Multifaceted filmmaker/writer Emily D. Edwards talks about her books, Blues, Southern Folklore, and Deadheads

"Live your life so that when people think of fairness, consideration, reliability and integrity, they will think of you. And don’t overlook an opportunity just because it looks like a lot of work."

Emily D. Edwards: Southern Comfort

Dr. Emily D. Edwards is a professor of media studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Emily began her media writing career as a journalist, reporting for ABC and NBC affiliates in Alabama and Tennessee. She has written and produced news stories and documentaries for both radio and television. In the early 1970s when employees in small and medium market stations wore many hats, Edwards wrote, produced, and directed television news, commercials, and public service programs. In 1984 she earned a Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and moved back to Alabama to direct the broadcasting program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 1987, Dr. Edwards joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she is now a professor in the Department of Media Studies.

Her nationally distributed documentaries include: Dead Heads: An American Subculture, Wondrous Events: Foundations of Folk Belief and Wondrous Healing. Edwards is published in TDR, NARAS Journal, Creative Scriptwriting, Popular Music and Society, Southern Folklore, The Southern Communication Journal, and Gender Roles, among others.  She contributed chapters to the following books: Current Research in Film, A Haunting Question, and Adolescents and Their Music. Her book, Metaphysical Media: The Occult Experience in Popular Culture was published in 2005 by Southern Illinois University Press. Emily Edwards has also written award-winning screenplays and produced and directed the two feature films with original blues music scores, Root Doctor and Bone Creek. 

Edwards’ new book Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House (2016), contains true accounts from musicians, bar owners, and regulars at the crossroads of good times and despair. Bars, Blues, and Booze collects lively bar tales from the intersection of black and white musical cultures in the South. Many of these stories do not seem dignified, decent, or filled with uplifting euphoria, but they are real narratives of people who worked hard with their hands during the week to celebrate the weekend with music and mind-altering substances.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How started the thought of Bars, Booze, and Blues?

I love a good story. I grew up in the Muscle Shoals area of North Alabama in a time where people entertained each other with storytelling and music. This was before the days of 24-7 television, social media and Internet. The combination of good storytelling, good music, and good times was a rare and much celebrated occasion.  That was also a time (1970s) and place (North Alabama) where strict liquor laws meant that that there was a furtive, underground quality to the house parties and drink houses that served alcohol. There was a degree of risk associated with the good times and that risk often carried its own entertaining story. Some of the most riveting storytelling I heard was associated with those early experiences in North Alabama. When I was older and moved away for college, I quickly learned that comparable liquor laws created similar environments in other parts of the south. However, I didn’t have the idea for a book until I moved to North Carolina and started really listening to musicians tell bar and gig stories in between sets and I began to realize there might be good sociological reasons to begin recording these stories and writing these stories down.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music/culture?

I know that a good one-four-five can get my heart pounding. I love the improvisation it allows: three chords and an attitude. I also love the clever euphemisms of old blues lyrics, so that the meaning can be open for interpretation, inviting the listener to make her own meaning. “Come on in my kitchen, cause it’s going to be raining outdoors.” It can be taken literally, as a song about bad weather and a heartless lover, or it can be taken as one human being offering comfort and solace to another during political, social, emotional or economical rough times, when “it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

How important was music and Southern Folklore in your life?

Music and folk stories are fundamental.

"I’m still waiting for the “Age of Aquarius,” that collective manifestation of peace and human potential."

How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music creates the sound track for all of our lives, so I think it is important for everyone. I know there are certain songs that are vividly connected to events and movements that have been important in my life. For example, for me Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” will always be deeply connected to the promise of the Obama administration and what it might have meant for the American dream. In 2008 my friend, bluesman Roy Roberts, sang this song on the eve of Barack Obama’s election with so much feeling that I just knew this election would open a door to a future with amazing potential. We were in a local bar called Zion, but it felt like we were on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking forward to a new age. But today, in 2016, that same song is also a reminder of promise blocked, denied, and prevented and all the hard work that still must be done before the “change gonna come” with all the power and potential Roy envisioned when he sang that song in 2008.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

One of the nice things about music is that it persists and evolves. The one fear I have for music in its evolution is that as much as music can be used to uplift and empower, it can also be used for degradation and belittling. For example, Nelly’s “Tip Drill” is misogynistic music that objectifies and belittles women. While blues music often had sexual lyrics not too deeply buried underneath the euphemisms, these meanings might also peel back to reveal intensely embedded social protests. But even those raunchier blues lyrics were usually more of an invitation than denigration; they rarely objectified partners.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

