Tag Archives: Birmingham

A Joyful Noise

Sun Ra

“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”

So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.

Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.

He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”


Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.

Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”

He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”

Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.

In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.

Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.

When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.

“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.

Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.

The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”

I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.

The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”


Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.

Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.

Dispatch

Mural in West Homewood; signed by Marcus Fetch

A few weeks ago, before stay-at-home orders but when it was evident that this thing was not going to disappear quickly, I checked to see if a local restaurant that I go to regularly was still open. It was Tuesday and it is my habit to have dinner there on Tuesdays. My friend Christina was usually behind the bar on Tuesdays and there was a coterie that often showed up for dinner at the bar on Tuesday.

I checked in to see if Christina was there and, after telling her I might not show up, I thought long and hard about my decision to go out. I decided to drive over and check out the restaurant’s parking lot. It was almost empty so I parked near the entrance and walked in to be greeted by familiar staff and a room full of empty tables, judiciously spaced a suitable distance apart.

A couple of customers were sitting at the bar; Christina looked up in surprise as I walked in. I took a seat at the far end and kept my distance. Before long, the other Tuesday night crowd arrived – “to show support,” one said – and we dined at the bar in an otherwise empty restaurant. A few people phoned-in take-out orders and began to filter in and out.

One couple in the small gathering had recently seen Diana Ross in concert, someone else began to softly hum something, and, before long, we were all singing Diana Ross in the almost empty restaurant. Inevitably, “Stop! In the Name of Love” began, everybody knew the moves, and we sang full-throttle. The chef came out and suggested to Christina that we keep it down so as not to disturb the other customers. There were no other customers.

Nobody said so that night, but we all knew that this would be the last outing for a while. Two days later, Christina texted me: “Dine in is shut down.”


Pepper Place Market; Birmingham

Pepper Place, my favorite farmers market, located in downtown Birmingham, has converted itself to a Saturday morning drive-thru. I placed and paid for my order online, drove to the market site on Saturday morning, was directed to the stations of the farmers I had purchased from, popped the trunk open, my produce was deposited, and I drove away. The Pepper Place Saturday market has always been a great place to linger and people-watch; now it’s back to its basics – providing fresh, locally grown farm products to a grateful clientele in a safe and efficient manner.

On the way back from the market to my parents’ house, I swung by Five Points South. There was the usual component of walkers and runners and dogwalkers and the homeless, but store fronts were shut tight and the place, where I have spent so many enjoyable moments with friends, seemed desolate and somehow forsaken on a bright Saturday morning.

Brother Bryan; Five Points South; Birmingham

In Five Points South, across from Highlands Methodist and Frank Fleming’s “The Storyteller” fountain, “Brother Bryan” prays quietly in front of a bar and grill – in a location that has seen a multitude of restaurants and bars come and go. James Alexander Bryan (1863-1941), the long-time pastor of Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church, was noted for his selfless ministry to the poor, homeless, and destitute. A city park and mission still bear his name and the statue in his honor has been a fixture in the city as long as I can remember.

In good times, he is there almost hidden among the revelers and restaurant clientele; he’s there in bad times, too.


Leaving Five Points South, I was in Homewood, a Birmingham suburb just over the mountain from the city. Homewood’s main commercial district was quiet, but that community has a lot of kids on bikes, families in front yards and on porches, runners and joggers and dog-walkers almost anytime, and the current times are no exception. Traveling down Homewood’s Broadway, I found myself behind a gelato truck, its happy jingle blaring.

In my parents’ neighborhood, stuffed animals began to appear in windows, on porches, and in trees and shrubs – inspired by the world-wide trend of the “teddy bear hunt” to provide a distraction for children. My mother was the first on her street to put a stuffed animal in the window and I awoke one morning to the delighted shrieks of a neighborhood toddler on the sidewalk outside who had just made his spotting. Within a couple of days, most of the neighbors had stuffed animals hidden somewhere on their premises, too.


Over my alleged “spring break,” I began to catch murmurings that this remote teaching thing might last until the end of the year. The specter of teaching for nine more months in a way that is anathema to everything I believe about education – especially as a performance instructor – haunts me.


Arriving back at home on Sunday evening, I was pleased to see that the irises by my front door were bursting into bloom and the wild potted rose that I have been training over my back fence and gate was showing its first tentative blooms of the season. I sat in my yard and enjoyed the beauty of the season and the nearly full moon that was just beginning to show in the pale sky.

The next day, I submitted my letter of intent to retire. My retirement will go into effect on June 1.

It has been a horrible year so far. But pay attention to the nature around you. It has been a beautiful spring, hasn’t it?

Automatic Seafood and Oysters

Some things are worth the wait. Three years ago, Chef Adam Evans presented a dinner for Alabama Chanin’s “Friends of the Café” series that still ranks among my favorites of over two dozen meals eaten at that venue. Evans had just completed a successful run at The Optimist and other Atlanta restaurants, and, since I’d rather have a colonoscopy than go to Atlanta, I had only admired him based on his press from afar. It was a pleasure to experience his menu and see that he lived up to his reputation. The course I most remember from that night was perhaps the simplest – a garden salad assembled with ingredients gathered from the chef’s grandfather’s garden that morning.

