Another piece for the Crier, Fall 2006. This is the essay I read at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) Periodically Speaking Event at the NYC Public Library in June 2007; I was selected as the emerging fiction writer of note, whatever that means. I did a web-exclusive interview with Christine too, available here.
MARC BOLAN DIED IN A CAR CRASH.
REE MORTON DIED IN A CAR CRASH.
JAMES DEAN DIED IN A CAR CRASH.
KIRSTY MACCOLL WAS RUN OVER BY A BOAT.
–from artist Anthony Campuzano’s “Violent Deaths” drawings (2003-2005)
When I was 10—or around then, it’s hard to remember—I died in a car accident. Or so I heard during one gray Sunday Mass, when a muttering deacon solemnly pronounced me dead in prayer, the fellow casualty of few bigger boys more duly departed, in a true crash. My parents weren’t there, so no one noticed that I was in fact alive and well, squirming in the pew, an unlikely companion for a sedan full of drunk teenagers. It was a dull shock—no triumphant Tom Sawyer moment—and I never figured out if it was a morbid joke on the part of my classmates or an honest mistake. (Shortly after my “accident,” I won a MADD-sponsored poster contest, sanctioned by my Catholic elementary school, with what should have been a worryingly gory drawing of a young man splayed over the blood-drenched hood of a crushed yellow Corvette.) In college, I narrowly survived a wintry wreck on Christmas Eve, pried from my father’s Geo with the Jaws of Life and airlifted to Boston Medical with several broken ribs, one of which had punctured my right lung, filling it with blood. But it was a bus that finally buried me.
The Black Camel of Death found me first in autumn, in a school bus in Avalon, Mississippi. There is no sign for Avalon Road, and I’m no navigator, but I’ve managed to find the spot twice in as many years, on two separate pilgrimages to bluesman Mississippi John Hurt’s grave. The dirt road rises sharply from the edge of the Delta, winding into the kudzu-bruised hills above the river’s furthest fingers aching eastward. The Hurt family plot, when you finally stumble upon it, resembles not so much a graveyard as a forest clearing faintly hiding its dead beneath untidy ridges. Of the dozen or so knolls, many remain unmarked, while others have been planted with placards, faded into obscurity and folded into tin signposts like those found in botanical gardens. John Hurt’s resting place features a sturdy stone slab, littered with guitar picks, a few stunted candles, a cracked CD or two, and once, oddly, a hand of sodden Pokémon cards.
The bus in question, entombed a good 50 yards from Hurt’s grave, is no longer roadworthy in the functional sense, but, swallowed up to its yawning emergency doors in an embankment, it is perhaps love-worthy, the road’s darling. On my first visit, I noted it but rolled on by. On my second visit months later, the crows sniping at a clutch of rotting fish just outside somehow emboldened me. Stepping through its exposed rear maw into the thick heat, I quickly realized, despite the darkness of soil beyond the windows, that it was a short bus, maybe a ’50s model, sufficient for a rural community, but cozily coffin-like in its present subterranean setting. Inside, among the uprooted seats and drifts of detritus, I came across an old Camel cigarettes sign, the dromedary silhouette blacked out with rust. A simple advertisement, darkened with age, the ruined image remains as vivid to me as the cemetery destination itself, somehow as attuned to death as Hurt’s humble hole outside. Its silence was blaringly appropriate after hours of listening to Mississippi John’s music—itself so keenly familiar with mortality—on the car stereo driving south.
Not so silent was the preacher who, over seven decades before my encounter, warned his faithful of the inexorable coming of the Black Camel.
