Sunday, March 1, 2015

Jean-Philippe Tremblay's "Shadows of Liberty" exposes the corruption and failure of mainstream media

Filmmaker Jean-Philippe Tremblay knows the powerful forces aligned against democracy and a free press today, but he also knows that a revolution is underway to fight those forces.

“I think there is an uprising now,” says the maker of the amazing film documentary Shadows of Liberty, which details the dismal failure of mainstream media to live up to the legacy of Thomas Paine and other journalists who risked their lives to give people truth and freedom. “We have to react. This is a real time of change.”

A special screening of Shadows of Liberty was presented at Off-Square Books in Oxford, Miss., Saturday (Feb. 28) evening with yours truly, Joe Atkins, serving as moderator of a discussion with the audience after the screening.

The documentary features a series of stories showing how major mainstream media worked hand-in-glove with corporate America and the U.S. government to either kill or distort stories that threatened Wall Street or the military-industrial complex Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about so many years ago.

Noted activists, journalists and authors like Julian Assange, Amy Goodman, Norman Solomon, Robert McChesney, Danny Glover, Daniel Ellsberg and Chris Hedges “give insider accounts of a broken media system,” according to a press release announcing the screening. The screening was sponsored by Square Books, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, and DocFactory.

“Controversial news reports are suppressed, people are censored for speaking out, and lives are shattered as the arena for public expression is turned into a private profit zone,” the release said.

Inspired by the writings of veteran journalist Ben Bagdikian on media consolidation, Tremblay assembles a compelling narrative that includes a much-needed retelling of the story of Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter who scooped the national media with his “Dark Alliance” stories in the 1990s showing how the CIA was complicit with the Nicaraguan Contras in creating the crack epidemic in the United States.

Even though a subsequent government report validated Webb’s reportage, he was viciously attacked by the mainstream media, which essentially colluded with the government to try to deny the story and ridicule Webb. Webb ultimately committed suicide.

The documentary shows how Democrat Bill Clinton worked with Republican Newt Gingrich in securing passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that handed much of the nation’s media on a silver platter to mega-corporations to consolidate and ultimately devour.

 The film issues a strong warning that the Internet with all its democratic promise faces a possible similar fate in the “Net Neutrality” debate.

A validation of Tremblay’s statement that “there is an uprising now” came just this past week as the Federal Communications Commission ruled in favor of net neutrality and put the lie to Republican opponents’ effort to brand the issue as “Obamacare for the Internet.”

The FCC ruling, which prevents major corporate providers from taking complete control of content and the cost of content on their networks, came after a strong endorsement of net neutrality by President Obama, itself a result of intense public pressure across the country against the corporate takeover. That pressure was the work of grassroots civic organizations that proved corporate lobbying doesn’t always win.

Tremblay’s documentary is in the grand tradition of the revolutionary journalism that Thomas Paine, Ida B. Wells, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Dorothy Day, George Seldes and I.F Stone practiced. Labor South puts itself in that tradition. In fact, Shadows of Liberty makes a nice companion to the landmark 1997 documentary Tell the Truth and Run by filmmaker Rick Goldsmith about Seldes’ amazing career as a journalist and press critic.

Students in my Media Ethics course at the University of Mississippi are going to see Shadows of Liberty. It’s news worth spreading.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The novel "Casey's Last Chance" offers a hardboiled journey through a dark, treacherous U.S. South in 1960 that targeted labor organizers as well as civil rights activists

(To the right, a look at the cover of Casey's Last Chance. Eric Summers is the artist who did the cover) 

Loyal Labor South readers and followers, here’s some news that’s a bit self-serving, but I hope you’ll be happy to hear it and maybe follow up with a purchase of my newly published novel, Casey’s Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group), under my byline Joseph B. Atkins, a book with a strong labor and civil rights theme and one that probes that U.S. South in much the same way this blog and my other, nonfiction writing have for years.

Casey’s Last Chance takes the reader on a dark, treacherous journey through the U.S. South in July 1960, a time when the region is about to explode with the civil rights movement gaining momentum and the organized resistance to it preparing for all-out war. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a brooding, hotheaded, small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an angry fight with his girlfriend Orella that leaves his cousin Bux Baggett dead.

A crony, Clyde Point, sets Casey up with a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Big profit comes from squeezing the working poor at his mills. Duren has a problem and needs a gunman/patsy from outside to help him solve it. The problem’s name is Ala Gadomska, a labor organizer stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills in northern Mississippi. He hires Casey to kill her during a rally. What follows is a long chase through a race-torn South with both goons and cops on the hunt for Casey, who has to face the man looking back at him in the rearview mirror and make some tough decisions that will determine whether he survives.

