Fiction May 1998

Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War

If a man can't walk around in his own country without fear, what business does he have selling freedom to the Russians?

I had worked up a little talk. I would begin with the banjo as an African instrument, called banza in the French colonies of West Africa and banjer in the American South, where in some backwaters you could still hear it called that. Slaves played it, and then there were the traveling minstrel shows, in which white performers like Dan Emmett and Joel Walker Sweeney used the traditional black "stroke" or "frailing" or "claw-hammer" style of striking down across the strings with thumb and the back of the index-finger nail (I would demonstrate). Then (still demonstrating) I would tell of the rise of the "finger-picking" or "guitar" style, adding the middle finger and pulling up on the strings with metal picks on those three fingers, and end with bluegrass and traditional folk as revived by my hero, Seeger. When I had said all that, in about half an hour, with samples of what we think minstrel banjo sounded like, and some rags from the 1890s, the way Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps left them on Edison cylinders, and a little Leadbelly at the end, they would ask me why Americans oppressed their black people.

I got better at answering that one, as I strummed and picked and rolled through those echoing classrooms. I stopped saying that slavery had been universal not long ago, that the Russians had had their serfs, that several hundred thousand white men from the North had died so that slaves could be free, that a hundred years later civil-rights laws had been passed and lynching had become a rarity. I could tell, as I stood there listening to myself being translated, that I was losing them. What I was saying was too much like what they heard from their own teachers, too much historical inevitability. I simply said yes, it was a problem, a disgraceful problem, but that I honestly believed America was working at it, and music was one of the foremost ways it was working at it. Listening to myself talk, I would sometimes think that the State Department knew what it was doing, bringing a natural patriotic optimist like me over here. Ever since JFK had been shot, my breed had been harder to find. They must have had a pretty fat file on me somewhere: the thought made me uneasy.

I felt best when I played, played as if for a country-fair crowd back home, and those young Russian faces would light up as if I were telling jokes. They had all heard jazz, and even some twist and early rock on tapes that were smuggled through, but rarely anything so jaunty and tinny and jolly, so irrepressible, as banjo music going full steam, when your fingers do the thinking and you listen in amazement yourself. Sometimes they would pair me with a balalaika player, and one little Azerbaijani—I think he had some Gypsy blood—tried my instrument, and I his. We made an act of it for a few days, touring the Caucasus, where old men with beards would gather outside the auditorium windows as if sipping moonshine. When they had me advertised ahead for a formal concert, the crowds were so big that the Soviet controller cut down on the schedule.

The translator who traveled with me kept changing, but usually it was Nadia, a lean, thin-lipped lady over forty who had learned her English during the war, in the military. She had lost two brothers and a fiancé to Hitler, and was wed to the Red system with bonds of iron and grief. She looked like a skinny, tall, stunned soldier boy herself, just out of uniform—no lipstick, a long, white, waxy nose, and a feathery short haircut with gray coming in, not in strands but in patches. Blank-faced, she would listen to my spiel, give a nod when she'd heard all she could hold, and spout out a stream of this language that was, with all its mushy, twisty sounds, pure music to me. The more she and I traveled together, the better she knew what I was going to say, and the longer she could let me go before translating, and the more I could hear individual words go by, and little transparent phrases through which I seemed to see into her as if into a furnace through a mica window. We traveled on trains in the same compartment, so I could look down from the top bunk and see her hands remove her shoes and her mustard-colored stockings, and then her bare feet and hands flitter out of sight. I would listen, but never heard her breathing relax; she confessed to me toward the end of my stay that she could never sleep on trains. The motion and clicking stirred her up.

An inhibiting factor was Bud Nevins's being in the compartment with us—there were two bunks on two sides—or, if not Bud, another escort from our embassy, and often a fourth, an underling of Bud's or a second escort from the Soviet side, who spoke Armenian or Kazakh or whatever the language was going to be when we disembarked. Sometimes I had more escorts than would fit into one compartment; I think I often got the best night's sleep, with everybody watching everybody else. Nadia was as loyal a Communist as they made, but seemed to need watching anyway. As I got to know her body language, I could tell when we were being crowded, politically speaking.

After a while I tended to bond with the Communists. When we arrived at one of our hinterland destinations, Nadia and her associates would bundle me into a Zil, and then we would share irritation at being tailed by an embassy watchdog in his imported Chevrolet. When we all went south, Bud came along with that willowy, redheaded wife of his. April had, along with her worried look, a plump, pretty mouth a little too full of teeth. For all their three children, they hadn't been married ten years. Out of wifely love and loyalty she wanted to join in what fun the Soviet Union in its sinister vastness offered.

Somewhere in backwoods Georgia we visited a monastery, a showpiece of religious tolerance. The skeleton crew of monks glided around with us in their grim stone rooms. The place had a depressing, stuffy, holy smell—old candle wax and chrism and furniture polish—that I hadn't sniffed for thirty years, and then in the storage closet of a Baptist basement Sunday school. Among the monks with beards down to their bellies was a young one, and I wondered how he had enlisted himself in this ghostly brotherhood. Demented, or a government employee, I decided. He had silky long hair, like a princess captive in a tower, and the sliding onyx eyeballs of a spy. He was one kind of human animal, and I was another, and when we looked at each other, we each repressed a shudder.

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