Evans is a Shoals native and the rumor in Florence that night was that he was working on a new restaurant concept for Birmingham. That rumor put Evans’s Birmingham restaurant on my radar and I began to do regular searches for “Chef Adam Evans Birmingham.”

My diligence did not yield much information until the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Winter Symposium in Birmingham in February 2018. The opening night reception was held on the loading dock of an abandoned factory on 5th Avenue S. in the Lakeview District. Chef Evans had grills set up off the loading dock and picnic tables were arranged for seating. It was a delicious, charming, and bare bones affair.

The theme for that symposium was “Narratives that Transform” and John T. Edge, SFA Executive Director, announced that the space where we had gathered for our opening night reception was the future site of Adam Evans’s new restaurant, and that the narrative begun that night would conclude at the 2019 SFA Winter Symposium with an opening night reception in the finished restaurant on that very site.

Now that I had a location, I drove past that corner of 5th Avenue every weekend to check on the progress. There wasn’t much to see for several months, but then windows began to appear and a restaurant began to take shape at what used to be the Automatic Sprinkler Corporation factory. Still, by January 2019, I was skeptical that there would be a finished restaurant in time for the symposium in February.

The SFA Winter Symposium 2019 held its opening night reception at Good People Brewing.


Automatic Seafood and Oysters (www.automaticseafood.com) opened in April. I was anxious to eat there as soon as possible but a good opportunity did not present itself until August, when my friend Christina drove down from Huntsville to join me for dinner during Sidewalk weekend.

If you ask about my favorite types of restaurants, my answers will be all over the map. I like any place where one can eat authentic and well-prepared food, whatever the price point and style, and where the ambience is warm and friendly. But one of my very favorites is an urban seafood place with a comfortable vibe and delicious and imaginative food. Birmingham’s Ocean (www.birminghamocean.com) on 20th Street S. has been a long-time favorite. Non-residents don’t realize that Birmingham is only about four hours from the Gulf of Mexico and trucks with fresh catches come into the city daily. I still won’t eat seafood in land-locked states, but it is always fresh and available in Birmingham.

With all of those points in mind, Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a new favorite to add to my lists. The interior, designed by Suzanne Humphries Evans, combines an open layout with furnishings that seem upscale and special while also recalling a seafood shack on the Gulf. Large floor-to-ceiling windows on the north and east facades add to the open feel. The restaurant is located in a transitioning neighborhood that still has an industrial feel, so the decision to put the main entrance off the street on the north side allows entry onto a terraced green lawn, away from the bustle and traffic of the street-side.

Servers are friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive and the menu is full of seasonal options. Christina commented that she’d like to order a bite of everything. Instead, our meal started off with crab claws and freshly shucked oysters from the large and beautiful oyster bar located in a corner of the room. For contrast, I ordered Canadian oysters from Prince Edward Island and Murder Point oysters from Bayou La Batre, Alabama (www.murderpointoysters.com). The briny, buttery Murder Points were the best Gulf oysters I’ve ever had, and possibly the best oysters I’ve ever had, period.

My main course was a simply roasted grouper that was prepared, seasoned, and presented to perfection. Christina’s cobia dish was equally detailed. Conversation waned as we savored two beautifully prepared seafood dishes. Our generous shared side of basmati rice with smoked fish, curry, and peanuts was an ideal accompaniment to both dishes.

For dessert, there were several tempting choices but we chose brown sugar cake with peaches and cream. It was a perfect finale – a little decadent, but not too sweet.

Automatic Seafood and Oysters is a bright new jewel on an already vibrant Birmingham culinary landscape. After three years of waiting, I am happy to say my high expectations were met and exceeded. I look forward to my next of many visits to come.

I Want My Sidewalk 2019

 Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival (www.sidewalkfest.com) is always the final full weekend in August before college football season commences. Although the festival events begin several days before the weekend main event, Sidewalk, for me, always begins on Friday evening and ends late on Sunday night. During that time, there are several hundred screenings of every variety of shorts, documentaries, animation, and feature-length moving pictures at venues throughout the northside of downtown.

2019 marked the 21st edition of Sidewalk. In the early years, I would pride myself on how many screenings I could cram into a 48-hour period. Nowadays, I study the schedule carefully, curate a schedule that fits my time, and allow myself time to breathe. At Sidewalk, it’s impossible to see everything one might want to see; that’s part of the charm and mystique.

Sidewalk’s most exciting new addition to downtown Birmingham this year is the Sidewalk Cinema and Film Center, a two-theatre complex in the basement level of the Pizitz building that will screen indie films 365 days a year. With the two screens at the Pizitz, the Alabama, the Lyric, the Carver, Red Mountain Theatre’s cabaret space, and the McWane Center’s IMAX, Birmingham’s downtown “theatre district” is once again living up to its name.