Ahh, we’re going to speak now from the subject: the Black Camel Death, travels in the path of misunderstanding. The locomotive engineer misunderstood his message. Fails to take the siding, and the Black Camel of Death meets him and others, ah, swept into the judgment. There are many passengers and the engineers all gone to the judgment by failing to understand—Black Camel of Death pulled him into eternity. The fast driver of a car, the auto car, sees the curves and the signals and fails to understand the dangers. He rides on in a hurry. He’s in such a hurry—the faster he goes, the faster he wants to go. `Til he meets another fast-going car right around the curve. And it goes on a head-on collision and the Black Camel Death meets them in the path of misunderstanding and into the judgment he goes. Oh yes, that loving wife, he fails to understand her, and she goes her own route, and by and by it winds up, ah, in dissatisfaction and death, because the Black Camel Death got on the trail, and so with a flying machine, the man that jets in the air and flies away like a bird and goes way over towards the ocean and the seas, take a long journey, fails to put enough oil in his machine, and fails to put enough gas in his machine, and he goes on flyin’, and by and by into some hamlet, into some wilderness he’s going down, and we’ll see him no more. Black Camel Death that met him.
I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Yes, I got good religion, my Lord.
Well, I got good religion, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
Well, you better get your ticket, my Lord.
Well you better get your ticket, oh my Lord.
Well, I got my ticket, well,I’m checked for Zion.
Well, I’m not uneasy, my Lord.
On Nov. 5, 1929, in Atlanta , the Rev. J.M. Milton, accompanied by a few anonymous members of his congregation, recorded “The Black Camel of Death,” a sermon and song on the subjects of speed, transport, and mortality. This rare 78 side, exhumed and reissued a few years back on Goodbye, Babylon, the Dust-to-Digital label’s indispensable six-volume set of Southern American gospel music, is possibly a product of some African-American Holiness denomination (“Holiness,” a catch-all term for a few related traditions, developed into Pentecostalism). Yet Milton’s preaching style is uncharacteristically restrained and subtle. And while the coda sung by the congregation seemingly indicates an ecstatic sanctified tradition related to early Pentecostalism, its lack of instrumental accompaniment makes determining any specific tradition a thorny undertaking. We don’t really know where it comes from, or much about the Reverend himself. (Speculative temptations abound—does his surname imply a spiritual kinship with another judgment-fixated and music-loving J. Milton?)
We can, however, surmise with near-certainty that the record is one of the many released to capitalize on the extraordinary success of another Atlanta preacher, the Rev. J.M. Gates of the Streamline Baptist Church, who began his celebrated recording career in 1926. The most prolific of documented pre-World War II preachers, Pastor Gates (1884-1954) recorded over 200 sermons and songs, spawning a veritable cottage industry of imitators. In the liner notes to Goodbye, Babylon, David Evans remarks that Gates’ funeral was the most widely attended African-American funerary service in Atlanta prior to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Evans also observes, however, that Milton’s “The Black Camel of Death” was decidedly “too esoteric to have assured him a hit record.” Makes you wonder if he ever had one… maybe his recordings of “Damnation Train,” or “Silk Worms and Boll Weevils,” made the same year, were more popular.
Atlanta in the late ’20s and ’30s—along with Memphis, Houston, and Bristol, Tenn.— served as an epicenter for the recording of Southern music. This meant “race” records (African-American jazz, blues and gospel) and rural white hillbilly, ballads, and religious songs, as well as spoken word, although genre distinctions weren’t as neat as they are today. At the time, the strict delineation between racial forms was often a mere marketing designation, an artificially imposed binary. Black and white gospel and banjo music in particular shared a considerable overlap, borrowing much from what overzealous (white) talent scouts and recording engineers deemed disparate traditions.
Musicians also frequently confounded established sacred and secular boundaries, with the most profane bluesmen and the crassest mountain men adopting holier-than-thou epithets and aliases on records, dubbing themselves “Reverend”, “Brother,” “Sister,” “”Elder,” “Deacon,” or just the old sympathetic standby “Blind,” in an attempt to appeal to a growing gospel market seeking fireside inspiration from the pious. It’s entirely possible that even “Rev. J.M. Milton” is, in fact, a pseudonym, perhaps even a suggestion of his famous namesake. Recorded sermons, and their fictional and real authors alike, enjoyed brief popularity, but were rendered all but obsolete by the proliferation of home radio in the 1930s, which Christian families used to tune in to their favorite preacher deliver a new, ever-more-topical sermon each week. Seldom if ever recorded, this first generation of religious radio broadcasts is best examined by studying recorded and distributed precursors like “The Black Camel of Death.”
