Jonesborough TN -- My hometown since 1998 celebrates Independence Day with a three-day festival -- called Jonesborough Days and instituting its 38th annual occurence with an overall participatory crowd estimated at 60,000 in a community whose resident citizens number just a little over 5,000 --beginning on the morning of the Fourth with a colorful and musical parade of heartwarmingly extravagant and sometimes humorous displays of patriotic colors participated in by very elderly women and men through reigning area beauty queens, including "cutest kid," to small children and babies. In celebration of this year's theme, "Farmin' on the Fourth," a young man carries a little son on his lap as he manoevres a decorated International Harvester down Main Street. A grandfather does the same on his John Deere with a grandson. Two "trains" constructed of painted 55-gallon drums on wheels with seats cut out of the tops and strung together with heavy utility wire carry two and three years olds, a few looking a little grumpy in the sun and ordered chaos of motorized vehicles, horses mounted and drawing surries, people clapping, cheering and waving, and frequently manicured dogs barking. Two horses are accoutered on their front legs with outsized denim bib overalls. A clown prances by a few gentlemen on the sidewalks dressed as Uncle Sam with tall red, white, and blue tophats and a large middle-aged woman costumed in turqoise as the Statue of Liberty.
It is all led by a flatbed carrying service veterans followed by a smaller construction with Sam Burke of the Jonesborough Novelty Band and Mudbugs and Steve Cook, founder and coodinator of Music On The Square, playing folk and patriotic songs, and the Davy Crockett High School marching band followed by their baton twirlers. The crowd flows into the street as the parade disappears and fans out to kiosks of beautiful and fascinating handmade crafts, fragrant foods, games for children including the traditional three chances for $1 to dunk a teenaged boy-man sitting on a chair over four feet or so of water, face-painting, and a large inflated water slide. I'm wearing a navy designer tee with a heart of stars and stripes on the front, and quite a few other people are wearing shirts and outfits similarly displaying colors of the Union in various designs. There are three venues with continuous live music changing about hourly: a main tent, an outdoor cafe with umbrella-covered tables and chairs in the International Storytelling Center plaza, and an open jam in the park behind the reconstructed log home by Main Street's Presbyterian Church.
John Markopoulos, also a long-time friend of retired art professor John Lysle, previous ACR contributor, and pony-tailed Greek-Italian artist/owner of a wonderfully overwhelming art and antique shop in the restored Sisters Row, welcomes me in from the store's front porch and we talk about his upcoming participation in the next ACR update until Steve Cook comes in joining the conversation and I leave soon to enjoy the Benedict Trio of a tall, gray-haired man on mandolin and banjo, a younger woman on guitar (they harmonize), and a heavy-set older woman in long flowing brown fiber skirt and white tunic playing virtuoso fiddle. She leads in for a few songs, including "The Tennesee Waltz" and "Whiskey For Breakfast," which she notes, laughing, that she doesn't recommend. Later, in the main tent a version of the Novelty Band with tech professor Sam Burke on electric bass and a young dark-haired woman in jeans, occasionally holding her young daughter, are singing and playing with a drummer and guitarist. Belting out a solo version of "You Made Me Love You," with a few gutteral vocal exclamations in appropriate places, she brings down the house.
There's a Native American Village on Inn Lawn Park hosted by the Intertribal Council where I'm treated to warm and delicious hominy and cornbread by three women sitting on chairs in the shade of a tree and then sit close by the babbling riffles of the town creek, talking for quite awhile with an older polio-disabled Cherokee man from Wise County, Virginia. He laments that younger ones are entranced by computers and drugs, uninterested in mountain hiking, fishing and hunting as he and his older friend sitting nearby still are. All the participants are wearing traditional native dress. When the dancer with his face painted mostly in thick black stripes comes over, I say, "You look very frightening," and we both laugh. A native booth in the crafts area carries tee shirts emblazoned with a photo of four Cherokee men holding formidable rifles imprinted above with "First Line of Defense." I want to buy one but the woman manning the booth who barefly speaks or understands English says they're $15 each, over my budget, so I buy a $2 painted wooden angel for my dining room Christmas tree and a variegated stone pendant for the same price a little ways down the lines of tents and tables. A shy teenage woman stops me and says, "I love your jewelry," as I laugh and show her my lastest purchase. Another woman at a table agrees with me, smiling, that Jonesborough is heaven on earth, "the world before The Fall," as musician, storyteller and department chair Dr. Joseph Sobol once put it.
On the way walking home with my crafts treasures and free little plastic American flag, I pick up the free Voice: magazine for women, thanking God one more time for being here, along with a small request, from my throbbing right ankle vibrating sympathetically particularly, that the Divine not rain and lightning on me, or anyone else, from darkening and rumbling clouds until we're all safely sheltered. Arriving home dry and unelectrified, I turn on the stereo to listen to my newest Selena CD and rest the aching soles of my feet a little while browsing through Abingdon, Virginia's Highlands Festival pamphlet I've also picked up free, detailing performance and crafts to be presented there freely to inexpensively (from $16 per show to $5 for a day's live music pass) July 26th through August 10th, beginning with the Hunt Family Fiddlers from Ireland -- "dancers, singers and champion fiddlers" -- and ending with Barter Theatre's enactment of The Who's musical, "Tommy." Ah, the glorious Mountain Empire.
