Elizabeth Elkins- A Letter to Jimi Hendrix

Dear Jimi,

The military played a big role in my life too. I grew up in the American South. I grew up in Europe. I grew up in Central America. I was a popular kid some years, a bookish outcast others. I was the cool kid who worked at the radio station – and the overweight kid thrown in a locker by the jocks. I’ve been “the rocker” to many (and even played a few stages as big as Woodstock), the “quiet thinker” to others. Like you, I’ve always had to keep moving. The military sent my Dad to Alabama, which led me to Atlanta, which led me to neighboring Tennessee. I guess we share that the Army inadvertently brought us both to this strange, mysterious, tricky and contradictory place called Nashville.

Maybe you learned like I did how Music City can do many beautiful and terrible things to a person. This year, I became a closeted gay bartender in the city’s Printer’s Alley. For a while, I took far too many pills and dreamt about the years I rode horses along Alabama cotton fields. I had two wives briefly  – and I loved them both. I left one at home while I went off to war, spending sleepness nights debating my own feelings about what the United States government does to the people who lived here first. I believed in ghosts despite the strangest, most Southern Christian zealots around me. I owned slaves. I trusted my father so much that I wasted my entire life in one square block. Both of my sons were brutually murdered in front of me, and my husband made peace with the killers.

I did all of those things while co-writing my band’s new album about Nashville’s lost history. This city’s history is extraordinarily complex, for better or for worse – when it comes to God and war and sex and love and redemption and fear and music – and right versus wrong. Right versus wrong, over and over again. I’ve started to believe that Nashville keeps its secrets swirling deep beneath the Cumberland River currents, and when they show up, loves to bury them deep in the silt.

And, as a student of history, I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t even know you were here.  The best news is  – for just a little while –  I got in your pants. My bandmate (Vanessa Olivarez) and I teamed up with our friend Jim Lauderdale to write from the perspective of a marble in your pocket who tagged along on your adventures in Nashville, watching and listening, but left alone in the dirt under the Jefferson Street-Interstate 40 overpass as you headed to greener pastures. It’s an interstate that destroyed the heart of that street, home to many of the clubs you played.

We heard they called you “marbles” while you were in Nashville, because the locals said you had lost them.

And if Jim hadn’t told us about you, we might have missed your story. 

When we tried to find details, it was hard. There’s not a lot of information out there, and some people argued the details had long been recorded incorrectly by outsiders. Vanessa, Jim and I looked for first person sources, dug into newspaper archives, talked to academics and historians. We heard Nashville used to be a better town for the blues than Memphis ever was. We heard about the incredible jams in clubs like the Del Morocco, bulldozed alongside many others for the new freeway.

We learned you didn’t stay long, just a few months. I often wonder why you left. Did you leave for the reasons I stayed? Did you sense the changes coming? Did you think the changes would never come? Did you know how quickly Nashville forgets? The land that is now Music Row was once the site of a temporary gallows, then a collection of camps for African-American soldiers after the Civil War, then a middle class black community, then “the wrong side of town” where German immigrants built mansions during World War I, then a home for the good-old-boy- businessmen who wanted to turn that “awful hillbilly music” into country music flash and swagger. Now we all talk of “saving” that last phrase while we ignore the decades and centuries before.

Is forgetting a Nashville phenomenon? Is it a Southern one? Or is it a modern one?

There’s a new coffee shop going in on your old street. It’s called The Sit In, in honor of the Civil Rights demonstrations. That’s an interesting path to remembering, isn’t it?

The truth of the history here, and in much of the American South, is shockingly difficult to find. Nashville can bury a storyline in the flash of a neon light, build baseball stadiums over graveyards (this has actually happened twice in two separate locations for the Nashville Sounds minor league team) – and, perhaps most famously, drown the truth in whiskey better than any city.

Now, I often wonder what might have be different for both Nashville – and for you – had you stayed.

 

Elizabeth Elkins is a songwriter, board member of Historic Nashville and the other half of Granville Automatic with friend Vanessa Olivarez. 

Follow Granville Automatic website- http://www.granvilleautomatic.com/

 

 

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