Friday, August 23

Traditionally, my Sidewalk weekend begins with lunch at Chef Frank Stitt’s Chez Fonfon. My weekend pass is waiting at the Central Ticket Office at the Pizitz, around the block from the Alabama, Sidewalk’s most storied venue (www.alabamatheatre.com).

In the early days of Sidewalk, the Opening Night presentation was often a cutting-edge film which might open to mixed response. I remember the grumbling after John Sayles’s Silver City opened Sidewalk in 2004. It wasn’t Sayles’s best, but I was happy to catch a new Sayles movie on a big screen in Birmingham.

Since those days, the Opening Night film is most often a goofy documentary geared to a broad general audience. Although I enjoy being there for the opening festivities, I am sometimes likely to leave when the feature starts. A few years ago, when they opened with a documentary about some cat that was a sensation on the internet, I didn’t even bother to attend opening night.

This year, the opening feature is I Want My MTV. The 2019 documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop, premiered in May at the Tribeca Film Festival. I Want My MTV is both informative and a great feel-good way to open Sidewalk 21. Alan Hunter, one of the original MTV veejays interviewed in the doc, is a Birmingham native, a founder of Sidewalk, and, for many years, was the very popular opening night emcee for the festival.

A short documentary, “Lost Weekend,” is screened prior to the feature. “Lost Weekend,” by Birmingham filmmakers Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, chronicles the climaxes and misadventures of a young Pennsylvania man who wins a 1980s MTV contest in which the prize is a weekend for two to hang out in Detroit with Van Halen’s concert tour. Everything you expect to happen in that scenario, happens.

Alan Hunter is on hand to help introduce the feature film, which focuses on the genesis and early years of what was then a music video network that became a major force of 1980s popular culture.

As the Opening Night movie ends, the sell-out Alabama Theatre audience flows onto 3rd Avenue North in front of the theatre for the opening night street party. I have no doubt a good time will be had by all, but I walk through the festivities and straight to my room at the Tutwiler Hotel.

Saturday, August 24

When I arrive back at the Alabama on a bright and sunny Saturday morning, I don’t quickly comprehend why there are “cigarette girls” in the theatre lobby offering packs of candy cigarettes to patrons. However, I am there to attend a screening of the new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, directed by Avi Belkin, and am about to watch an hour and a half of on-screen smoking from a time when on-screen cigarette smoking was common, even for reporters on the job.

The life of Wallace, the legendary investigative news man who is best remembered for his decades on “60 Minutes,” is examined in detail in a fascinating no-holds-barred way that is reminiscent of the interviewing style of Wallace himself. His detailed examination into every story he covers is as incisive and prickly with Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand as it is with the Ayatollah Khomeini and John Ehrlichman.

After the screening, I grab a quick bite at the Pizitz Food Hall and head to the Alabama School of Fine Arts for a block of Alabama- and politically-themed documentary shorts. My favorite is Carroll Moore’s “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” an examination of Bey’s photography mission to capture images of children the same age as the “four little girls” of the Birmingham church bombing were when they were murdered in 1963. He also includes homage to the two young boys who were murdered later in the day during the bombing’s aftermath.

“Call Me,” directed by Megan Friend and Norris Davis, is a most entertaining exploration of the rhymes and reasons behind attorney Alexander Shunnarah’s ubiquitous billboards that cover the state of Alabama. The 9-minute short includes the full 48-second Alexander Shunnarah / Jurassic Park parody by Kelly Coberly.

Other documentaries in the block explore political activism to get out the vote (“Woke Vote”); emergency responders in Tuscaloosa (“Druid City Strong”); photographic documentation of abandoned buildings in Birmingham (“Walls of Jericho”); diversity and inclusion in a rural Alabama climbing expedition (“The People of Climbing”); student debt (“A Generation Drowning”); and a 70-year-old murder case that went unpunished (“Murder in Mobile”).

From the School of Fine Arts, it’s a short walk to Birmingham Museum of Art for Vita and Virginia (2018), a British film directed by Chanya Button. This is another biographical exploration of the tortured romance of Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). This latest one is adapted from the 1992 play of the same name by actor/playwright Eileen Atkins.

Vita and Virginia lingers over the cat and mouse game that leads up to the affair of Woolf and Sackville-West in the artistic communities of 1920s England – particularly the Bloomsbury group. The story is told realistically, but with the occasional inclusion of tangled imagery that seeks to capture Virginia Woolf’s mental instability and emotional confusion. There is a stilted, stagey formality to the dialogue at times, but one adjusts to the play’s pace and structure. Atkins based much of her play on the letters of the two title characters; there are some fine moments when the camera rests on a face speaking directly into the camera, delivering emotional and occasionally laughably over-the-top declarations.

