Arkansas native Tav Falco debuted his band Panther Burns in a Memphis cotton loft four decades ago this year. The thoughtful and enigmatic artist has subsequently recorded 18 records, published multiple books and has had his films and photography showcased around the world. Falco is currently on a coast-to-coast tour in support of his latest record, “Cabaret of Daggers,” a provocative mix of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and jazz. A former brakeman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, we spoke about riding out of town on the side of a boxcar, the brutal history of lynching in America, and the enduring legacy of his late mother, among other things.
Tav Falco’s Panther Burns return to the White Water Tavern 8 p.m., Monday, May 20. White County songstress Bonnie Montgomery opens the show.
Although you grew up in Arkansas, you have lived abroad for many years now. How meaningful is it for you to return to perform?
Well, it’s like going home to perform. I did grow up in Clark County between Little Rock and Texarkana. Precisely between Gurdon and Whelen Springs. One step from the backwoods. I had a marvelous upbringing in the community there for the most part. Even my time in Memphis, just across the Mississippi River, was still so connected to Arkansas that I feel that both places are my, as they say in German, “heimat.” Your hometown, your home state. I often have trepidation going to Memphis to play, and in Little Rock, too, in that there are so many great musicians and the bar is so high. I try to meet that the best I can. So it means a lot to me to come home to Arkansas and to have the opportunity to perform on stage at White Water Tavern.
The expression “40th Year Howl” is being associated with your forthcoming tour. What does that mean to you?
I am a product of the turbulent 1960s. And the Beat poets had an early influence on me. In fact, it was the Arkansas artist, buZ blurr, from my hometown, who turned me on to the Beats and their writings. The poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg had a profound influence on me as a young man. Later, I met Allen Ginsberg when he came to speak at the University of Arkansas. Some years afterward I ended up on stage with him in New York on an anti-nuclear rally and spent time at his pad on East 11th Street. His poem “Howl” spoke to a generation, and it still speaks to us today. It’s a poem not unlike one by Walt Whitman and his collection “Leaves of Grass.” It celebrates America, but also looks at the side of America that we are often blind to.
Part of the mission of my band, Panther Burns, is to bring out in our own everyday world, that which we have become blind to. Especially culturally. That was a part of our sense in Memphis, and now it’s part of our mission, in a sense, internationally. That’s when a musical group becomes larger than itself.
Why was it important to you to record “Strange Fruit” on your latest record, “Cabaret of Daggers?” Was applying your own treatment to such a haunting song a daunting task?
Quite daunting; it was a huge challenge. “Strange Fruit” is the height of the American protest song tradition. The song was also approached with trepidation by Billie Holiday, as to whether or not to sing it. She did record it and it almost wrecked her career. It’s a controversial song about lynching. It is a poetic song, but it is relentless and unforgiving where there is no forgiveness, other than that which, perhaps the almighty, if he’s up there, can forgive. In our benighted innocence and ignorance, in our inhumanity to man … we lynch people. We are still lynching people today. Trayvon Martin was lynched. In a modern way. The people who were shot up in San Diego, most recently in their synagogue, were lynched. So this song from the 1940s, “Strange Fruit,” is a beautiful, lyrical, dark, dark, dark lament infused with extreme emotion and extreme sensitivity. You really have to be on top of your form as a singer to even think about trying to do that song. I had never tried to sing it, though I’d wanted to for a long time. When I walked through the studio door in Rome I knew that I could do it. Why? I don’t know. It was probably the most challenging song of my career to record.
Can you give us some insight into writing “Memphis Ramble?” To me, your song sounds the way a Carroll Cloar painting looks.
I met Carroll Cloar in Memphis during the Televista art-action group period in the early ’70s with the Arkansas poet Randall Lyon. We worked with small format portable video that had just come out. We made short pieces, not only on musicians, but on politicians. We interviewed Orval Faubus in his home in Huntsville. And a number of visual artists — Carroll Cloar was one of them. Later, when I formed Panther Burns, I went back to him and asked permission to reproduce his painting on the Highway 61 album that we released on New Rose Records in Paris. His painting on the Panther Burn legend — he termed it Panther Bourne — which was an homage to the Panther Burn plantation north of Greenville, Miss. That’s where we got the name for our band Panther Burns. And the legend that surrounds the plantation about the wild panther who was loose on the countryside when they were clearing the land for more cultivation of cotton.
In “Memphis Ramble,” we embraced the legend of the Panther Burns because it’s a part of Memphis. As William Faulkner said, Mississippi itself extends from the lobby of a Memphis hotel to the Gulf of Mexico. So “Memphis Ramble” is a celebration and an homage of Memphis. Like my book, “Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma, and Death,” it goes back to the very beginnings of the town.
