RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Strumming-up civilization sheltered by Carpenter Gothic

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

IUKA – I thought about France last night while attending a concert in this town’s pretty little Episcopal church. Couldn’t help myself.
In the summertime, almost every French village hosts a music festival of some sort, with featured music running the gamut from accordion to rock ‘n’ roll. Each town claims a genre as its own and milks it. The charming tradition gets the villagers out and together, which is what music is supposed to do, after all.
Iuka’s concert was the work of two brothers, Frank and Eddie Thomas, who keep trying to drag the rest of us toward a civilized society. Frank began the show behind the red door by saying the performance would be in memory of the late Bob Brown. Bob was a true gentleman who always went out of his way to make newcomers and outcasts feel welcome. Years ago, he was instrumental in saving the wee Carpenter Gothic church when the diocese had planned to move or demolish it.
When Eddie started picking, you were glad such a venue still exists, that somebody bothered. For when Eddie Thomas plays the blues, it is a religious experience. At intermission, a cadre of local ladies served lemonade and homemade cookies, and we all stood outside for a few minutes, enjoying the summer’s sweet smells and humidity. I thought once again about France, about seeing, late one August night on a Seine boat ride, French couples picnicking and dancing all along the famous riverbank. The Parisians seemed to be embracing the warm night, as well as one another.
Nobody was dancing in Iuka, but there was a lot of toe-tapping, which is a good start.
Eddie’s songs come with stories, and he has that knack all good storytellers share: using the evocative detail. He explained that long ago, during the Great Depression, when the great leader FDR was holding things together, his mother had a friend working for the Federal Writers’ Project, a WPA program designed to keep writers writing.
One night, the two lady friends went across the Mississippi state line, into the Freedom Hills of Alabama. The writer wanted to experience firsthand a “house party,” one of those mysterious gatherings deep in the woods where folks gathered at a private home, rolled up the rugs and let down their hair. The party made such an impression on Mrs. Thomas, she later told the story to her boys, who now tell it again to all of us in the title song to their new CD called “Maggie’s House.” “Follow the sound of that stride piano/To Maggie’s house over in Alabama/Drag up a chair everybody is staying/Hard to go home with this jug band playing.”
As the light faded and the stained glass went inside-out, we heard enough good music to keep us humming through the next workweek. The event had seemed not only vaguely foreign, but completely nostalgic.
In hard times now, the first budget cuts always target the arts – music programs in the schools, library funding – which are keystones to a civilized society. It often seems this country is moving the wrong way, toward chaos and alienated pockets of self-interest. Away from things that bring us together and make us smile on a hot June night.
Maybe, for once, we should look at countries that have been around a lot longer, where age has rounded and smoothed the sharp edges of human nature and selfish intent. We could learn a lot and have a good time in the process.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.