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Oct./Nov. '03 Articles:
Global Fear & Loathing
Editorial: Criminalizing Dissent
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
Elephants Enslaved
The Muddlemarch: 1
The Muddlemarch: 2
Forest Holocaust
From the Closet to the TV
(music reviews)

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by Morris Sullivan
Contributing Editor
art/W. Ralph Walters

I could see the cotton from Interstate 20 as I drove across northern Louisiana. The bolls were ripe; the cotton had burst open, and the fields looked speckled with white from the the threads that had escaped, as if a light snow had dusted the fields on this humid late-summer day.

I turned on the radio, looking for music that fit the mood. I hoped for Zydeco or Cajun, but some old blues would do, or even country – real country, not the pop-with-a-drawl that passes for country music these days.

I hadn't seen a field full of ripe cotton in a long time – not since we'd migrated east more than 30 years ago, pulling a U-Haul trailer full of all our belongings through five states, starting in the Great Plains of Texas, then out of east Texas into Shreveport, Louisiana and across to Vicksburg. The road across Louisiana gave us a great admiration for the Texas Highway Department; they were, by comparison, little more than jeep tracks, dropping off at either side directly into the swamp or into muddy bar ditches that separated the "highway" from the cotton-pickers that worked in the vast flat fields.

From Vicksburg, we went catty-cornered south toward Mobile, Alabama, the gateway to the Redneck Riviera and the last town we saw before entering Florida, where Disney was just breaking ground on what would become the tourist capital of the world.

People didn't have CD players in their cars back then–this was even before 8-tracks–so I spent a lot of time asking my parents to surf the dial in search of a decent radio station. I think just about every town in America had at least one local station then, and most had at least two: the station the white folks listened to; the one at the far left end of the dial that played "race records."

Since a station might be the only one in town, they didn't force-fit themselves to tight formats. I remember crossing a hot, lonely stretch of Louisiana and hearing the Beatles' "Let it Be," Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," B.B. King's and Loudon Wainright's "Down Drinkin' at the Bar"–all on the same station, mind you–along with some local favorites I didn't recognize but that sounded like Bluegrass to me.

But it isn't 1971. It's 2003.

And things have changed – some for the better. Louisiana roads have certainly improved since we pulled that U-Haul to Florida. Back then, the Vicksburg bridge across the Mississippi was so narrow that when an 18-wheeler wanted to come across, all the traffic going the other way had to stop and let him pass. Now it's part of the Interstate, and while rustic by 2003 standards, crossing it isn't the near-death experience of the past.

In some ways, not much had changed through the heart of the deep south. A lot of people still live scattered through tiny rural communities, some of which still have general stores, although few people have to drive more than a half-hour to find a supermarket.

Some differences were not so pleasant. On that first trip, we'd buy gas from a service station where a grease-stained but polite attendant would check the oil and tire air pressure, wipe off the windshield, and dispense travel advice and directions, albeit in a nearly incomprehensible regional dialect. The thirsty kids would root through a tub-like cooler for a small Coke, and if we were hungry, we'd drop a nickel in the "honor system" coin slot by the Tom's snack rack and get a plastic bag of salty, red-skinned Spanish peanuts.

In 2003, self-serve superstations rise like chromium clones from the red clay of the cotton fields. Instead of attendants, they have "pay at the pump" credit card readers and ungreasy cashiers, most of whom couldn't give directions beyond the end of the driveway, but will ring up your Cool Ranch Doritos, Sobe green tea and ginseng, or French vanilla, English toffee, and Regular cappucino with a dialect-free impolite snarl.

And a handful of corporations seem to control the airwaves. Regional and local stations have gone with the wind. Instead, there are about four formats; their playlists are probably all written by the same computer stock traders. They sound identical to each other, whether in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, or on the Moon, I imagine: There's the "contemporary" station that plays Britney Spears and the boy bands; there's the "classic rock" station that plays Led Zeppelin and Styx; and there's the "new country" station that plays whatever the fuck you'd call that overproduced crap.

Oh, yeah – and there's the one with Garrison Keillor. I went through the Mississippi Delta into the heart of Cajun country and never once could find anything resembling blues or zydeco on the radio, but I could start listening to that Minnesota son-of-a-bitch on a station in south Mississippi, move the dial a digit or two when it got fuzzy and pick him up again in mid-Mississippi, and keep the bastard tuned in up and down the dial all the way to the bayous of Louisiana.