The novel’s cast of characters includes Martin Wolfe, an alcoholic freelance labor writer investigating Duren’s operation, and Hardy Beecher, a rogue FBI agent who has been hunting Duren since the Nazi was a spy during World War II.

The book is now available at bookstores here in Mississippi and also in Amazon in paperback and Kindle as well as (already or soon) at, Nook and in ebook formats at Apple and Kobo. Signings are scheduled at various bookstores in Mississippi over the next several weeks with other signings beyond the state hopefully soon to come.

The book has won praise. Veteran journalist Curtis Wilkie, author of Dixie and The Fall of the House of Zeus, said this: "Atkins establishes for himself a place in the top ranks of Southern gothic storytellers." Edgar Award-winning author Megan Abbott said the book is "pitch-perfect vintage noir" with "hardboiled grit to burn." And the publisher, James L. Dickerson said, "Author Atkins writes fiction the way Jimi Hendrix played guitar, with delicate fingering that explodes into soaring, lyrical riffs when least expected." 

If you get to read Casey’s Last Chance, please drop in a review at Amazon or another venue, and also let me know how you like it!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The UAW's hovering presence forces Nissan in Mississippi to behave better even without an election

(A pro-union rally at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., last June)

OXFORD, Miss. – I remember my late father, a tool and die maker, telling me with pride how the company he worked for in central North Carolina paid fair wages, offered good benefits, and treated workers with respect. “They do that to keep the union out,” he said.

As I got older and more jaded about business practices in America, I wondered, “How would Dad’s company have treated its workers if it didn’t have to worry about a union?”

Chip Wells knows the answer: Even the unofficial presence of a union and its supporters help workers long before an election is held and can force a company to act right. Without that presence, companies are free to act badly.

You may recall stories in this blog about Wells, the 44-year-old, 12-year worker at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., father of two, and veteran with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s also veteran of a 15-month battle with Nissan because he supports a vote to determine whether his fellow workers can join the United Auto Workers.

(The mile-long Nissan plant in Canton, Miss.)

That battle hopefully ended this month with Nissan officials agreeing to approximately $6,500 in disability and back pay for Wells, whose pro-union views were met with such hostility by managers that he had to take unpaid medical leave.  The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Nissan’s treatment of Wells constituted unfair labor practices. Still, the board did not require the company to provide compensation.

Nissan’s agreement this month to compensation payments “was the minimum they could have done,” Wells said. “I’m disappointed or mad or whatever that I had to fight just to get what I was entitled to.”

However, he said, he is satisfied with the decision. “When they saw the pastors were not going to leave me hanging … and they started getting questions from me and the outside, (Nissan) said … `We better go ahead and settle up.’”

The “pastors” are members of the Mississippi Alliance for Fairness at Nissan (MAFFAN), a key organization in the years-long grassroots effort to get Nissan to agree to an intimidation-free union election and to address concerns about working conditions such as a years-long drought in pay raises, arbitrary decisions on work shifts and hours, the hiring of temporary workers, workplace safety, and other issues.

MAFFAN embraced Wells’ case as a prime example of what can happen when workers have no voice inside a plant that ironically was financed in part through hundreds of millions of Mississippi taxpayer dollars.

Nissan “evidently know(s) they have been participating in some practices that violate his rights as a citizen and worker,” said the Rev. Melvin Chapman, a MAFFAN member and pastor of the Sand Hill Baptist Church in Edwards, Miss.

Here’s Nissan spokesman Justin P. Saia’s e-mailed response to the Wells case: “Nissan has a well-known process for employees to file for short-term disability, as well as a robust process for evaluating and resolving employment issues. … Nissan and the employee were able to reach a satisfactory outcome.” He declined further comment due to “privacy concerns.”

Wells isn’t the only employee at Nissan’s Canton plant whose pro-union views have gotten him into trouble. Calvin Moore, an 11-year veteran who worked in the body shop, was terminated in March 2014 for what the UAW publication Our Voices called “trumped up” and non-specific charges that really were a cover for management’s anger at Moore’s outspoken support of a union. After a campaign that included international support from as far away as Brazil and a Jackson, Miss.-area student protest, Moore was re-instated with two months back pay.

Just this week, Nissan turned down an offer by the U.S. State Department to serve as a mediator in the dispute between the company and the United Auto Workers over anti-union activity at the plant. Joining the UAW in the request for federal assistance was the IndustriALL Global Union Federation.

