If Mississippi’s most notable cultural exports are words and music, the work of the late Willie Morris and Jim Dickinson ordains them as two of our state’s artistic ambassadors. Neither was a cookie-cutter hero; each brimmed with quirks bordering on genius. We lost Willie in 1999, Jim in 2009 and yet, thanks to their artistic fortitude and – in Jim’s case, his family’s tenacity – both have books out this month.
The title of Jim’s posthumous memoir speaks for Willie too, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (University Press of Miss.). Dickinson had a wide-ranging career, from his Memphis jug band youth to winning a Grammy with Bob Dylan to recording “Wild Horses” with the Rolling Stones. (His detailed description of Jagger and company writing “Brown Sugar” is worth the book). Dickinson traces his musical roots to “Dishrag,” an older African American man who came around on Saturdays to wash his daddy’s car. Dishrag showed the 13-year-old Dickinson his first blues “codes,” or chords (“three up, four down – just like poker”) and Dickinson filled in the rest.
Armed with the secret to boogie-woogie, Dickinson eventually embarked on his journeyman rock and roll life across a map of music, from Chicago to Memphis, Texas to Miami, Muscle Shoals to Hollywood, to his Zebra Ranch studio in Coldwater and finally, to his gig as bandleader on The Thacker Mountain Radio Hour (2005-09). Jim founded our house band, named them the Yalobushwhackers, came up with the show’s current theme song and set out the band’s mission: “It will be a four-piece that plays like a trio.”
Jim’s book took years to come to publication. His wife Mary Lindsay and sons Luther and Cody (known to the world as the North Mississippi Allstars) sifted through agents, editors and publishers before the book was solidified. What never changed was Jim’s cosmic backwoods hoo-doo man prose:
In the Coldwater bottoms, prowling panthers scream like a woman. Secret bones of ancient outlaw phantoms stir in the thick, red mud of the riverbed, as grandfather catfish circle silent in the green water. Evening rain has left the air thick and steam rises from the dark, mossy earth bubbling up from what unknown caverns. The sun bobbles like a fishing cork, as it sinks into the cypress trees along the levee and finally slips below the horizon. It’s show time.
Willie Morris is remembered with much affection by Oxonians who recall his time in town as Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss from 1980-1990. Willie was a Rhodes Scholar with the heart of a good old boy. He could quote Faulkner while playing phone pranks. At age 33 he became the youngest editor of America’s oldest magazine, Harper’s. That same year, he published his autobiography, North Toward Home, which became a bestseller and inspired the London Times to compare him to Mark Twain. He went on to write some two dozen books, four of them while living on Faculty Row in Oxford. That Faculty Row bungalow was the scene of many late night gatherings of Willie’s friends, Hoka staff, barflies, dogs, local politicians and coaches and last call insomniacs.
Willie grew up in a time before television and rock and roll and like many small-town teens – in his case, Yazoo City – he embraced sports for excitement and passion. He combined small town life and sports with his love of dogs in his 1995 bestseller, My Dog Skip. His essay collection of his athletic youth, Always Stand In Against the Curve, has just been reissued by Oxford-based Yoknapatawpha Press.
The book’s lyricism shows that Willie took sports to heart and infused his writing with it. Here’s his description of the opening kick-off of a high school football game from the opening story, The Fumble, the only fictional piece in the book:
In the course of human events, as all mystics comprehend, there can be magic, defying all logic, which will seize a moment, something absurd and indeed existential, undergirded by old unfathomable mysteries – the eternal enigmas of the Old Testament, for instance – and this, of course, is the material of poets. On that faraway night, in the instant the Jackson kicker let fly his long end-over-end kick, there had to be a poet’s soul in Bubba Poindexter as he stood waiting on our five-yard line.
Jim Dickinson and Willie Morris are most definitely not “gone.” Dickinson has this new book and a new live CD with the Allstars (“I’m Just Dead…”) and eight wonderfully weird solo albums plus dozens of tracks recorded with the greats – from Carmen McRae to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Willie will always speak to us from his beautiful books. You can open one to any page and immediately be in the company of his “elegantly furnished mind,” as his best friend, William Styron, said at Willie’s funeral.
Willie and Jim represent the best of Mississippi, the “poet’s soul” of our state. At Thacker Mountain Radio, it will be our honor to celebrate these two great ambassadors; friends to so many. They’re not gone and neither is our love.
As Jim wrote: “It’s show time.”
Thursday, April 6 at 6 pm at Off Square Books (129 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655) Admission: FREE
Guests: Mary Lindsay Dickinson, wife of the late musician (and the original Yalobushwhacker) Jim Dickinson and his posthumous memoir, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone; filmmaker David Rae Morris, son of Mississippi author Willie Morris and the reissue of Willie’s sports memoir, Always Stand In Against the Curve; plus songwriter Lilly Winwood with her update of her father Steve Winwood’s, Higher Love.
Hosts: Jim Dees and house band, the Yalobushwhackers
Radio: 92. 1 FM (Oxford)