Fortunately, I'd downloaded a bunch of blues and zydeco off Kazaa and made some mix CDs before I hit the road.

I'm kidding. I don't really download music, mainly because I'm too easily frustrated to wait for it, then find out the song labeled "The Thrill is Gone" by B.B. King is really a Chemical Brothers techno remix of a Steppenwolf song.

Downloading happened to be a hot topic on NPR news during this trip. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had just announced that sales figures were down ten percent from the first half of last year, representing a drop in sales of more than $700 million.

Still, that left the industry with $4.8 billion, more than enough money to keep me from feeling too sorry for it. The RIAA blames the drop in sales entirely on music piracy, and wants the authorities to sink the music-pirate ship by going into colleges looking for students who download too many tunes.

They fail to mention, of course, that students downloading MP3s might be only one of several explanations for faltering CD sales: There's a war in the Middle East, for example. The economy began faltering four years ago and has not recovered. Lots of Americans are unemployed.

And I guess the RIAA hasn't noticed that the bulk of the CDs its members market are just not worth buying.

At the risk of sounding like my father, I think everything on the "contemporary" radio stations sounds like it could have been made by the same four or five people and maybe two computers, or assembled from recycled Acid loops by an industry marketing committee in white shirts and Repp-striped ties.

Surely, there are people making music out there because they love the art form. Surely, there are people writing songs inspired by the dirt of cotton fields and the smell of cowshit. Surely, there are people singing songs to the girls they went to school with. And surely there are people strumming guitars just because it's fun and it sounds good – not because they want to be a cash-cow cog in the machinery of a $10 billion-per-year "industry."

Damned if I could find those people on five states' worth of radio, though.

"Perhaps," I wondered as I searched in vain for something on the radio I hadn't heard before, "college students download music because there's no other way to hear any that doesn't fit in one of four corporate radio formats."

Between the big-money control over the recording industry and the big-money control over broadcasts, downloading might be the only thing keeping music–as an art form, not a product– from wheezing its last desperate gasp and rattling to its death.

But don't run out and start downloading stuff and telling people I said it was okay. It ain't right. If you think going into Wal-Mart and stuffing CDs down your pants is bad, then music piracy is equally bad. However, before blaming college students for the failure of recorded music to make more billions of dollars, the "recording industry" might want to look at how its own practices contribute to consumer indifference. Like the old blues song says, "Before you 'cuse me, take a look at yourself."

Coming home, the CD player kept playing the blues while I crossed the big river, then as I headed back southeast across the Misssissippi, down smooth state highways toward Mobile. At a crossroads in mid-Mississippi, I stopped at a Texaco superstation to fill the tank and walk Faust.

Faust is all black–part Lab and part chow–with a weirdly spotted tongue that hangs nearly to the ground when he pants and a devilish gleam in his eye when he wants to play. In the myth, the devil appeared to Faust in the form of a black dog–thus his name.

I kept him leashed, but let him splash around in a puddle stained red by Mississippi clay. While he splashed around in the mud, I looked past the gas pumps with built-in computers toward the crossroads.

Robert Johnson, another myth says, went to such a crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a supernatural ability to make ethereal music by sliding a bottleneck up and down a guitar neck. He was killed by a jealous husband, they say.

I watched the lights flicker on in the Texaco sign as the sun started sinking down. The red light reflected off the muddy red water, and I imagined Robert Johnsons' ghost haunting some lonely Mississippi crossroad. And I imagined the devil stalking beneath the flourescent lights, lurking in an aisle between the Cool Ranch Doritos and the Sobe green tea with ginseng.

Faust finally peed and got back in the van. The devil snickered at me as I slid my credit card through the reader, sending into cyberspace a digital record of my existence. As I pulled away, I plugged Robert Johnson into the CD player. I left the devil standing back at the crossroads; as his red light faded to a pinpoint in my rearview mirror, I listened to Robert Johnson, a blues man who once swapped his mortal soul for digital immortality, trapping his tortured voice forever in endless copies and recopies of WAV files and MP3s.

Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for more than five years. A freelance writer and former high school teacher living in DeLand, Florida, Sullivan is also a playwright. His most notorious work, Femmes Fatale, contained the infamous "Nude Macbeth," which has been covered by diverse news media from the BBC and NPR to Playboy, HBO's "Real Sex," and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

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Previous Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns

Other articles by Morris Sullivan: