Apparently, I came harrowingly close to having the first name Pemberton ? a fact that still causes me great concern in regard to my mother.
Such a christening would have forced me to run away from home at the first opportunity and to join a band of gypsies somewhere. It made me conscious from a very young age about things that might have been.
I'm particularly interested in the names for works that writers consider and then reconsider. I remember when I found out that one of the working titles for Yeats's famous poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion" was "Tragic Toys." It made me smile. Good thing he changed it, huh? A Pemberton moment there.
On the other hand, Eliot's original title for "The Waste Land" ("He Do the Police in Different Voices," a line from Dickens) I quite like.
Two of the titles I mulled over for Reverend America come from song titles. The first is the gospel number "How I Got Over." The great Mahalia Jackson (who we heard a lot of when I was growing up) perhaps has the best-known version.
But I think this up-tempo rendition, driven hard by a boisterous organ, is my favorite and is more in keeping with the spirit of the book, in the sense of how I want people to feel overall.
Another title that I thought was apt is taken from an Allman Brothers song, "Just Another Rider." I particularly like this late-in-life version done by Gregg Allman, who wrote the song years ago with Warren Haynes.
I was never a big fan of the Allmans when I was growing up in the Bay Area. I was into soul and funk. They seemed a little too white and a little too Southern Rock for me back then. I've since re-evaluated and feel a special admiration for Gregg Allman, who, while he came up in his brother Duane's shadow, I've come to see was the principal songwriting and vocal force behind the group.
He's also a real survivor. He had to deal with the early death of his genius brother, as well another band member (Berry Oakley) not long after. He's had drug and alcohol problems I can relate to, lots of wives and children. He's had a liver transplant. He even survived being married to Cher. Yet he's kept the band together and is still touring, going on close to 50 years now, proving himself to be a master in his own right of a certain thread in American culture.
He's one of the inspirations in between the lines of Reverend America. I'm particularly fond of his solo album Low Country Blues. It beautifully showcases his unique place in American popular music.
I've always admired white artists who take on R&B and soul material and do it well — who make it their own because it is their own ? because they come out of the tradition themselves.
I see myself in this light. A rhythm and blues writer. The interracial experience has always been a strong element in my life, and I both talk and write about racial issues without any sense of awkwardness or PC apologies. I think this would've been much more difficult had I been named Pemberton.
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Thanks very much to Powell's for having me as guest blogger this week. The most important independent book store in the world. And thank you especially to the people who never get enough admiration and appreciation: Readers of heart, readers of soul.
I'm also grateful to some fellow writers who inspire me. Richard Wiley, author of Soldiers in Hiding, and Maile Chapman, the author of the haunting Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, have been my colleagues at UNLV this last year, which I've very much enjoyed.
Janet Fitch, who achieved international fame for White Oleander, Jonathan Evison, who is enjoying great success with West of Here, and Jonathan Baumbach were kind enough to blurb Reverend America.
Pound for pound, Jeremy R. Johnson I consider one of the smartest writers working. He's the author of books like Angel Dust Apocalypse and is also the editor of Swallowdown Press, which had the good sense to publish a young Oklahoman named John David Osborne. Considerably more will be heard from him.
My good friend Seb Doubinsky, who is an ogre of power in European fiction has a book coming out from Black Coffee Press in Detroit soon, which I'm looking forward to.
But my favorite American writer remains Stephen Graham Jones, the author of such works as Demon Theory: A Novel. He has a new book coming out soon from MP Publishing entitled Growing Up Dead in Texas, which I highly recommend. I'm grateful to these friends and fellow travelers.