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Published: December 31st 2008
Highway 61 is the blues highway. It runs from New Orleans north into Memphis and then through St. Louis on into Iowa, Minnesota and on up into Canada. Bessie Smith's life ended on Highway 61. Elvis Presley's life started on Highway 61. According to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of 61 and 49. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered a few blocks off of Highway 61. For Bob Dylan, Highway 61 was the true symbol of freedom, a chance at independence and an escape from his local stop in Hibbing, Minnesota. According to BBC interviewer, Robert Shelton, Dylan "traveled" highway 61 through the radio as a youngster. Says Shelton, "a lot of great basic American culture came right up that road and that river.
So sets the stage for my venture into the "deep" south. There is so much to say but I want to focus on two specific stories and I will work backwards. I will start this afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi...
Jackson is a quiet city with light breezes and a stately feel. It is a crossroads of Civil War and civil rights. So much has happened in and around
these parts that you could swear you feel the echoes of the past. I pulled into town and the bums waived hello. No joke. Everyone here was so nice. I walked around checking out some of the downtown spots and past a small church. In the courtyard, I hear the faint hum of gospel music. I slow up and take a listen. A few moments later, a bum walks out holding a wash bucket, singing gospel hymns. He turns the corner and walks up the street, and his voice booms louder. I walk side-by-side with him for a few blocks and we exchange glances. I start walking a little ahead and he reaches out and sings out "slowww dowwn brothaa". Next thing I know we are at the street corner and a conversation is struck up. He tells me he admires me because although I have nice shoes and a nice watch, I stopped and walked with him. He says he sees no shame in me. I tell him I enjoyed his singing and he reveals that he is in fact an ordained minister. The name's Reverend Raymond Cooke. The bum with the wash bucket is a minster? That was
a surprise. I tell him that I, too, am a man of God. He says he knew when he saw me. On the quiet street corner in the shadow of the Mississippi state capitol, a 45 minute conversation ensues. Sometimes I can't tell who is preaching to whom. We talk about Jesus and his life, the gospels, Paul's travels, different types of ministers, signs of the times, Moses leading his people. Rev. Raymond likes to break off into fully animated sermons on the street such as, "I will give a man the SHIRT off my BACK......... but I'ma tell him the truth." He pulls out his ragged bible from his back pocket and we trade scriptures. I show him Daniel 2:44 and he shows me all of the scriptures where you find the letter D (more on this later). I show him Matthew 24 and he shows me scriptures about the "narrow and cramped road." One look at him and you would be deceived. He looks like no more than a bum. But there is a story...
Raymond Cooke worked the streets. He was a hustler and a gambler. His work took him up to St. Louis, Missouri in
the early 90s. He was standing at a bus stop waiting for the bus coming up the street. As he looked up towards the bus, he saw a great light. Next thing he knew, he was being carried over the street toward the light and into the presence of the lord. There the lord called him, telling him he had work for him to do. Next thing he knew, a body appeared on the ground beneath him. He was asked to roll the body over so he complied. The body was him and there was a bullet through his head. "The lord" told him that this was the path he was on and then he needed to confess his sins to the authorities and then come follow him. That week, he turned himself in to authorities and served hard time at Clayton County Prison. While in prison he needed open heart surgery.
Here is how Raymond sees it: He asks me where Jesus appeared before Paul. I say on the road to Damascus. He says that lord appeared to him on Denmark Ave in St. Louis (this is where the obsession with "D"'s comes from). Next he asks me
how long Jesus was dead before rising up. I say three days. He says when he had open heart surgery, his heart was pulled from his chest and afterwards, he laid in the hospital for three days. On the 3rd day, he was sent home. He says that his former self, like Jesus, died and on the 3rd day he was "raised up". He says he can't stop preaching the word. He has no choice. It is what he is. Raymond never went to school. The only book he has ever read in his life is the Bible.
I didn't share this story to honor the man or applaud his "revelation". Everything said here are his words and not mine. It was, however, fascinating to see how a man is transforming his life for what he believes is his true calling. He has no money. He minsters in the poorest neighborhood in town and he walks around with his wash bucket washing cars when people will allow him, so that he can buy dinner and clean clothes for people in his church. At the end of our convo, we shook hands, embraced, and then he prayed on his own
and as I walked away, heard him speaking in tongues. I don't know how to put a finger on the man. I admire his journey and his outlook, and I pray that his path finds truth. Sometimes, with people we come in contact with, that's all we can do.
Back to Vicksburg: Vicksburg is a gorgeous southern town high on the hills of the Mississippi banks. At some points it overlooks the river from a perch of 250 feet! It always has been a town of contrasts. To appreciate this jewel of the Mississippi, let's go back to 1861.
In 1861, Vicksburg was the largest city in the state. It was surrounded by bountiful cotton field and resided as a port to ship the cotton up and down the river. It was a city of opportunity, filled with wealthy southern families, sprawling homes, good schools, and culture. Contrastingly, it was also a rough river town that served as a hot bed for hard-livin' gamblers and hustlers.
While life carried on as normal in Vicksburg, hundreds of miles away in the state of South Carolina, a war broke out. South Carolina seceded from the North and Mississippi was
the second to follow. Peace in Vicksburg was mildly disrupted as the realization that the river would serve as the ultimate asset of the war set in. The gamblers and hustlers skipped town for safe shores.
The river was so important because it served as an economic asset of utmost importance as it served as the main shipping route. The southern secession threatened northern interests as navigation was shut down. Controlling the river meant controlling the continent, dividing the south, and ending this war. The race to the river was on.
The Northern armies started moving up the river gaining ground on towards Vicksburg. Four campaigns in early 1863 towards Vicksburg ended in failure. The army was reassigned to General Grant and he was given one singular task; take the river.
On May 16, the first attack on Vicksburg commenced. The south held the high ground in the hills while the north occupied the river. The Confederate armies were able to hold the city. Meanwhile, the Union army had cut off supplies and the citizens of the town were forced up into the caves. Another push was attempted from the water and again the confederate army held.
This was the turning point of the war. If the river was surrendered here, the confederate had its legs cut out from underneath it. It was divided in half and left depleted only to surrender.
Up until now the fighting had been even... 40,000 on the Union side and 32,000 on the Confederate side. After the second attach from the river, Grant withdrew south. He took the majority of his army northeast towards Jackson. At Jackson, they were met by an additional 30,000 soldiers and marched on into Vicksburg. Meanwhile the remaining army positioned itself on the river. The third attack came from both sides. The fighting started in late June and continued into July. The townspeople remained stranded in caves. Women and children huddled together, starving, as they listened to their husbands and fathers die. Rouge shells would slam into the hillside, killing some. Prayers and vigils were held in the caves and the reverend kept the ragged church open the entire time, damaged and windowless. Every Sunday, the doors opened and the braves ones came out of their caves to attend church. There was no food except dry cornbread and peabread.
Meanwhile, the soldiers had it
no better. If a soldier were to be struck, he prayed for a quick death. Amputees faced slow, long deaths.
Picturing this scene is enough to bring tears to your eyes. During down time in the evening, it was common for the Union soldiers to enter the Confederate camps and visa versa. What were they doing? They were checking on friends and family members. They were trading supplies and inquiring about old friends. What a shame. Brothers divided. Come morning, after they had embraced in the evening, they picked their muskets back up and attempted to kill one another. This is civil war.
(If you have iTunes please take a moment and purchase this song... New River Line- My Brother Paul and Me. If you need the dollar, I will give it to you. The thought is painful but its a reality of this world and the "causes" that matter." Here are the lyrics... try to imagine yourself in this man's shoes... picture Paul as your loved one...
"I am from Virginia, my brother Paul and me... Paul became a soldier in Virginia's infantry... soon I will be going North to join the war... a band of soldiers waits
for me up in Baltimore.... When I arrived in Maryland, the Union line was there... we took to the higher ground defending Washington... we marched to Antietam... in the fall of '62... that's where i saw 12,000 men dressed in Gray and Blue...on and on they march us down a never-ending line... to the battlefield they lead us to the fight... I am from Virginia... and I'll fight the rebel's cause... but I'll die before I fight my brother Paul....Paul I hope this letter finds you doing well... I am camped near Gettysburg on Little Round Top Hill.... the battle starts tomorrow... they say it means war... if we hold on the higher ground... the South will be destroyed... The canons start to fire as the rebels form their lines.... I can see Virginia's flag marching slowly into sight... at once I feel like running like a coward from the fight... I would rather face dishonor... then to have to take Paul's life....on and on they march us down a never ending line... to the battlefield they lead us to the fight... I am from Virginia... and I'll fight the rebels cause... but I'll die before I fight my brother
Paul...and now the battles finally over...somehow I have survived... without a single round of lead from my rifle being fired... and Paul I've prayed from this field... the day you walked away... that we'd march back to Virginia... me in blue... you in gray...")
In the end, the Union forced were closing in from the east and from the west until their lines met in the middle. The devastation in human lives was profound. On the morning of July 3 in the Mississippi sun, General's Grant and Pemberton met under a singular tree in the valley between the army camps. Grant spelled out the terms for surrender and Pemberton agreed. On July 4th, the city was turned over to the Union, along with the control of the Mississippi River. What ensued was a two-year long retreat finally culmiating in 1965 when the war was officially over, but for all intensive purposes, the Confederate died there on the "Gibraltar of the Confederate" on Independence day.
The next day, Grant sat motionless on his horse as the Rebel flag was cut down from the town's hall and the stars and stripes were raised. The women and children emerged from the
caves in tears finding their men slain. That evening, they buried the men side-by-side in mass graves, blue coats next to gray coats, mingling together, just as they did on those boggy summer nights.
You can write the history of the world through the eyes of soldiers throughout history. What you would see are boys forced to defend and siege upon economic resources, whether its the actual land, the free labor, the oil, the spices, the "path to God". All of these things have served an economic interest to their victors. In the end, the majority of these boys and men never cared much at all. All that mattered was their family and their friends. If you ever needed a case study for why man needs God's rule, it is this.
Psalms 37:10 and 11
All the best,
Day 5 Album List:
Eddie Vedder- Into the Wild Soundtrack
Bob Dylan- Highway 61 Revisited
Ray Charles- The Atlantic Express
A Blues Mix- Muddy Waters, Keb' Mo, Ottis Redding, Albert King, and B.B. King
Day 6 Album List:
Sam Cooke- 30 Greatest Hits
Emmylou Harris- Elite Hotel
Donovan- Greatest Hits
New Orleans Radio
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