Nevertheless, the hovering presence of the UAW office on Nissan Parkway and the growing grassroots movement around it may have been factors in several recent actions by the giant automaker. Workers finally got a pay raise after the UAW complained that many workers had gone nearly seven years without one.

Following the UAW and MAFFAN’s longstanding complaints about the company’s growing dependency on temporary workers who receive less pay with few or no benefits, the company announced a new shortened timetable for temporary workers to be eligible for fulltime, permanent status.

The UAW and MAFFAN’s rallying cry that “Labor Rights Are Civil Rights” could also have been echoing in Nissan officials’ ears when the company announced a $500,000 education grant to predominantly black Canton and $100,000 gift to the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute.

“Ultimately, the choice on who represents employees is theirs and theirs alone,” Nissan spokesman Saia said. “Nissan respects the right of our employees to decide who should represent them.”

People like the Rev. Melvin Chapman are going to keep reminding Nissan of such claims. “We intend to keep voicing the necessary need to do the right thing. We certainly hope it is having an impact.”

A version of this column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What would Jesus the Migrant say to Mississippi politicians this year?

In her new book Jesus Was A Migrant, writer Deirdre Cornell says migration is central to “biblical spirituality” and the chosen people themselves were “displaced, uprooted, homeless” migrants. Joseph, Mary and Jesus were refugees as well as migrants when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s tyranny.

“Jesus belonged to a people indelibly marked by stories of Exodus and exile,” Cornell writes. “His life and ministry are framed by these narratives.”

Moses tells us in the Old Testament’s Deuteronomy our duty to migrants: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Giotto's depiction of the Holy Family in exile)

I’ve got a feeling that migrants are not going to be feeling the love in Mississippi in 2015. Gov. Phil Bryant is up for re-election, and that’s not good news for migrants.

After the bruising 2014 midterm elections that saw veteran U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., defeat Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel in the Republican primary, Bryant is going to have to mend some major fences for his support of Cochran. He boasted his Tea Party credentials when he got elected governor, but then when push came to shove he supported the well-oiled Country Club wing of the party.

As deeply bitter as Tea Partyers are about Big Money Republicans like Cochran and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, they may like undocumented migrant workers even less. In his role as state senator, Chris McDaniel “authored scores of anti-immigrant bills,” according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which anticipates a “backlash of racist, anti-immigrant proposals (to) come through in the 2015 Legislative Session.”

Bryant built his political career in part on demonizing undocumented migrant workers. As state auditor in 2006, he issued a report claiming they cost the state millions of dollars in education, health care, and other undeserved benefits.  Yet a 2013 Immigration Policy Center study shows they also generate nearly $600 million in economic activity even though they remain excluded from most government benefits.

Last July Bryant wrote a letter to President Obama declaring his intention to “prohibit the federal government or its agents from housing large numbers of new illegal immigrants” in Mississippi. Apparently he has no problem with housing thousands of them in prison. Mississippi even has a special prison for immigrants, the for-profit, 2,500-inmate Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, one of 13 such facilities in the country.

In his response to the huge crisis of migrant children seeking shelter in the U.S. from violence and abuse in their native Honduras and El Salvador, Bryant declared he would no longer accept children in Mississippi as part of the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program.

Obama told the nation in November that he would offer up to five million undocumented workers protection against deportation and a pathway to getting legal work permits, and the Republican outcry was immediate. Cochran, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and other GOP leaders in the state blasted Obama for what they considered a power play and abuse of office.

“While the president grants amnesty to countless illegal immigrants, millions of American citizens are still struggling to find work,” U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., said in a statement. “It’s time for the president to stop playing politics and instead put the American people first. I will do everything within my power to prevent this unconstitutional and unwelcomed action.”

Coming after years of congressional inaction, Obama’s executive order—and the president quoted scripture in his message to the nation--is expected to affect about 45 percent of the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers. An estimated 9,000 migrant workers in Mississippi will be eligible for protection and/or work permits under Obama’s order.

Changing demographics that include a fast-growing Latino population have national Republicans worried that the anti-immigrant politics of conservative Tea Partyers will hurt the party’s chances in future elections. Corporate-minded Republicans like Haley Barbour value the cheap labor pool migrant workers provide. However, those demographics aren’t changing fast enough in Mississippi to worry Bryant and Tea Partyers like Chris McDaniel unduly.

