Friday, October 26, 2012

A Barbecue in Sweetwater

Some readers of this blog have asked whether I'd be willing to say something about the places I've visited in lecturing publicly about music and sustainability. Travel writing isn't my purpose but I can't pass up the chance to write about Bradley's Barbecue, formerly Wilson's Barbecue, in Sweetwater, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, where I lectured on October 3 (please see the previous blog entry).

In the spring of 1990 Loyal Jones had taken me to Wilson's on the way to the Appalachian Studies Conference, in north Georgia, and the barbecue was so delicious, and I must have been so effusive about it, that Loyal called the owner over to the table—he knew him—and I repeated my praise, whereupon the owner, Mr. Wilson himself, wrote down the recipe to his barbecue sauce on one of those green-colored guest checks printed on cheap paper. Of course, most of the taste was in the pit barbecuing, not the sauce; but the sauce was excellent, and I was struck by the secret ingredient, which I won't reveal here. Upon returning to Berea College, where I was teaching as a visiting professor at the time, I copied and then carefully handed over this guest check with the recipe to Shannon Wilson (no relation to barbecue Wilson), the special collections librarian and archivist at the Berea College Hutchins Library, for safekeeping; and he put it into an acid-free manila folder. I vowed that if I ever returned to the Knoxville area, I would seek out Wilson’s Barbecue and have another meal.

Interior, Bradley's BBQ

In September of this year, a few weeks prior to my flight to Knoxville, Leslie Gay, my host at the University of Tennessee, emailed asking if there was anything special I wanted to do during my stay there. He may have been surprised to hear that I wanted to go to Wilson’s once again, but he was game to give it a try, although he said he couldn’t locate a Wilson’s in Sweetwater and wondered if the place had disappeared. Fearing the worst—it had been 22 years, after all—I emailed Loyal and asked if he knew what happened to the restaurant. He confirmed my fears, saying that the place had changed hands since then, and he couldn’t remember the new name of it; but he and Nancy had stopped in some years ago and had not been impressed by the change. 

Meanwhile, Les discovered that there was a place in Sweetwater called Bradley’s Barbecue, and wondered if that was the same place. I told him about Loyal’s warning, but he thought we should give it a try anyway; and I’m glad he did.

 Wilson’s Barbecue had gone, but Bradley’s was in the exact same place, with the exact same barbecue pit, and the exact same sauce. The barbecue was as good as I’d remembered it. Maybe Loyal had gone on a bad night.

Fireplace, Bradley's BBQ
The interior of the place had been gussied up a bit, but it was not made to look, as a barbecue joint in New England would have been, like a replica or representation of a southern barbecue joint: it was such a joint, in effect a diner with a barbecue pit. Decor such as the fireplace objects would never be seen in a New England barbecue restaurant, but I have seen similar in places like Duffy’s, in Orland, Maine, a neighborhood joint which has traditional Maine home cooking, though it never calls attention to its cuisine as such.

 Les and two musicologists (one was his wife, Rachel Golden; the other was their colleague Jacqueline Avila) and I all enjoyed a wonderful meal there, all the better because it exceeded expectations.
Pulled pork barbecue plate, Bradley's BBQ

An Echo in Knoxville

     “Thoreau’s Pastoral Symphony” was the title of the public lecture I gave at the University of Tennessee on October 3. It was sponsored by the university’s Humanities Institute and their School of Music. As at the University of New Hampshire last March, I spoke about Thoreau’s remarkable attention to sounds in the natural world and what we might, for music and sustainability today, learn from them. (To stream a video of this lecture, go to “Music,” Thoreau wrote, “is the sound of circulation in Nature’s veins.” In this University of Tennessee lecture I was able to concentrate on Thoreau’s fascination with echo, with the way echo orients creatures in space and also alters our sense of time. Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

    “With an echo we have a doubling, as if time is stopping and running backwards on itself as the echo returns to the listener. Listening to the echo of a distant drum, Thoreau writes, personifying time, ‘Suddenly old Time winked at me, -- Ah, you know me, you rogue. . .’  Here Time addresses Thoreau as a ‘rogue’ for having found Time out, having known Time by the echo. At this point—it is in the Monday section of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—Thoreau breaks into a visionary poetry very like that of Emily Dickinson:

          'Then idle Time ran gadding by
           And left me with Eternity alone;
           I hear beyond the range of sound,
           I see beyond the verge of sight, --'

     The encounter with the echo sharpens the writer’s senses, alters his sense of time and space, and enables him to peer into the workings of universe. In the same book he quotes Iamblichus in Taylor's translation, on sphere music thus: ‘Pythagoras . . . extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds.’ Thoreau did believe in a version of the theory attributed to Pythagoras which we refer to as the music of the spheres, whose harmonies were based on the mathematical ratios believed to exist between their astronomical intervals; and this was an instance in which Thoreau’s ecstatic experience with the echo confirmed it. Except for Pythagoras himself, humans were supposedly unable to hear this music; but Thoreau felt that he heard it all around him in the sounds emerging from the silences of the natural world. Therefore he pursued it on his daily walks, attended to what he heard, and seldom failed to make note of it in his journals. Thoreau never wrote a pastoral symphony. He never needed to: it was all around him.”

     I also spoke some about Thoreau’s belief in the echo as a signal of co-presence; on one occasion he likens the echo of his voice to the sound of a friend reading his verse back to him. And I spoke about Thoreau’s comparison of echo and reflection, referencing Hudson River School paintings (see the entry for Aug. 30, 2012 in this blog for some of them). I contextualized it within the music and sustainability discussion by suggesting that “this discourse proceeds along two fronts: one, how people can sustain music; and two, how music san sustain people. How people can sustain music gets us into issues involving best practices for the sustenance of music cultures. How music can sustain people gets us into issues of the role of music in the sustenance of life on planet earth. Both of these ways of thinking about music lead us to policy: the first primarily to cultural policy affecting the future of music cultures; and the second to a variety of cultural, economic, and regulatory policies affecting musical activities and their relation to the future of life on the planet.” The Thoreau lecture was an exploration along the second of those two fronts. 

     The audience of students and faculty filled the concert hall auditorium. The thought occurred to me that Thoreau himself had given many public lectures, although he was quite ambivalent about doing so. Several faculty—from the English department, from American Studies, from Religious Studies, and of course from from the School of Music—attended, along with many students and some from the university community in Knoxville at large. After the lecture, there were many thought-provoking comments and questions, and the discussion went on for about a half hour. I can’t recall when I’ve ever given a lecture to so many people that resulted in such a long discussion afterwards. Many people had a stake in different aspects of the talk: cultural policy, sustainability, music psychology, ecocriticism, cultural criticism, and Thoreau himself.

     The chair of Religious Studies spoke at some length in response to my point about co-presence and the way sound sacralizes space (see this blog, April 18, 2011). She had been thinking along the same lines for some time, but was unable to get her colleagues in comparative religion to pay much attention to sound-worlds. After the talk I was taken to dinner by a dozen or so faculty members, she among them; and she asked me why I thought that was. I said that in some ways this is the fault of those in music who have unwittingly erected a barrier with our special language (musical notation and music theory) to describe sound structures. The result is that many academic professionals outside of music feel ill-equipped to discuss it because they don’t know the language. What we in music don’t realize is that this wall not only shuts others out but it also shuts us in. I will pursue this with her after I return from the conferences in New Orleans.