Feb 11, 2010

South to Cincinnati

Despite the last post being all about KSU, we didn't get snowed in in mid Ohio. We just got moving. So forgive this brief(ish) catch up.

Wednesday (day 3)
Mid Ohio looks so rural that it's shocking to look at the map and see how far east the Midwest stretches. It didn't snow overnight but it was very, very cold and still very, very white. The roads were cleared in a way that would put every British council to shame. Driving was still frightening, especially when the wind blew the snow across the road and little snow devils would dance and snake alongside the wheels of the cars in front.

We headed south. Aiming for Cincinnati. I think Cincinnati is a beautiful word. I always assumed it was a Native American word, but it actually has a worryingly imperialistic background. In 1790, Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, chose the name after the Society of the Cincinnati, which lauded George Washington as being akin to Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who was called to serve Rome as dictator. It still a beautiful name wherever it comes from. And it sounds good in a song. Here are just a few: Cincinnati Lou by Merle Travis, Cincinnati, Ohio by Connie Smith, South of Cincinnati by Dwight Yoakam, Susie Cincinnati by The Beach Boys and The Lights of Cincinnati by Scott Walker.

The landscape changes a lot when you get to Cincinnati. Instead of flat plains, it's a place of steep and numerous hills. It's not a pretty city - the residential areas we passed through look a lot like some of the older parts of Eastern cities like New York or Philadelphia. They look a bit run down, though it was a horribly grey day so the weather didn't help. The city is on the Ohio river. That's where its fortune came from in the early 19th century when steamboats made the Ohio the main trade route of the northern states. So it's a working town, a blue collar place. And like Buffalo it's sports crazy with the stadia of two major sporting franchises right in the middle of the city. The Paul Brown stadium is the home of the Bengals and the modestly-titled Great American Ball Park is home to the Reds. You can see both of them as you drive across the scary bridges that cross the Ohio into Kentucky. So many American bridges look they were made out of a giant's Meccano set. And they scare the hell out of me.

In the evening we dropped by the home of another postcarder, who like many of those people is a musician. His band Magnolia Mountain were voted best American act in the 2009 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and are about as professional as an outfit can be while holding down regular jobs. The band were rehearsing at Mark's house and we dropped by to watch them. First tune they played when we arrived was called A Little South of Birmingham. And they didn't even know the rationale behind the trip. Watching these 7 people play together with such ease, and their ability to change things in the music without the need for a didactic demonstration really rammed home to me the difference between musicians and non musicians. I love music but I can't play it. I was in a band when I was 16 but The Gigha Mumyz were very primitive. I'd describe us as avante garde, but unusual or peculiar would be better words. Think Pere UBU with less talent and more fun. Anyway I digress. After the rehearsal I was asking the band about why they thought there were so many songs about places in America. The first answer, probably the obvious one, was it's so big. But one member expanded on that to say the place you came from in America defined your culture. And I think that could be key. In the UK it's your social status that defines you first. Or at least it used to. Why else would middle class art school students suddenly act all uncouth when they joined a rock n roll band?

Frigid Bones' Diary: Started off at an insanely low 14° (-10°C) but soared to at least 20° F (-4°C) by mid afternoon.

Thursday (day 4)
Our first 300 mile day. Split between Indiana and Illinois. Indiana is one of those states with way more songs about the state than songs about towns within it. But even then it's hardly served well. If the weather hadn't forced us south we'd have gone to Kokomo just to pay homage to Aretha. I'd say The most famous song about the state is surely Indiana Wants Me by R.Dean Taylor, who as a white Canadian is surely the strangest man to ever get a Motown contract. But that's not as strange as the video... be warned the effects aren't very special.

The song is one of those jaunty little pop songs, where people only really listen to the chorus, so they don't notice it's about some nutter who killed a man because he said something rude about the nutter's girl. And now the nutter can't go back to Indiana. Which isn't too bad really. I'm not sure I want to either. Actually when we were driving north from Lawrenceburg we hit police road blocks, so maybe R. Dean did go back.

Goal one today was Seymour Indiana, the birthplace of John Cougar Mellencamp. Not the coolest guy in the world I'm sure. He does have two very silly surnames after all. But Mellencamp (or Cougar if you prefer) has built his career on a lot of songs about the Midwest. Even Brits know (and love?) Jack & Diane, those two American kids growing up in the heartland. Like Middle England, the Midwest is pushed by conservative media as the heartland. The sort of place where real Americans live good lives in small towns. That mythology lies behind Cougar's (or Mellencamp's if you prefer) song Small Town. Even if you didn't know the song you could guess a lot about it. According to the song, John tried the city but he moved back to his small town. He even brought his fancy-ass city wife home with him and she loves it too.
Thats her on the left. So maybe I shouldn't take the mickey out of Cougarcamp too much. And surely it made sense to go to the town that spawned him and see if I could get a sense of the wonder of small towns.

The plan didn't work. First of all it's not that small. I saw a lot smaller on the way there. And apart from a bar called Bubba's Place (which was closed) there was nothing I could see in Seymour that held any interest for me. I think when he says Small Town he means Dull Town. I'm not as adverse to strip malls as many folk are but Seymour looked as dull as hell. At least kids growing up there today have the Xbox to stop them from writing corny songs.

So we headed out of town and headed for Illinois. On the way we saw a lot of churches. I thought Texas loved Jesus but from what I saw Texas has nothing on
Indiana. All the main Protestant denominations like Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, as well as lesser spotted species like Menonites. Though my favourites were the independent ones that kept it simple: Christian Church or Bible Church. And when you couldn't see a church you could still see lots of signs advertising churches, or Christian camps or Christian Centers for the Treatment of Addiction. It's another way in which Britain and America differ greatly. Church attendance is plummeting in the UK but here the market is booming. Even Jack & Diane knew they wouldn't escape it. "Gonna let it rock, Let it roll, Let the Bible belt come down, And save my soul."

Frigid Bones' Diary: It thawed out today. Hit 33° F by the time we reached St Louis. Above freezing!

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