Too often missing in the debate are the migrants themselves. Their voices are rarely heard. Writers Russell King, John Connell and Paul White eloquently described those voices in their 1995 book Writing Across Worlds:

“The migrant voice tells us what it is like to feel a stranger and yet at home, to live simultaneously inside and outside one’s immediate situation, to be permanently on the run, to think of returning but to realize at the same time the impossibility of doing so … . It tells us what it is like to live on a frontier that cuts through your language, your religion, your culture. It tells of long-distance journeys and relocations, of losses, conflicts, powerlessness, and of infinite sadnesses that severely test the migrant’s emotional resolve.”

We should listen.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" still resonates today with its pro-union, pro-people message--from Hong Kong to West Virginia

(A scene from the 1945 movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie irons for her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny)

I met Francie Nolan when I was a young man, and I’ve never been prouder of that than now after having read her story in Betty Smith’s classic 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Francie is the main character in this tale of poor first and second generation immigrants living in the tenements of turn-of-the-last-century Brooklyn. She’s an impressionable teenager who loves her good-hearted-but-alcoholic father Johnny and respects her mother Katie’s daily struggles to make ends meet when even a single penny is a precious possession.

I was a student at East Carolina University in the late 1960s visiting a friend in Chapel Hill, N.C., who roomed with author Betty Smith. She, of course, was Francie in this very autobiographical novel, and she was a gracious lady. During dinner at her home that evening she consoled me when a piece of my steak few unexplainably from my fork across the room. “It could happen to anyone,” she said, and the redness began to drain from my face.

I never got around to reading her great novel—the Oscar-winning 1945 movie is also a classic—until now, and I’m glad I finally did. It’s a perfect novel to read at Christmas time, and it still has much to say seven decades after it first appeared.

The Nolan family was fiercely pro-union. “Look at my Waiters’ Union button,” Johnny Nolan tells Francie while she irons his waiter’s apron. “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. … Then I joined the Union. … The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.”

Much later in the novel, after Johnny’s death, Francie is at the iron again, this time to iron her younger brother Neeley’s shirt. “Francie looked for the union label in Neeley’s shirt and pressed that first. (`That label is like an ornament … like a rose you wear.’) The Nolans sought for the union label on everything they bought. It was their memorial to Johnny.”

Like the Nolans, working people today still struggle all around the world. Whether they’re immigrants or native-born, they don’t have many politicians, preachers, or scribblers to stand by their side and take up their cause. 

Their best chance is to stand together. That’s when they get heard.

No organization has been stronger in defense of democracy and the rights of regular folks than the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) in Hong Kong, where student demonstrators and union leaders have stood side-by-side to protest since September the heavy hand of Beijing in their city’s affairs. They’ve risked their freedom and even possibly their lives to stand against a plan that would guarantee a coalition of Big Business and Communist Party leaders in Beijing vetting rights over candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 election for chief executive.

It’s a fight for democracy, and you’d think President Obama and the great so-called champions of democracy in both U.S. parties would be rallying to support the pro-democracy demonstrators. You’d be wrong. Obama and Congress have been silent.

Not much more has been heard from Great Britain, the former imperialist, drug-running (remember the Opium Wars?) colonizer that once “owned” Hong Kong. A group of British Parliament lawmakers did plan last month to go to the city of 7 million to investigate but was told it would be refused entry.

In recent weeks, HKCTU leaders and journalists have been arrested by Hong Kong authorities for their alleged role in the protests. The HKCTU leaders were quickly released, but government officials have expressed growing impatience. Without Western support, the protesters have little leverage over the long haul.

Back here in the States, Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. is threatening to close plants if the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union doesn’t accept its latest contract offer, union officials say. The union has indeed rejected that offer. You’d think the company would be more willing to bargain in good conscience after a judge forced it to end its nine-month lockout of workers at its Memphis, Tenn., plant.

To the east of Memphis in Nashville, Tenn., students and workers have joined to protest Vanderbilt University’s outsourcing of custodial services to the Aramark firm. That outsourcing cost 35 workers their jobs. Their successors will likely earn less wages and have fewer benefits.

Some good news has emerged, however, with the indictment of coal mining baron Donald L. Blankenship in connection with the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that cost 29 workers their lives. Blankenship was chief executive of the company, Massey Energy, that owned the mine.  The federal government has accused him of gross violations of health and safety laws.

You hate to think that an indictment is a cause for good cheer here at Christmas time, and in reality it’s not. The good cheer comes whenever and wherever justice is served.

