by Tim Gilmore, 11/26/2021
I receive many notes of kindness from readers and am always, without exception, grateful for them. Without readers I’d just be talking to myself in an empty room. What fuels the writings on (and off) this website, I often wonder, but I realize always that kind words from readers help.
Out of many notes less than kind, a couple come immediately to mind. “You’ve been hit by the Trump Card,” one reader said in an email, also warning me, “Watch your back.” An anonymous review of my 2016 book Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity said, “This book was written by Satan himself.”
Then at the start of Thanksgiving week, 2021, I received the following letter from “Agnes,” no last name and no return address. I post it, without commenting on it, below. After sharing the letter publicly, I received a rejoinder, which I share below Agnes’s letter, from Hambone Sparklewell, a.k.a. the musician and attorney Paris Scott Russell. Each missive speaks for itself.
Your letter to Mr. Gilmore has come to my attention, especially your stinging remarks about his Gothic negativity, for which you have prescribed a bracing dose of the light that is Jesus. You suggest celebration of those who have made our city great. The fact that your spelling is above repute, combined with your earnest blue ink signature and your evident left handedness, have moved me to reply, and I submit just such a celebration for your consideration.
I give you Jacksonville’s own son, Blind Blake, the pioneer of Piedmont style blues guitar, possibly born as Arthur Phelps, possibly not. Blake was so blessed by Jesus that he overcame a dark disability, blindness at birth, here in Jacksonville, by learning to play and sing his own sacred and enduring songs outside bars and hotels and on street corners in our storied town, for bits of copper and silver that strangers pitched into his case. Stone tablets excavated from the ruins of a motor lodge in Talleyrand recount Blake’s baptism at the paper mill that had preceded the motor lodge. Workers at the mill were so enamored of Blake’s intricate picking and cautionary lyrics regarding police dogs and lynchings that, as engraved in the tablets, they spoke in tongues as they lifted him up in reverence and dunked him and his instrument in a fragrant pool full of lye and sulfurous pulp. Lucky enough to already be blind, thus immune to the blinding effect of the chemicals, and to have learned to swim at an early age during the floods of 1899, and so blessed as to learn to run swiftly with winged heels during the Great Fire, Blake survived and went on to marry Beatrice, although it was God’s will that she would never bear him a child, choosing instead to consort with a host of other more distinguished deacons and prosperous foremen at the Maxwell House factory. Here are two songs Blake wrote during this period of his rich life here in Jacksonville. https://youtu.be/D-YwCk6ANY4 https://youtu.be/ZayTpvm0Yho
After enjoying a long life of ease and fame, Blind Blake either was mangled by a streetcar on West Bay Street, conveniently situated a stone’s throw from the coffin factory, or he froze to death with his guitar iced to his hand in Chicago, too portly to extricate himself from a snowbank. The proof is divided. A sketchy death certificate in Milwaukee, on the other hand, indicates that he was so fortunate as to live to his 38th year, when he succumbed, angels tootling their trumpets, to tuberculous pneumonia. Certainly, each of these scenarios, however dark on the surface, would be a suitably sanctified prelude to his ascension to the glory of heaven, where a golden six string surely awaited, so that Jacksonville’s finest blues man could compose hymns to the blessed righteousness of his twisty path. Seeing as how Christmas will soon be here, consider Blake’s Yuletide celebration linked here. https://youtu.be/ZFNCQpKsC8s. Or, if you prefer, his most famous song, which includes an account of his visit to the Ephraim T. Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Brentwood, where he was initiated into the accidental glory of the reacharound. https://youtu.be/TTP-8VfIvn0
Dear Agnes, as you are obviously well educated, and no doubt familiar with the epic stanzas of John Milton‘s Paradise Lost, I implore you to consider the complexities of artistic irony, by which the story of that certain fallen angel, while undeniably shameful, was regarded by scholars as infinitely more interesting than the tepid holiness of the tale of his maker. No less of an ecclesiastical authority than the poet William Blake has commented on the manner in which sincere and skilled writers such as Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Milton may be forgiven for their soft hearts. As you will recall, William Blake – surely a distant and reportedly pale faced forebear of Blind Blake, despite having never picked a single bale of cotton nor having played a tritone in the church – famously claimed that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Pray on Mr. Gilmore’s similarity to Milton, and forgive him, as Jesus surely would. After all, Genesis is dark, amirite? Please let me know if my scrap of testimony in this brief has any purchase on your willingness to embrace the scribblings of mere mortal sinners as ourselves, whose light is humble, but sincere, and flickers amidst a darkness we did not create.
Yours truly, Hambone Sparklewell
PS Your letter was simply signed Agnes, and submitted anonymously. Dear Agnes, pray step into the light and abjure the darkness of anonymity — we would like to have a bit of tea and discuss literature, at your convenience.