of us to spin back up across town to BBW through scattered rain drops.  Normally, I'd bemoan the lack of sunshine on a day like this, but the ride was so interesting and fun that I didn't miss it.  The greyness of the sky actually contributed an appropriately gritty atmosphere for a tour of industrial B'more.      

Full set of photos here, and a re-cap of the ride at Baltimore Brew.