Justice is what you’d like to be able to expect here at home in the United States. It’s part of the American dream that brought Katie Nolan’s mother to this country. “What did we have in the old country?” Mary Rommely tells her daughter. “We were peasants. We starved. … I miss the homeland, the trees and broad fields, the familiar way of living, the old friends. … In spite of the hard, unfamiliar things, there is here—hope.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The real winner in the last election: The Politics of Money. It's where bipartisan love can always be found.

(Haley Barbour)

OXFORD, Miss. - What a gathering it was two years ago when Terry McAuliffe got together with his buddies Bill Clinton and Haley Barbour in Horn Lake, Miss., to celebrate the plant opening of GreenTech, a then-McAuliffe-led producer of battery-charged automobiles.

The three pols had a high-old time, lots of non-partisan backslapping, guffaws, a few off-color jokes, and general glee at the prospect of flowing cash that GreenTech offered.

McAuliff, the former national Democratic Party chair and now governor of Virginia, loved hanging out with his mentor and benefactor, former President Clinton, and his old sparring pal Barbour, former national Republican Party chair and governor of Mississippi.

After all, Barbour was key to GreenTech’s securing of $5 million in loans from Mississippi taxpayers plus the usual treasure chest of tax exemptions. And who but Clinton lays greater claim to the school of what New York Times Magazine writer Mark Leibovich called “Green Party” politics in his July 2012 article about the gathering?

McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour are quintessential members of the “Washington Political Class,”  Leibovich wrote, “a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. … One quaint maxim of the Political Class is that there is no such thing as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, only the Green Party. Green as in money, not GreenTech, or anything to do with clean energy.”

In other words, they are the very essence of what a growing number of Americans despise, even if people don’t always connect their anger and frustration to media darlings like McAuliffe, Clinton and Barbour.

It’s one reason why record numbers of voters, particularly Democrats, simply stayed home this past election day. What was their choice here in Mississippi? Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Barbour’s premier benefactor in Washington’s money politics? Challenger Travis Childers, who signed the immigrant-hating, white-supremacist Federation for American Immigration Reform’s pledge of no “amnesty” for hard-working-tax-paying-but-undocumented migrant workers?

Both parties are so beholden to Wall Street and billionaire financiers that Main Street voters would simply rather watch reruns of “Gunsmoke” on election day. At least in Dodge City, Marshal Dillon (look him up, young readers) takes care of business, and the bad guys get their just deserts.

With the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in this month’s election, Cochran is in line to resume again the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee with all its promise of more taxpayer-financed pork for Mississippi. Tea Partyers, still smarting over the loss of Chris McDaniel in Mississippi’s Republican primary, hate Cochran’s pork-barreling prowess. They do raise an interesting question:

Why, after all those years of Cochran, the late U.S. Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., and U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., chairing their respective Appropriations committees in Congress, is Mississippi still the nation’s poorest state? More than one of every five Mississippians live in poverty. Roughly the same number never finished high school. One of every four lacks health insurance. Why hasn’t all our pork-barrel done something about those statistics?

Maybe the story of GreenTech sheds some light.

Terry McAuliffe says he no longer has anything to do with the company. He resigned as company chairman five months after that backslapping party with Clinton and Barbour in Horn Lake. Not long after, the federal government launched an investigation into the firm and another outfit, Gulf Coast Funds Management LLC, in connection with the granting of permanent visas to major foreign investors. Production at the Mississippi plant was delayed, and the firm still faces penalties if it hasn’t hired 350 workers and invested $60 million by the end of December.

Barbour’s involvement with GreenTech is reminiscent of his “Port of the Future” deal on the Gulf Coast, where he recruited his friend Thad Cochran to help maneuver a redirection of $570 million in federal funds that had been targeted for Hurricane Katrina victims needing affordable housing. The funds’ new direction? An expansion of the Port of Gulfport that Barbour touted as the “Port of the Future”. The project has foundered ever since amid delays and shrunken promises.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once had this to say about Haley Barbour: “He manages to send the message: This is all a big game—a big wonderful game.”

Well, Haley Barbour and the rest of the Washington Political Class, it’s not a game to us folks out here in the hinterlands.  The economy is still a scary thing on Main Street. Too many people still lack health insurance. The migrant workers who make such great campaign fodder for Democrats like Travis Childers and Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant only came here because of bi-partisan trade agreements that cost them their livelihood back home.

 Put Marshal Dillon on the ballot next time, and maybe people will show up.