In that song, I tell the story of Memphis from the beginning of its recorded musical history. We celebrate Beale Street in the song. We sing about the Ironclad whorehouse. We sing about Pee Wee’s Saloon, where all of the musicians hung out. We sing about labor agitators. The Arkansas side and the Tennessee side of the river. We celebrate the crossroads, where the Katy crosses the Yellow Dog. The Kansas City Southern Railway and the Yazoo Valley. It’s got the Memphis sound and the Memphis drag. We sing about another first-class train, the Sunnyland Special.
So, the river and the railroad: that’s the sound of the music of Memphis. The sounds of the railcars, the rhythms of the wheels on the tracks, that’s the blues. The lonesome whistle in the night — that’s the howl and the wail of the blues. The stevedores loading the riverboats — they’re in my song, too. The stevedores who stayed up and shot dice all night in the Ironclad, where many men went in and few came out. Burning mansions. Riding out of town on the side of a boxcar. Because when I first came to Memphis it was on the caboose of a Missouri Pacific Railroad, where I was working as a brakeman. So there is little of Memphis that I do not celebrate in “Memphis Ramble.”
A striking portrait of your mother is featured in your incredible book of photography, “An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs Of The Evanescent South.” Was she a strong influence upon you as an artist?
Yes. Not in a direct, intellectual, or aesthetic way, but indirectly, I owe everything I have done, all of my modest achievements, to the unconditional love and undying support of my mother. Even though she didn’t understand the direction that I would go in with some of my ideas. She didn’t have to. Because she and the community in Clark County gave me much more. They gave me the thinking and the feeling for life that permitted me to follow my own path. This was the epitome of small-town America. We had many windows in our schools then.
Well, they have abandoned that building and the elementary school and built a new one. There are no windows. It looks like a minimum security prison. And that’s what they have become, in part. The present administration in Washington and Betsy Devos are trying to defund the public education for which America is known throughout the world. They want to replace it with an allegiance to schools for the elite to be educated while the rank-and-file American will be dumbed down to work support jobs and fight America’s dirty wars.
This is not the noble America that I grew up within Clark County. And, sure, we had a lot of problems then and they have not gone away. We are still dealing with them. But yet, we had something else going on that was somewhat redeeming. Today, we do not have that small town ethos. It’s mainly lost and we are losing our middle class. Period. It’s becoming the oligarchic elite and those who are just hanging on. Working two or three jobs while the prices are going through the roof for everything. So, the legacy of my mother was what she left spiritually. That’s how I am driven today to continue my bizarre little career on its 40th-anniversary howl. It’s time to say things loud and clear. The artist can no longer remain silent under these conditions. It is no longer good enough to be an entertainer; you have to say something and you have to take a stance. That goes for everybody.
Do you recall crossing the path of the White Water Tavern when you were working as a brakeman for the Missouri Pacific?
No, but I must have passed White Water Tavern countless times on the caboose going from Little Rock to Texarkana, which was my main line. I didn’t go to taverns or bars at that point in my life. But when I was working out of Gurdon on the switch engine, we would pass by these homes in the black section of town. Because in those days there was separation between the area of town where black people and white people lived. They had the black school and the white school, regrettably. I would have loved to have gone to school with black classmates. I feel deprived of that. But anyways, going through that community on the side of a boxcar, working as a brakeman, I would hear young black people on their porches playing a little country guitar like Jimmy Reed. And that sound really moved me. You know, Jimmy Reed was really big in Arkansas. Everybody: white, black, young, old. And Bo Diddley, too. Chuck Berry, of course, he was pretty big all across the country. But in Arkansas Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley were just as listened to. I still love the sound of Jimmy Reed’s lazy electric blues. And that really sensual, funky beat that was his signature. That was my exposure to the kind of music that was probably played in the White Water Tavern.
What might you like for folks to take from your show when you perform in Little Rock on Monday, May 20?
An understanding that music is temporal. It’s something that exists in a moment of time and then it vanishes. Yes, you can record it. You can write it down and notate it. But music is the essence of performance, which is a temporal art. It is something that lives in the moment and then vanishes. However, it’s a celebration of emotion and thought. And I want people to take something residual away from my show. To take something home that is meaningful and thoughtful as an undercurrent to music that can be fun and that’s to be danced to. Music that’s celebratory, but that also has undercurrents that are meaningful — and hopefully, unforgettable.