Despite noble and occasionally brave performances, Debecki and Arterton seem miscast to me.

Among the supporting actors, Peter Ferdinando delivers an understated, complex, and compassionate performance as Leonard Woolf and Isabella Rossellini has a fine turn as Vita’s snarky mother, Baroness Sackville.

By the time Vita and Virginia is over, a passing thunderstorm drenches downtown and Museum maintenance staff is scrambling to deal with puddles and leaks outside the main entrance as I make haste to get back to the Tutwiler to change and join a friend for dinner.

Sunday, August 25

I will not go to church today, but I waken to the pealing of church bells throughout the city – not an unpleasant way to meet the day. And I plan to attend something equally spiritual and, to my tastes, more inspirational.

A few months ago, when I first heard the buzz about the new Aretha Franklin documentary, Amazing Grace (1972/2018), I remember thinking I hope that’s scheduled to play Sidewalk this year.

It was.

In 1972, director Sydney Pollack and his crew filmed the two-night recording session of what would be Aretha Franklin’s best-selling live gospel album, Amazing Grace. The recording took place in the sanctuary of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Franklin was supported by legendary gospel singer James Cleveland, the Southern California Community Choir, and an all-star group of musicians. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are spotted in the audience.

For some reason, during Pollack’s recording of the two services, the audio and video were not synched, the footage was deemed unusable, and eventually the film was presumed lost.

Fast forward to the early 2000s: the “unusable footage” is rediscovered, producer Alan Elliott supervises a team of digital experts in the rehabilitation of the “lost” footage, and the resulting movie is a revelation. During her lifetime, Franklin kept suing to halt screenings of the reconstructed movie. After her death, the family consented to the release and it is finally being shared with audiences world-wide.

No real effort was made to mold the concert into something “cinematic.” Much of the footage is raw and immediate, with awkward camera movement, sloppy zooms, finding focus – all still there for the world to see.

So is raw emotion – James Cleveland breaking down in sobs at one point; the choir clearly overcome by the event they are witnessing and being a part of; Rev. C.L. Franklin – Aretha’s father – jumping up to wipe the sweat from her face and neck as she plays the piano. His handkerchief completely covers her face at one point just before she starts to sing. The audience, lost in emotion and awe, becomes a part of the power of the film and Pollack’s camera crew scrambles to capture it all.

You must see it.

As the Sidewalk audience gathers outside the Lyric Theatre for the screening, ladies distribute church fans on the sidewalk. When the audience is seated in the theatre, Birmingham-based gospel singer Belinda George Peoples emerges from the wings to sing “Amazing Grace” a capella. By the end of Peoples’s performance, the audience is singing along.

The event feels more like a church service than a movie screening as the audience claps and sways with Aretha’s powerful sound on songs like “What a Friend,” “Wholy Holy,” “God Will Take Care of You,” and the title song. There’s a very effective medley of the gospel standard “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

But the song that gets to me most is Franklin at the piano playing and singing “Never Grow Old,” with the camera closing in tight. It moves me to see a young Aretha Franklin (she was 29 when the album was made) plaintively repeating the phrase “never grow old” and its contemplation of eternity. Mick Jagger is there, also 29-years-old at the time, and, in the Lyric, I am sitting a few seats down from a friend I knew in college in the ‘70s.

When our work here is done and the life crown is won

And our troubles and trials are over

All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend

With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Never grow old, never grow old

In a land where we’ll never grow old

I leave the theatre and drive across town to have lunch with Mother. I have a list of movies I plan to see later on Sunday afternoon, but – blessedly assured that I have gotten what I came for – I actually feel a little sanctified as I hit the road for home.

Archival photo of Alabama Theatre, Birmingham; 1934

Ghosts of Birmingham

Ensley High School; July 2019

My father, Grover Journey, used to reminisce about when he and a group of boys from his Ensley neighborhood in west Birmingham would regularly ride their bicycles to the Woodlawn section of east Birmingham. He once told me, with a sly smile, that they’d ride over “to fight the Woodlawn boys.” I never knew if he was joking. Either way, I think of what an adventure those days would have been for a group of young boys in the early 1940s.

In my imagination, I see Dad, his three brothers, and some neighborhood boys barreling across the city on their bicycles, navigating the downtown Birmingham grid to 1st Avenue North, crossing the viaduct past Sloss Furnaces in its heyday. Their trek would have taken them past Avondale and onto the main drag of Woodlawn. Avondale and Woodlawn are having a sort of renaissance these days.

Ensley, 2016

I remain hopeful for the future of Ensley and its rusting forest of abandoned steel mills. My father’s boyhood home, in the shadow of the U.S. Steel smokestacks, is one of only two houses still standing on his particular block of Avenue D. Another house on that block was rental property owned by my great-grandfather McCarn; it was demolished just this summer.

Those mental images of the carefree days of my father as a youth give me comfort. It’s always interesting to contemplate the meanderings of the mind and to plot the streams of consciousness that haunt us through each day and the days beyond.


Those memories of Dad on his bike were triggered in a roundabout way when I happened to hear Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” from her Easter album over the sound system in a grocery store a few days ago. Although Easter was a stalwart of my late 1970s turntable, I had not heard it, or “Because the Night,” in years – maybe decades. To hear it in the aisles of a grocery store was …  odd.

According to rock lore, Bruce Springsteen, who originally wrote the song, wasn’t making it work for himself and passed it on to Patti Smith’s producer. Smith revised it and recorded it, resulting in her best-known and probably most-played hit. Springsteen now regularly plays it in concert with his original lyrics, and he and Smith share the song-writing credit for what is a great and enduring rock anthem.

I saw Patti Smith live in concert at Brothers Music Hall in Birmingham, a short-lived music venue located on Lakeshore Drive near the place where the Homewood neighborhood slides into the tiny kingdom of Mountain Brook. It was a memorable concert, made even more extraordinary by the fact that I was recovering from a head injury suffered in a bicycle accident the day before.

There was a suggestion that maybe I should pass up on the concert since I was still on medication, but it was Patti Smith and I would not be deterred.

Brothers was an intimate space, with tables set up for maybe 200-250 patrons. In its short existence I saw Elvis Costello, The Police – just on the cusp of super-stardom, and other acts there.

Long after the end of Patti Smith’s show, as audience members were lingering around at the bar, Smith walked out on stage with a push broom and began to sweep the stage. My friend George, a Tuscaloosa record shop owner, and I spotted her and went up on stage to see if we might engage her in conversation. She moved methodically across the stage with an enigmatic smile, occasionally glancing up at the two 20-somethings earnestly trying to get a response (I honestly don’t think that we were being obnoxious). Finally, I stopped in my tracks and said, “You have no intention of talking to us, do you?”

She stopped, too, sort of leaned for a moment against the broom handle, smiled, and shook her head no.

We left her alone, on the darkened stage, quietly finishing her unnecessary task. Just as quietly, she moved into the darkness of the backstage area and was gone.


The building where Brothers Music Hall was located started life as Hollywood Country Club in 1926. It was a grand building with bars and meeting rooms, ballrooms and dining rooms, and a huge pool. A planned golf course for the country club never materialized.

The building went through several incarnations before becoming the location for Brothers Music Hall from 1978 to 1981, where I frequented those concerts as a young adult.

My father remembered going to Hollywood Country Club to dance in the years before he met Mother. His experience with the place was at least three decades prior to mine, but I still felt a synchronicity in the shared experience of space.

The Hollywood Country Club building was demolished by fire in 1984. The site is occupied by a chain hotel.


Bush School; July 2019

“Because the Night” prompted my Hollywood Country Club memory of Dad. A drive past the ruins of his alma mater, Ensley High, which was demolished by fire almost exactly a year ago, and his elementary school, Bush School, now closed but just around the block from the high school, reminded me of those boyhood rides to Woodlawn.

Thus, this tangle of memories and a renewed exploration of Dad’s landscape began.

I’m reminded again of my favorite quote by the painter Willem de Kooning: “Then there is a time in life when you just take a walk,” he said. “And you walk in your own landscape.”

Ensley High School; July 2019

That Lingering Burn

The preponderance of good and great barbecue joints in Birmingham is reaching overload. Every time I discover one, it seems that two or three more that I haven’t tried are recommended. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Alabama barbecue. Despite my effort to be as diplomatic as possible, a reader took me to task for having the audacity to make a less than glowing comment about Morgan County white sauce. She took the opportunity to challenge my taste and attack some of the places I had complimented.

If she had read the essay closely, she would have caught my point that taste in barbecue is personal and that there is no right or wrong opinion; taste is a factor, but also place and family and tradition. Here’s an example: I lived in Texas for two years and never found any of its much-vaunted barbecue satisfactory. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good (I know some of it was very good indeed); it simply means that I prefer pork and Texas brisket just did not meet my very personal taste standards.


With that said, I have to share my excitement – the whole city’s excitement, it seems — about Rodney Scott’s (Whole Hog) Bar-B-Que, which just opened in the Avondale neighborhood east of downtown Birmingham (www.rodneyscottsbbq.com).

Rodney Scott has become a star among pit masters in a relatively short period of time. He learned from his father in the Scott family’s general store in Hemingway, South Carolina. Every Thursday, Scott’s offered whole hog barbecue cooked over hardwood on a pit behind the store. Over the years, the reputation spread and demand grew, the family expanded to offering whole hog four days a week, and Rodney, the son, began to build a reputation in the national press and other media. John T. Edge’s New York Times piece about the Scott family barbecue was a seminal moment in the ascendance of Rodney.

That’s when I first noticed Rodney Scott. After a 2013 fire destroyed the Hemingway pits, Rodney’s signal was strong on the foodways radar as he toured the region, doing pop-up whole hog barbecue along the way.