This column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jimbo Mathus: Preaching the gospel of rock 'n' roll in the Deep South

A couple of encouraging labor developments took place this week--Volkswagen's announcement that it will allow the United Auto Workers as well as other groups to represent workers in regular meetings with management about workplace issues at its Chattanooga, Tenn., plant, plus a growing national protest by pilots at Memphis-based FedEx over slow-paced labor negotiations. Labor South will keep an eye out on these matters, but in the meantime here's a feature story about a Mississippi "roots" musician who once said he seeks out in his music the "outsiders, the losers, the scrap-heap cast-off people."

(Above: Jimbo Mathus at his Taylor, Miss., home)

TAYLOR, Miss. – I’ve seen Bible-wagging Pentecostal Holiness preachers at revival time who couldn’t match rock ‘n’ roller Jimbo Mathus for fire in the belly.

“Music is the original peacemaker, the original desegregation tool! That’s what set America on its ear! When you get down to the nitty-gritty about race, music is the pioneer. It worked magic before the government could come in. Good golly, Miss Molly, whole lotta shakin’ going on!”

Mathus takes another sip from his can of Busch beer then pulls back his long, blond locks. He grins, flashing that gold tooth Dr. Sanchez got him down in central Yucatan to replace the original he lost working on a barge in the Mississippi River.

The Reverend continues his sermon. “It hadn’t been that long ago that rock ‘n’ roll changed the world. That’s still the thing. All the blues, gospel, honky tonk, everything leads into rock ‘n’ roll. You can still blaze a new trail!”

It might be time for a call to the aisle, but we are in a small trailer and just across the table from each other anyway. Besides, Mathus is preaching to the choir.

The 47-year-old musician, songwriter, and roots music evangelist says life is good these days. Dark Night of the Soul, the latest effort by him and his band, the Tri-State Coalition, on Fat Possum Records, has been called by one reviewer “closer to the bone” than any of his earlier eight albums, a “search for redemption” that also can “rejoice like a Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning-house-rent party.”

The music ranges from Old Testament anger in Burn the Ships to the dark seduction of White Angel and the love rock-ballad that is Shine like a Diamond. Despite the CD’s title and some of its themes, “I’m actually very happy right now,” the artist says. “I’m happily married. I love what’s going on in my life, the artistic support I’m getting.” Gaining some distance from past darkness helped him write about it. “You don’t feel so close to it.  I’ve seen the ups and downs of life. On purpose. I didn’t want to shield myself from life.”

His landmark 2009 CD Jimmy the Kid has also just been re-released. This is the one that got my attention. Mathus takes you into lonely hotels, honky tonks for fallen angels, on the run from the law among “the sage and prickly pear” out West, and along a dark highway somewhere in America in search of “a little room to rest.” Echoes of Duane Allman, Keith Richards and Webb Pierce are in the air, but the music is still a Jimbo-special, roots-rooted “new trail.”

To many, Mathus is still best-known for being co-founder of one of the top alternative bands of the 1990s, the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Squirrel Nut Zippers, which did hot jazz, gypsy swing, New Orleans marches, and old vaudeville numbers and scored a major hit with the Calypso romp Hell. The band performed on the David Letterman show and at President Clinton’s 1996 inauguration.

Mathus grew up in a music-loving household in Corinth, Miss., that included a nanny who also happened to be daughter of one of blues’ early greats, Charley Patton. “She didn’t talk about him a lot. Blues was the devil’s music. He was a player in bootleg joints, whorehouses, gambling joints. That was nothing she would ever discuss. It was something not to brag about but to hide.

“Along about ’94 it came out she was the child of Charley Patton. At that time, I was of age. She was like family to me. One day I realized, holy-moly, Rosetta is Charley Patton’s daughter! It emboldened me in the blues field to pursue it even harder, to learn the guitar parts, every note.”

Even before he learned of the Charley Patton connection in his household, he was playing rock ‘n’ roll. An early effort was a punk band in junior high school named Johnny Vomit and the Dry Heaves. “We made a helluva racket. I was on a mission. I wanted to upset the applecart. I was not playing by the rules.”

Mathus considers himself a student of philosophy—he majored in philosophy at Mississippi State University—and he still probes the mysteries of Eastern and Middle Eastern as well as Western thought.  The South itself is his greatest study, however. “I had more than my plateful to know where I’m from.

“It’s important to know where you’ve been to map out where you’re going,” he says. “Not everybody cares about it. The majority of people could care less, but to me it’s important to feel a part of a bigger picture.”

Amen, preacher.

This article appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.