Lyrics based on the poem by NYC’s own Abel Meeropol, Birmingham UK’s UB40 prepare a version of Billie Holiday‘s 1939 original that loses none of the shame and menace of the original. Heavy at times with synthesizers and inescapably colored by UB40’s skanking, horns-laden method the point, purpose, and aesthetic of the original reemerge.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Has anyone ever done a ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ challenge with Burt Bacharach? He and Hal David wrote this song for the 1969 Robert Redford/Paul Newman film ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.’ Here we have Kingston, Jamaica’s own Dennis Brown chiming in with a dutiful cover of the B. J. Thomas original. offering nothing particularly new except a charming song performed by one of reggae’s most distinctive, most prolific voices.
Cold and without wood
in mist too thick to gather;
In a song with an all-time unforgettable signature riff there’s little room for improvisation, or so it would seem. Inexorably following in the melodic tracks of the original by Cream Jackie Mittoo (of Brown’s Town, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica) yet manages to turn the almost menacingly lustful original into a bit of cheerful shopping music.
Starts kind of respectful, even mechanical, but quickly assumes its own character and style. Jimmy Lindsay’s recording of the Bill Withers original brings hints of African drums, rock & roll (that sax solo!), and his nascent rasta consciousness.
I’ve been holding off taking pictures of the interior of the place because there were a few details I wanted to take care of first; to make the place more of a home with an aesthetic than a shack in the woods nobody loves or cares for anymore.
Big photo dump. I apologize in advance for your bandwidth if on mobile:
I went back to the Nespelem Cemetery Monday, this time without a camera. The last time I came through was ten years ago, after a visit to the Okanogan Family Faire (aka ‘barter faire’) in Tonasket. Having grown up knowing the story of Chief Joseph and having just read Lucullus McWhorter’s ‘Yellow Wolf’ I felt compelled to visit and pay my respects in the act of pursuing my avocation of cemetery/memorial photographer.
When I arrived at Joseph’s grave back then I was regretful. Other visitors had thought to bring an offering, some of which were so appropriate and intentioned their inclusion bespoke the wisdom of the giver. A ranger from the Naches Ranger District had left a collar badge from their uniform. Others had left polished stones, coins, braids of sweet grass, toy horses, and small red cloth bundles. On Yellow Wolf’s grave –the resting place of a supernaturally powerful warrior– someone had left an open pen knife, the stainless blade alive with potential even among green and tarnished coins. I had nothing to offer, and ultimately continued on my way leaving only words in the wind. When I got back to Seattle my wife and I separated for good.
I carried my failure with me. Having visited their resting places did not absolve me of my admiration of these men. I marked the debt in my mental ledger.
My brother, stepfather, and I undertook a trip to the Grand Coulee Dam as a sort of homage to Woody Guthrie, to culminate in the last viewing of the laser light show of the season. Grand Coulee Dam is just 14 miles from the Nespelem Cemetery where Joseph and so pitifully few of his heroic original band lie in repose. I’d get to get some bugs on my car, hang with my boys, grub on fine small-town vittles, and satisfy my debt if I could talk my companions into it. Rather than risk this addition to our itinerary being seen as one of my habitual photographic wanderings through country graveyards I fairly insisted on it, and was rewarded with enthusiastic support.
The cemetery hadn’t gotten up and wandered off in the ten years since my footprints marked this land. North side of Nespelem on high ground. In so small a town at times streets could be mistaken for driveways. You have to know where you are going and be at least marginally brave.
Joseph’s memorial stone is unmistakable if only from the well-worn path of visitors leading respectfully around the corner of a row of unmarked graves and on to the collection of offerings at its foot. The people had continued to leave bright stones, coins, horse figurines, and trinkets for him but this time I saw where one had placed a hand mirror face-down over where his head presumably lies. Another had left two long horsehair braids; someone else a silver concho bracelet.
I felt a little pressure to walk with my companions. The conversations I needed to have were short, however. Tearing the filter off of a strong tobacco cigarette I wedged it between a gleaming river stone and the weathered white marble of his marker, with words in the wind marking the fulfillment and renewal of a debt of respect. For Yellow Wolf too, so the smell of fresh tobacco would blow in the wind with him.
Among the photos from my last visit certain friends and relatives of those whose memorials were included left questions or comments on those photos; some not insignificantly resentful. Going so regularly in places full of private pain…so full of the dichotomy of spirit and mortality…one learns not only to walk carefully but to transform oneself into a recognizable agent of respect: to walk in a state of unintentioned mindfulness. It is not the bones you risk offending but the broken hearts of living human beings and the spirits, whose persistence around and among us you have by being a ledger-keeper and tobacco-offerer long ago accepted. When you speak aloud the names mutely inscribed before you you do not do so lightly. You do so with gratitude, with admiration, with commiseration, with respect. If you are a photographer you have come to take, so to satisfy your conscience you transform the taking into an act of reverence.
I hated that, despite the priestly care I take to travel lightly and kindly in such places, I was unable to assuage the pain of these friends and relatives: pain I had inadvertently caused. At the time I was far away from that hillside in Nespelem so all I had to offer them was words in the wind: cold comfort indeed delivered digitally and without context. This too I marked in my mental ledger as a debt: either to be repaid if possible or to further spur my conscience to right action going forward.
It was with this in mind that I went to say the names of Elroy James Shavehead, a natural athlete with a big smile and heart; Thomas L. Waters, known to loved ones as “Babycakes”, from a far-flung and long-loving family; the coyote doctor Pow-U-Ton-Ow-Wit, and to signify my respect and peaceful intentions with a tobacco offering nestled among the other remembrances left for them. If past is prologue someone somewhere on down the line will search the internet for mention of these men and find this post. If as before that person is a loved one I hope they will understand that when informed of it I accepted and carried my obligation to these men and their families as if they were my own kin. I returned to make it clear to any and all that my mind was clean: that my coming and going were that of the silent mourner whose passing is known but to God.