There are, however, significant distinctions between broadcast and recorded sermons. Whereas broadcasts could be directed to an actual, measurable—albeit invisible and mute—audience listening live from their living rooms, at home in their Southern dogrots, shotguns, and even Northern railroad apartments, recorded sermons necessarily depended upon a weirder, more elusive kind of theatricality. Not only did these 78s need to stand up to repeated playings, but unlike radio preachers, who could at least communicate to an imaginary live audience in real time—and who sometimes were taped in the comfort of their own churches—the preachers and “congregations” heard responding and singing in recorded sermons usually consisted of just a few individuals performing for themselves, the microphone, and (at best) a handful of citified recording engineers. The duration of each sermon was determined by the approximately three-minute maximum length of a 78 side, causing the message and method to be condensed and distilled. To make matters more awkward, late ’20s recording technology demanded an often-convoluted set-up requiring utter stillness on the part of performers as well as a stilted choreography of varying distances from the single microphone. And at the end of the session, they had only the vague promise of ever seeing the record pressed and released, let alone sold and heard by an audience prepared to accept the Word. That audience—so necessary for a sermon, particularly in African-American Christian traditions—is absent altogether. Listeners, traditionally encouraged and even conditioned to respond to a live preacher, instead were asked to identify with an abridged surrogate, a mini-congregation—in Rev. J.M. Milton’s case, apparently one man and two women, probably professional recording artists like their pastor.
“The Black Camel of Death” is a warning against the various forms of spiritual failure, its myriad routes and avenues, all of which inevitably end with the terrible Black Camel himself. Some form of the word “failure”—often coupled with “misunderstanding”—appears a total of six times through the brief text. The metaphor is a thoroughly mixed one. Milton counsels us against the dangers of sin in an allegory about “the locomotive engineer,” “the fast driver of a car” (and his “loving wife,” an innocent victim of his speed-lust), and the pilot, “the man that jets in the air.” The motorist and the pilot commit egregious sins of recklessness: the former is too hasty and heavy-footed and the latter neglects his vehicle, forgetting to feed it enough oil and gas, eventually plummeting to his death. Both encounter the Black Camel on the “path” or “trail” of misunderstanding they pursue, which is the Camel’s customary circuit.
The engineer and the driver’s wife, however, meet the Camel on far more abstract and blameless terms. The engineer merely (and inexplicably) “fails to take the siding,” perhaps implying a problem navigating the rails or referring to “taking the side” of understanding. Prompted by the inability of her speed-obsessed husband to understand her, the desperate wife takes a detour, “her own route” to “dissatisfaction and death.” And yet all four characters are “swept into the judgment,” as if judgment is a destination in and of itself, a purgatory or hell, and not only an eschatological process. In all cases, velocity and acceleration herald the appearance of the Camel, which represents an earthly destination, and also the final mode of transportation into the unknowable beyond.
Over the course of the three-minute parable, Milton’s diction accelerates from an easy, contemplative swagger to a more pronounced melodic intonation, finally building to a rich, hiccupping canter. He “sees the curves and the signals” and “take[s] the siding” along with the characters in the sermon. The congregation’s interjections also become more fevered and frequent. Escalating shouts of “Alright!”, “Pick it up now!”, “Yeah!”, “Preach it good now!”, and “Oh Jesus!” punctuate a hum and moan that swells in intensity until finally breaking into a song led by the women, clapping. Suddenly Milton takes on the role of responder, encouraging his flock with exclamations of “Sing it good, children!” The song itself, a simple refrain on the reassuring possession of “a ticket to Zion,” is not unique, appearing elsewhere in Southern gospel music, but it is particularly appropriate in the context of a sermon about transportation’s dangers, real and metaphorical. And just as Milton relinquishes command over the message to his singers, the song offers a substitution—the promise of a godly, and conspicuously unnamed, transport to Paradise in lieu of the Black Camel.
Milton’s railing against the negative effects of ever-increasing speed on an emerging generation of motorists and their families certainly has a charmingly paternal ring, but more crucially, the sermon is a topical response to modernity, or at least its shining pledge of advancing technology and shrinking distances. But what exactly is the Black Camel of Death? In the brief introduction to the sermon on the Dust-to-Digital re-issue, David Evans supposes that the central image “evidently comes from a type of airplane, the Sopwith Camel, but for Rev. Milton the camel seems to represent death itself.” Evans’s literalism risks shortsightedness, for Milton’s knowledge of the Sopwith Camel—a British RAF plane instrumental in the First World War, and the first ever featuring dual machine guns, as deadly to fly as to face in battle—while interesting to ponder, is incidental to a much more bizarre metaphorical maze. The Black Camel, it turns out, is not just some shadowy Southern specter or arcane metaphorical anomaly, but an established image of death, traceable to Arab Islam via Victorian Britain.
“Death is a Black Camel that lies down at every door; sooner or later you must ride the camel”: so goes the Arab proverb. Tradition has it that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, Zayd al-Khayr, traveled to Medina and was moved when he heard the Prophet explaining his ascendancy over various pre-Muslim Arab idols—“I am better for you than the black camel which you worship besides Allah.” In the 19th century, two prominent Victorians appropriated the image, emphasizing its exotic Eastern derivation. “There is a black camel upon which Death rides, say the Arabs, and that must kneel at every man’s door. With impartial hand he dashes down the palace of the monarch as well as the cabin of the peasant”—from “Momento Mori,” Sermon #304, delivered in 1860 at Exeter Hall, Strand, England, by the Rev. C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892), one of the age’s best-known preachers. Popular Manx novelist, playwright, and possible pedophile Hall Caine (1853-1931), secretary and friend to Pre-Raphaelite big man Dante Gabriel Rossetti during his final years, mentions the Black Camel in The Scapegoat, his 1890 Moroccan fantasy: “It was a melancholy parting. No one came near them—neither Moor nor Jew, neither Rabbi nor elder. The idle women of the Mellah would sometimes stand outside in the street and look up at their house, knowing that the black camel of death was kneeling at their gate.”
Where and when the Black Camel kneeled down at Rev. Milton’s door is unclear, but it appears not to have been a popular symbolic element in early 20th century (or any era’s) Christian discourse. Christianity has waged a long symbolic safari, domesticating the lamb, the lion, the dove, and the fish to saddle them with human meaning. (The “White Mule of Sin,” referring to a slang term for moonshine—it had “kick”—was another, less common, animal figure in early twentieth-century American sermons, also making an appearance on Goodbye, Babylon. Faulkner used Christian-oriented animal imagery extensively. And let us not forget the heavyweight champion of the menagerie, Melville’s White Whale.) But Milton’s Black Camel is a marked divergence from Christian Biblical orthodoxy. His vision of mortality and the hereafter is a wholesale appropriation from another religion and culture, which asks us to rethink not only the evolution of early Protestantism, but the ridigity of modern Christian doctrine. For all its fire and brimstone, Christianity in its early days of American diversification seems to have been more flexible and porous a metaphorical system. Whether he knew it and didn’t admit it, or he didn’t know it at all, Milton freely adopted a foreign “heathen” metaphor, conflating an ancient Muslim symbol and a modern Christian anxiety, reinvigorating both. In one deft, syncretic blow, intentionally or unwittingly, he employed modernist appropriation tactics in an evangelical gospel guise, forging a peculiarly American modernist trope. And it must be said in so doing, our Milton manages to far surpass the insular and dogmatic dross of much contemporary Christian pop.
“The Black Camel of Death” wasn’t the first, or last time, that the Camel—the expression of the fear of speed, the dread of the crash—made its mark in the culture. Milton’s sermon leads us simultaneously back to a Romantic articulation of proto-modernism and forward, to our current media obsessions.
Franz Schubert is generally credited with composing the first kunstlied, or art song (roughly speaking, a short piece of music which marries compositional “artistic” aspiration and popular form.) Dating to 1815, “Der Erlkönig,” based on a text written by Goethe, tells the gloomy story of a young boy riding through the woods in his father’s arms late one night. The child repeatedly cries out in fear of a mysterious, beckoning shade (the title character), whom the father repeatedly dismisses as a figment of the boy’s imagination. When the riders arrive at their destination, the boy is dead. A hundred years later, “The Black Camel of Death” reprised this terror of speed and transport; Milton’s quickening elocution and the gradually increased density and blood-boiling fervor of his congregation’s responses echo Schubert’s galloping piano octaves and the ascending range and volume of the boy’s vocal part. Both songs feature a symbolic mythic creature that appears only to the dying or doomed traveling character. (The Erl King, sometimes inaccurately translated as “Elf King,” is an omen of death probably derived from the ellerkonge of Danish folklore.) It is unlikely that Milton was aware of Schubert’s song, but the connections are nonetheless worth making: Both pieces identify mortality as a private phantom vision associated with travel and speed, and both mimic this speed musically. As such, Milton’s recording serves as a kind of American vernacular art song. Both Schubert and Milton recognized and grasped at what Harry Partch (1901-1974), the maverick American hobo-poet, instrument sculptor, and microtonal composer, termed “corporeal music”—music fundamentally attuned to the human body, in this case, to the still-staggering potential of the human voice to communicate meaning through sound. For Rev. Milton and his congregation, sound is power wielded. Their Gospel is essentially a speech act, a transfer of Logos, the Word of Christ, to the human larynx and onto a brittle shellac disc via electrical and etching technologies, the Word made flesh.
Americans have had a long, uneasy love affair with our deadly, darling vehicles, a subject explored time and again in pop culture, from the puppy-eyed mock-teen innocence of “Leader of the Pack” and “Teen Angel” to the homoerotic hot rod fetish flicks of Kenneth Anger. The morbid fascination that made David Cronenberg’s nasty 1996 film “Crash” such a sensation likewise fed into the surreal media furor over the recent Pacific Coast Highway accident of one sinister Stefan Eriksson. In a case of life outpacing fiction, on February 21, 2006, the alleged Swedish gangster and embezzling video game entrepreneur smashed his unregistered and illegally imported one-million-dollar Ferrari Enzo—only 400 were manufactured, one of which was bequeathed to Pope John Paul II—into a roadside telephone pole in Malibu at approximately 160 mph. Approached by two supposed Homeland Security agents before police arrived at the scene, an unharmed Eriksson claimed to be the passenger, that a man known only to him as “Dietrich” was driving. Despite what Eriksson insisted was the driver’s copious blood on the airbag, the mysterious “Dietrich” never surfaced, though cocaine allegations and grand theft auto, drunk driving and weapons charges did, in a still-unraveling underworld conspiracy of Lynchian proportions. The abstruse allure of the Black Camel has lost none of its sheen. Certainly Milton would have accused Eriksson of traveling in the path of misunderstanding.
Seldom has the association between motor and mortality been made as explicitly and brashly devout as at the funeral of artist Ed Keinholz. In 1994, his widow Nancy Reddin Kienholz drove her husband’s enormous corpse into his grave in a brown 1940 Packard blaring a tape loop of Glenn Miller. After she crawled out of the hole—things didn’t get that Egyptian—he was buried in the car, sitting in the passenger seat, equipped with a single dollar, a deck of cards, and a 1931 bottle of Chianti. The ashes of his dog Smash lay in the trunk. I wonder if Nancy’s dress got dirty. I wonder how long the music was allowed to play—if the heavy thud of the earth on the hood added a percussive punctuation to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “That Old Black Magic.” Or even better, “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” The closest I imagine I’ll come to hearing that noise was crouching in that Avalon bus, brushing the crust off the Black Camel sign and hearing my broken lung breathe the stale, underground air. If not exactly intimates, I feel I have a certain relationship with that enigmatic animal. Or have I failed to understand the message?