Rodney Scott and Zachariah Chanin; Florence, Alabama; 2016

I finally sampled Rodney’s barbecue at a memorable Friends of the Café dinner at Alabama Chanin’s Florence, Alabama, factory in 2016. The evening’s imaginative concept was to merge Scott’s whole hog with sides and desserts from Birmingham fine dining chef Frank Stitt. My strongest memory of that evening is the moment when Rodney Scott and Chef Zachariah Chanin entered the factory showroom with a whole hog splayed across chain-link fencing. The gathering crowd turned into paparazzi with phone cameras spinning into overload.

The meat-centric homage that followed was an expert display of culinary expertise, harmony, and tact, culminating in one of the memorable meals of my life. I will remember forever the night that I dined at an event featuring the offerings of James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt (2001) of James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (2018), with a meat course from James Beard Award-winning chef Rodney Scott (2018), and dessert from James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles (2018). And, most memorable of all, this singular dinner occurred less than ninety miles from my house.

Rodney Scott has subsequently teamed up with Nick Pihakis – co-founder with his father, Jim, of Birmingham pacesetter and stalwart Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q – to open Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston in 2016. Rodney’s son, Dominic Scott, has taken over the pit master duties at the original Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway. Dominic still relies on the advice of his Scott grandparents, Ella and Roosevelt. Roosevelt Scott is the original pit master of the family’s whole hog tradition.

Avondale is one of Birmingham’s neighborhoods that was in a decades-long decline but is now having a renaissance. The new business ventures by and large seem to exalt the authentic spirit of the old neighborhood, revitalizing what were once desolate or deserted spots.  Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que joins SAW’s Soul Kitchen BBQ to make Avondale a mecca for barbecue aficionados. I hope that the neighborhood will continue to adapt to its growing popularity while avoiding the over-gentrification that might threaten its charm and character.

Rodney Scott’s Avondale location is fresh and minimalist with a cinder block smokehouse added to the former location of the Saigon Noodle House. It’s typically crowded, but the line moves fast, the service is good, and the parking – though tight – is plentiful. On the Saturday that I visited, an iron-clad smoker occupied one of the handicapped parking spaces at the front door. The hood was open and succulent, fragrant spare ribs were sending out an aroma that was far more effective than any advertising one might conjure.

It was my intent to sample as many of the items as possible on a first visit. I was ordering for myself and my mother. Since Mother has pretty extensive dietary restrictions, I observed the menu closely to be sure there was something to please both of us.

Mother can no longer handle spicy heat and is not a fan of smoky meats, so we opted for the chicken tenders as her meat. It was a wise choice since the fried tenders were generous, nicely breaded, and mild. The Carolina-style mustard sauce set the chicken flavor off with a distinctive flair.

Her side choices were “greens” and baked beans. Mother is not a fan of collard greens and was disappointed that the greens seemed to be entirely collards. I like any greens and thought the collards were splendidly prepared and generously seasoned with chunks of pork. I was happy to eat any leftovers. Her baked beans, seasoned with meat also, had a rich and smoky taste. Once again, there were more leftovers for me.

For myself, I ordered a two-meat combo with spare ribs and pulled pork from the whole hog. My ribs were lush and meaty with a rich burgundy hue. The succulent pulled pork included bark and skin pieces and was finely shredded. The cole slaw was spare and simple, seasoned perfectly, crunchy and cool. The potato salad, which had come highly recommended, was chunky and delicious.

I should state that everything I have described to this point (except the chicken tenders) has a rich, spicy heat to it. The throat remembered the meal long after it was digested. From me, that is an enthusiastic compliment; for more sensitive palates and stomachs, that is a warning.

Rodney Scott’s barbecue did not need a bit of sauce for my palate. There was plenty of taste going on without any augmentation.  However, I did use his two barbecue sauces for occasional dipping and was very pleased with both. The original sauce, the “Rodney Sauce,” is very thin (which has caused some debate in some circles). It consists of a white vinegar with cayenne and black pepper. On the side, as I ordered it, the peppers sink to the bottom and the sauce needs to be shaken or stirred to re-combine the basic ingredients.

The second sauce, “The Other Sauce,” is thicker and, thus, more traditional, with a base of apple cider vinegar mixed with ketchup and black pepper. Slices of white bread were included with each order to sop up the juices and the sauce. My Alabama-bred barbecue tastes have always favored vinegar-based sauces; I am not ashamed to say that after I had finished my meal, I had no hesitation about slurping down the remaining portions of each of the amazing vinegar-based Scott sauces.

For my money, that lingering burn in the back of the throat after tasting a great vinegar-based red southern barbecue sauce is one of life’s special pleasures.

A generous helping of banana pudding is the perfect dessert for any substantial barbecue meal. Scott’s uses Ella Scott’s banana pudding recipe; the happy result has hearty helpings of banana with a creamy pudding and vanilla wafer crumbles. The cool pudding is a lovely balance to the heat of the rest of the meal.


In my travels around the country, I made it a point to ask locals about the best barbecue in any given location. I have had people take me off the beaten path to share the barbecue that they have declared as “the best anywhere,” or, at least, “the best around here.”

These days, my travel is more restricted, but with the recent additions of Rodney Scott’s in Birmingham’s Avondale, and of Martin’s (another whole hog joint) in Birmingham’s Cahaba Heights, it seems that Birmingham is still my one-stop shop for superior barbecue.

Once upon a time, the quest for the best local barbecue was an ongoing part of my travels. Nowadays, maybe, there’s no place like home.

Words, words, words … Eat

Photographer Celestia Morgan and SFA Director John T. Edge at 2019 SFA Winter Symposium

Southern Foodways Alliance (www.southernfoodways.org) was born in Birmingham in 1999, spearheaded by a letter from author John Egerton inviting fifty representatives of every facet of southern food and food culture to convene at the Southern Living magazine headquarters. At that meeting, they chartered the organization, named John T. Edge to be the director, and SFA became a part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Frank and Pardis Stitt hosted their fellow founders at Highlands Bar and Grill (www.highlandsbarandgrill.com) on that first night.

Since then, SFA has become a major advocate for dispensing knowledge and research into all aspects of food culture of the American South through symposia, oral histories, films, and publications such as the award-winning quarterly, Gravy. SFA uses food culture to examine social issues of past, present, and future. Its events are inspiring, challenging, and community-building. The philosophy of the organization makes a place at the table for everyone. And, needless to say, there’s always good food to be had.

Birmingham is the permanent site for SFA’s annual winter symposium. The 2019 theme is “Food Is Work.” With the Birmingham symposium, the SFA launches a year-long examination of the labor that transpires at all levels of food service and production.

The intrepid John T. Edge remains the director of SFA and he and the tireless staff serve as hosts for the event. Edge’s generosity, humor, and razor-sharp observations are the ideal representation of everything the organization has come to mean for the region and the wider food culture. John T. has the uncanny ability to make the connections, whatever and wherever they might be. His ability to remember people is impressive, as is his infectious curiosity.

Good People Brewing (www.goodpeoplebrewing.com) was the site of the reception on Friday night before the symposium. Feizal Valli of Birmingham’s funky and ersatz Atomic Lounge (www.theatomiclounge.com) was serving beverages built from a base of Good People’s Coffee Oatmeal Stout. Critics’ favorite John Hall, of Post Office Pies (www.postofficepies.com), offered a tasty bite of a red snapper crudo with grapefruit, radish, celery, and mint.


The main event on Saturday was at Haven (www.eventshaven.com), an event space on Southside. Attendees were greeted with treats from two Birmingham stalwarts – a bag containing two tasty Hero Doughnuts (www.herodoughnuts.com) and freshly brewed Royal Cup Coffee (www.royalcupcoffee.com) sourced from Kenya. Each participant took home a bag of the coffee in its bright purple bag marked ROAR.

The symposium’s morning presentations were mostly Birmingham-centric and a good introduction to the city for the many people who were visiting for the first time. After the requisite greetings by SFA staff, Feizal Valli offered tasting notes for the beverages that would be offered at the closing happy hour.

The morning’s presentations began with poetry by Birmingham native Ashley M. Jones, author of Magic City Gospel and the just-released dark // thing. The poetry Jones shared was based on food and food memory and was a contemplative start to a long day. Next, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Archibald’s presentation, “The Labor of Birmingham,” began by focusing on Birmingham’s gritty industrial beginnings as an iron and steel center and the role of Greek immigrants in feeding “the city that was a melting pot that prospered because of melting pots.”

The presentation morphed into a paean to Birmingham-style hot dogs, which are hard to explain but are delicious and distinctive and are undeniably a “thing” in the Birmingham area. During Archibald’s Q&A, Frank Stitt recalled memories of bags of Birmingham tamales that his parents would bring back to Cullman after visits to the city in the mid-20th century. At that point, John T. Edge elaborated on Mississippi Delta tamale culture and how pockets of tamale culture are scattered throughout the region. That’s one of the great things about SFA – the tracks of one discussion always lead to a related train of thought for further exploration.

The final morning session was especially relevant to me as Ben and Ryan Ray, entrepreneurs of Millie Ray and Sons baked goods (www.millierayandsons.com), spoke with SFA’s Annemarie Anderson. My mother had served Millie Ray’s orange rolls the night before and had expressed interest in the story of the company and its namesake. I had recently read that Millie Ray had died, so it was a happy coincidence to hear her sons tell the story of their mother and her baking first-hand the very next day. Their story of a food company that started in their mother’s home kitchen making orange rolls for her garden club in 1979 was a lovely way to end the morning; all of my mother’s questions were answered, to be shared with her later that day.