In my book, Bars, Blues and Booze, guitarist Rob Slater told me that he was really pessimistic about this globally integrated party that I so optimistically hoped was on the horizon. Rob said he just didn’t think that party I envisioned was happening. As astonishingly powerful as music can be, Rob believes even music cannot push against the entrenched racism in America. Racial disparity is so bad, both the actual problem and the perception of the problem, that even the music that engages us all so emotionally cannot be the integrative entity we all want it to be. If I could change something about the musical world, it would be for music to actually have that power to change minds and hearts in a meaningful way. Yes, I’m an idealist. I’m still waiting for the “Age of Aquarius,” that collective manifestation of peace and human potential.

"Music creates the sound track for all of our lives, so I think it is important for everyone. I know there are certain songs that are vividly connected to events and movements that have been important in my life." (Photo: Roy Roberts & Emily D. Edwards, Greensboro, North Carolina)

Why did you think that the Grateful Dead & Deadhead ‘movement’ continues to generate such a devoted following?

I made a documentary with Deadheads back in 1989 (Dead Heads: An American Subculture). I followed the summer tour, interviewing Deadheads about their experiences and why they abandoned their jobs and communities for a life on the road, following the band as it toured. Although the subculture changed drastically after Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, there was still a devoted fan group longing to follow the band on tour. Some dead heads began following other bands, like Phish. Last fall (2015) Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Bob Weir joined with John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge to form Dead and Company and went on tour. I believe Dead and Company have a tour planned for the summer. Unfortunately, I won’t be following them to make a documentary.

            But your question was why there was such a devoted following. The Deadhead subculture had a known reputation for drug abuse and scruffy living, but they also had a reputation for their ideals.  In particular, Deadheads were well known for their support of non-violence, their promotion of brotherhood (and sisterhood), and their respect for the environment.  Most police understood that they wouldn’t need to use force to control the Deadhead crowd. Deadheads were usually docile and considerate. However, other Deadhead values such as the appreciation for individual freedoms of self-expression and abandonment of social restraints were likely to put Deadhead culture at odds with mainstream American culture.  If transgression is violation of law and exceeding the limits of moral and cultural boundaries, then Deadheads definitely qualified as transgressors of mainstream culture. However, Deadheads themselves might describe mainstream culture as offensive to what is truly important in life, claiming that mainstream America has lost touch with the fundamental value of individual freedom that created this country. One complaint I heard often in 1989 is that the conventional American population is greedy, selfish and judgmental. One deadhead told me that the prime Deadhead principle is: “You love one another and you never intrude on someone else’s high…Those are all the rules you need.” I think there is some fundamental allure for the colorful, nomadic, free-spirited and peace-loving lifestyle of Deadhead subculture that is attractive to a core segment of any population.

What does to be a female musician in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Blues music is still a male dominated enterprise, but there are fabulous and talented women with an important presence in this music. One of the women I interviewed for the book was Michelle Seidman, who along with Terri Robbins, has created the National Women in Blues. This group has presented a showcase of female blues talent at the IBCs in Memphis for the past several years. Each year the showcase has grown in popularity to the point where they have had to move the showcase from the Center for Southern Folklore to a much larger venue. It has been as popular with men as women. Ultimately, any arts scene is incomplete without women’s participation.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

Live your life so that when people think of fairness, consideration, reliability and integrity, they will think of you. And don’t overlook an opportunity just because it looks like a lot of work.

Where would you really want to go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I don’t know about a time machine. All the movies I’ve seen about time travel suggest that it is dangerous and often unrewarding. It might be more important to appreciate the time we are in, experience it as fully as we can, and leave behind the books, records, and memorabilia others can value when our time is gone.

How you would spend a day with The Wizard of Oz? What would you say to Robert Johnson? What would you like to ask Woody Guthrie?

I would spend the day carefully, remembering that he is a very bad wizard but essentially a very good man.

I don’t have anything to say to Robert Johnson, but I sure would surely love to hear anything he might want to tell me.

I think Woody is quoted as saying, “Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it.” I guess I might ask him what he thinks about the direction of the mules we’re all riding these days. Are we really changing old notions, outdated ideas for new ones, or are we milking those dead cows?

Bars, Blues, and Booze: Stories from the Drink House

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