In the evening, I drive back for a blues performance which begins with five band members gathering in a circle with arms around each other bowing their heads and praying beyond hearing of the audience for quite awhile. Then they break and Lightnin' Charlie hits a hard sliding lick on his electric guitar, leading in the enthusiastic saxaphone, electric bass and drums players. Magic has begun. They get into their music and message without applause breaks for the next two high-energy hours. Charlie is tall, lanky and long-legged with a body in constant rhythm covered in a white suit and Stetson hat. His wife, the harmonizing singer on a few songs and dancer sitting with the audience otherwise, is small with longish dark, wavy hair and wearing a blue and white sundress. At one point, she says into her microphone, "I'd talk, but I'm too shy." Between songs, Charlie reminds us that we're still the greatest country on earth, not because of governments but because of our people, and that we couldn't do what we are doing in Iran or the Sudan, for instance. Speaking of gas prices and their effects, including keeping many from traveling vacations this summer, he extolls the joys of home, quotes the Biblical promise that, "We who are last will some day be first," and launches into Otis Redding's "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay," "Pretty Woman," and a rousing version of "Honey, that's it! I quit! I'm movin' on."
Charlie then introduces a few original bluesy gospel songs from his latest CD of them by saying, noting that many artists do, "The Lord wrote it. God's still in business." The first says, "He's a life preserver, people, when your ship is going down.... Call on Him before you drown." Asking permission to perform another gospel, he sings, "I'm gone again, don't want to live in sin no mo'...." followed by a song to his wife and then notes, "You don't have to worry about your heart; it's going to last you the rest of your life" before singing the 'good news' song, "Say The Word and you'll be free; spread The Word and be like me; say The Word...." He and the bass player then switch to acoustic guitars for "I'm a blues man; Charlie is my name; I am what I am and the blues are to blame.... The blues sent me an angel, introduced me to my wife...." Some of it's played and sung very softly, so we have to listen attentively to the words, well-enunciated. Switching back to their electric instruments and encouraging the audience again to get up by saying, "Everyone can dance to this, even a white guy like me," they then lead in to a slow, sexy version of "Sea of Love" with couples from young to aged swaying together before pots of plants and flowers arranged at the foot of the stage.
Charlie puts down his guitar and walks over to an electric piano at stage left with a story about friend Jerry Lee and his pubescent cousin-wife Myra, after charging into "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Goin' On." Reclaiming his guitar, the band ends with an a capella hymn by them and Charlie's adult in-law family, a verbal tribute to World War II veterans, in service and not, who saved the world for freedom with their sacrifices, and a blues medley of "America," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie," "Battle Hymn," and "All My Sorrows." You gotta hear this guy! And if he's performing in your area, give yourself a boost and an incomparable treat. This is someone you really want and need to meet!
Lightnin' Charlie has been performing for 25 years, has two young children ("When something's wrong with my baby, something's wrong with me"), CDs, an autobiographical book, and started playing acoustic two years ago free in nursing and assisted living homes. He says that, regardless of cognizance levels, the elderly respond and want to hear rock and rousing blues only. As I stand up to leave an attractive young blonde woman holds up her tiny and adorable mulatto daughter with short, curly, light brown hair, fixed with a bow, to watch a train go by. Her daughter's face transforms in delighted expressions of awe at the sight and sounds as a young black man unfolds his daughter, sprawled out on his lap throughout the performance, to get up and go home.
More of the same continues all day and evening Saturday ending with the Johnson City Community Concert Band playing by the Visitors Center at 9:30 before fireworks there start at 10:00 p.m. The Band begin with "America" and soft orchestrations of Americana, playing "Battle Hymn," "Dixie," and "America" as town fireworks start exploding in the clear and humid night sky. We're all given disposable glasses that enhance spectrum and size of displays falling in sparkling splendor toward our upturned faces. The band starts up again with hymns from all four services in the order of Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force, ending with "Halls of Montezuma," before quitting again for awhile. Picking up after fireworks are through with the usual skyborne bangs and spangling explosions, they play "Stars and Stripes" as the crowd begins to disperse from sidewalks, grass, and Boone Street. I walk back up the hills with a few rest stops in this micro San Francisco and pause by the apartments' play area where three daddies, despite worldwide economic woes, have spent possibly their cumulative last week's salaries on professional level fireworks which they've been setting off the past few nights until the wee hours for about a dozen kids and other onlookers throughout the town. Happy Fifth!
The program closes with gospel on Sunday afternoon ending with the African-American Bethel Christian Church Choir and last performance of "Charlotte's Web," performed popularly by area children at Jonesborough Repertory Theatre for $3 per ticket. In concert with the Town of Jonesborough, all the events have been co-sponsored by 17 major companies and corporations, their names gratefully listed on the community website as well as programs distributed to residents and visitors.