The afternoon began with the premiere of Ava Lowrey’s latest SFA short film, “Mac’s One Stop,” about a service station / convenience store / lunch counter in downtown Birmingham. Mac’s, in the middle of the medical center, is a place I’ve passed without notice hundreds of times. Now, thanks to the SFA doing what they do, I will pass it – and probably stop by – with a new appreciation of what it means to food and to its community. SFA’s many outreaches are valuable tools for illuminating the stories that are off the beaten path or, in the case of places like Mac’s, hiding in plain sight.


At lunch time, the always innovative SFA staff decided to try something: Each symposium-goer’s nametag was stamped with an image from a food group: carrot, catfish, chicken, cow, pig. When it was time to go in to lunch, we were lined up by food group in an effort to encourage networking. Of course, my food group was the last to be called, but the experiment worked as I met and had a nice conversation with an engaging young couple from Savannah, visiting Birmingham for the first time, and in the process of opening a tech device-free restaurant. I wish them all the luck in the world.

Lunch is always special at SFA events and is an opportunity for chefs to showcase their cuisine to a broad national audience. The 2019 winter symposium lunch was particularly special to me since it was provided by Rusty Tucker and his crew from Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) in Leeds, USA, just east of Birmingham. I sat with Rusty at last year’s winter symposium and have since been to his restaurant several times for some of the best barbecue in the area.

For the SFA meal, Rusty’s barbecue offerings included chicken, pulled pork, brisket, and – as a vegetarian option – jackfruit. Barbecued jackfruit was new to me and, apparently, to many of the other diners. It was hearty and delicious. The sides were excellent and traditional but Rusty’s distinctive touches raise them above the norm. For dessert, there was a silky banana pudding from pastry chef Beth Tucker, Rusty’s wife.

After lunch, I stopped by to view an exhibition of photographer Celestia Morgan’s thoughtful portraits of Birmingham people at work in various area eateries.


The symposium took a darker turn in the afternoon with sessions that addressed the realities and pitfalls of careers in the food industry. “Restaurants in Crisis,” moderated by Nashville-based pastry chef / writer Lisa Donovan, began with a litany of headlines documenting the recent fall of restaurant industry icons. After that sobering intro, Donovan addressed crisis and emergency management within the industry with psychologist Patricia Bundy and Melany Robinson of Birmingham-based Polished Pig Media. The discussion included hard statistics and even more difficult realities of the struggles behind the hospitality façade. It was difficult to hear, but necessary, with advice to benefit those in any field.

At the end, Robinson shared a simple but timely quote she had photographed on a sign outside an auto shop in Birmingham’s Homewood suburb: IN A WORLD WHERE YOU CAN BE ANYTHING / BE KIND.

Next, Hunter Lewis, editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine, had a conversation with Steve Palmer, restaurateur and managing partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group (www.theindigoroad.com), overseeing close to two dozen discrete restaurants throughout the southeast. The session, “Evolution of the Restaurant Family Ideal,” explored Palmer’s evolution in the food industry and his philosophies for creating a restaurant concept and managing employees, including an admirable initiative to assist restaurant employees with home mortgages. The humility and passion of Palmer were striking, particularly when he discussed his founding of “Ben’s Friends,” a food and beverage industry support group for those with substance abuse and addiction problems.

During a break, after the Steve Palmer session, I told my journalist friend Bob that I may have “hit the wall” after two such probing and occasionally troubling sessions.

However, as is so often true with SFA events, the best was yet to come.

The final session of the day, entitled “Promises of a Female Led Restaurant,” featured the amazing and fearless Raleigh-based chef, Ashley Christensen (www.ac-restaurants.com). Christensen and her food made me a life-long fan after two exceptional dinners at the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence, Alabama. Christensen’s presentation was memorable and powerful as she passionately spoke about issues of identity, inclusion, and hope. It was a courageous and masterful presentation, laying bare the soul of a woman who cares about the communities she serves and about her own place within it.

Ashley Christensen had me on the edge of my seat, proud to be a witness.

At the end, the audience rose in prolonged ovation for the singular moment of a singular day.


We had a chance to catch our breath and say our goodbyes at the happy hour which closed the SFA’s 2019 Winter Symposium. Faizal Valli once again had his bar set up with an Atomic Lounge sign and a vintage ‘60s lamp that I envied for the memories it conjured. Alabama Peanut Company was set up to serve the roasted peanuts that have earned it a devoted following at the Peanut Depot (www.alabamapeanut.com) on Morris Avenue since 1907. Merry Cheese Crisps (www.merrycheesecrisps.com), a cheese straw in medallion form, were fetchingly displayed in cut glass trays to the side.

When I left Haven, Faizal was still busy shaking his newly minted “John T. Edge” cocktail, a Maker’s Mark-based concoction “garnished” with a John T. Edge removable tattoo.

It was one of the coolest party favors ever.