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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Johnson’

And I’d never been 
West of New Orleans or East of Pensacola
My only contact with the outside world
Was an RCA Victrola
Jimmy Buffett/Life is Just a Tire Swing 

“If I had grown up in Montgomery or Birmingham with less access to the beaches, bays, and rivers, I would be a completely different person.”
Lucy Buffett

Pascagoula1

Halfway between New Orleans and Pensacola sits a little town with a long name—Pascagoula. (That’s almost as much fun to say as Yazoo City.) Though I’d never been to Pascagoula, Mississippi before Tuesday, it’s doubtful there would even be a blog titled Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places without an event that happened one Christmas day in Pascagoula.

Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett was born on December 25, 1946 in Pascagoula. I bought my first Buffett album at the ripe age of 15 years old. At that point in my life I had only been to three states (if you include a stopover at the Atlanta airport). In fact, most of my life was lived on a dead-end street in Central Florida. But it was on that street, in a cement block house, that I sat in my bedroom with Koss headphones on and listened to Buffett’s music that opened up a world of storytelling.

Stories about pirates, Paris,  New Orleans, Tony Lama boots, and Patsy Cline music became influences in my life.

Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again
Jimmy Buffett/ Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

Eventually I made my way off the dead-end street to all 50 states and to the far side of the world. Found my own adventures sailing in Key West, flying in a sea plane over the Amazon River, and riding a camel in the middle east. All inspired by a guy born in Pascagoula. An unlikely place.

Inspiration is funny that way. A guy born in Tupelo, Mississippi (Elvis) inspired a guy from Pascagoula/Fairhope/Mobile (Buffett) . A guy from Lubbock, Texas (Buddy Holly) inspired a guy from Hibbing/Duluth, Minnesota (Bob Dylan). And they all have roots in the Delta Blues. And the epicenter of the Delta Blues is in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Highway 49 and Highway 61 meet at the famous Crossroads.

And the main influences of Delta Blues musicians were hard times, alcohol, and gospel music. (What good can come from Bethlehem?) That and a good deal of them came from Mississippi. Here’s just a handful of the key blues players and where they’re from in Mississippi; Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst), Bo Diddley (McCombs), Elmore James (Richland in Holmes County), Muddy Waters (Issaquena County) and B.B. King (Itta Bena).

I’m fortunate to not get much criticism on this blog, but one that I’ve heard goes along the lines of “Who cares where writers come from? Everyone in Hollywood comes from somewhere else? What’s the big deal?” There is no big deal if you’re writing cookie-cutter, contrived screenplays. But you if want to write something special, your roots and influences are all you have. That’s what sets you apart. And that’s true if you’re in Hollywood, or if you’re in Austin like screenwriter Jeff Nichols (Writing “Mud”). It’s true of Pat Conroy novels and Tennessee Williams plays.

Lastly, as I drove home to Florida this week after 10 days on the road working on various photo and video gigs I made a stop a Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Lucy is Jimmy Buffett’s sister and has her own little empire cooking down in lower Alabama. While I had a great trout dinner in North Carolina, the best meal on the whole trip was a simple flounder meal at Lucy B. Goode overlooking Homeport Marina. It was a fitting stop on the tail end of a trip that really started one Christmas day in Pascagoula.

photo-25

P.S. BTW—Mississippi not only produced some great blues artists but other people who have been some of the most influential in their fields. Here’s a list I came up with quickly: Tennessee Williams (Columbus, MS), James Earl Jones (Arkabutla), Oprah Winfrey (Kosciusko), Jim Henson (Greenville), and Jerry Rice (Starkville).  And Morgan Freeman has a home  in Charelston, Mississippi and owns the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Lotta mojo still in Mississippi.

Related Post:

Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Revisiting Highway 61 Revisited (2.0)
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
The Outsider Advantage

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep a good head, and always carry a light bulb.”
Bob Dylan

“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.”
Jonah Lehrer

Bob Dylan had just turned 24-years old when he wrote the song Like a Rolling Stone, a song Rolling Stone magazine decades later called The Greatest Song of All Time.

The beginnings of “Like a Rolling Stone” can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don’t Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost/For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost.” Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for “Like a Rolling Stone,” connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
500 Greatest Songs of All Time/Rolling Stone

Bob Dylan’s Brain happens to be the title of the first chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve listened to that chapter on CD twice as Lehrer unpacks the neurons that were firing in Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote Like a Rolling Stone back in ’65 in a small rural cabin in Woodstock, New York:

“He grabbed a pencil and started to scribble. Once Dylan began, his hand didn’t stop for the next several hours. ‘I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,’ Dylan said. ‘I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.’ Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight, that flow of associations that can’t be held back. ‘I don’t know where my songs come from,’ Dylan said. ‘It’s like a ghost is writing the song. It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.’ Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

But the important thing for you to realize is the flow of association didn’t come out of thin air. What Lehrer called Dylan’s “diversity of influences” came from his time as a youth listening to a mix of music on AM radio while growing up (with long winters) in Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. His influences were the books and poems he read. His early influences include his brief college career in Minneapolis and taking part in the music scene in Dinkytown. It was actually his time in the Twin Cities in 1959 when he shifted from a rock and roll to a folk emphasis.

“I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Bob Dylan

By 1961 Dylan was playing in folk clubs around Greenwich Village in New York. In ’63 he had a hit with Blowin’ in the Wind, and just a couple of years later, Dylan had already played throughout the U.S. and Europe. He was successful and popular, yet it was Like a Rolling Stone that proved his real breakthrough as an artist.

“Listening to these ambiguous lyrics, we can hear his mental blender at work, as he effortlessly mixes together scraps of Arthur Rimbaud, Fellini, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Johnson. There’s some Delta blues and ‘La Bamba’ but also plenty of Beat poetry, Ledbetter, and the Beatles. The song is modernist and pre-modern, avant garde and county & western. What Dylan did— and this is why he’s Bob Dylan—was find the strange thread connecting those despairing voices. During those frantic first minutes of writing, his right hemisphere found a way to find something new out of this incongruous list of influences, drawing them together into a catchy song”
Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works

In many ways, Lehrer is building on what Arthur Koestler wrote in his 1964 book The Act of Creation and legendary designer Milton Glaser later did in Art is Work. It’s what I touched on back in ’08 in one of my all-time favorite posts, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). But Lehrer’s writing is more accessible that Koestler’s and he brings many fresh examples to how the creative process works.

Looking at Dylan’s influences, it’s no surprise that the song Like a Rolling Stone was the leading hit off the album titled Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 being that road that runs up and down the gut of the United States. A road that wanders along the Mississippi River from Duluth in northern Minnesota down through the Delta Blues country in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. An area that has been tremendously influential musically in places like St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and the famed Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi where blue great Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.

This is the heart of this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Sure books, blogs, seminars and schools can be helpful on one level—but don’t get caught up in playing follow the leader. While few will have the genius of Dylan, we all come from somewhere, from someplace.  The real gold is what’s kicking around in your head and heart. You have your own unique life experiences.You have your own unique blender of influences kicking around into your brain. Tap into that and hope that the ghost pays you a visit.

P.S. Jonah Lehrer’s website is jonahlehrer.com, his blog is Frontal Coretx, and his twitter address is @jonahlehrer.

August 1, 2012 Update: Los Angeles Times/Joanah Lehrer’s Bob Dylan quotes lead to resigination. 

Related Posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Revisiting “Highway 61 Revisited”
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Screenwriting from Duluth 

Scott W. Smith 

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Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.'” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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