- Historic Sites
Caution: I Brake For History
A BOLD NEW KIND OF COLLEGE COURSE BRINGS the student directly to the past, nonstop, overnight, in squalor and glory, for weeks on end
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
Meanwhile my students arrived at the University of New Orleans well read and antsy for their 3-D American Studies course on wheels to begin. An extensive reading list had been mailed to them months earlier, and most had gone ravenously through essential books from The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery , from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple .
The first week of “American Odyssey” was held in New Orleans, the students getting to know one another and discovering the intermingled cultural influences of the Crescent City. Each misty morning I conducted lectures on the theater of Tennessee Williams over beignets at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter or on the jazz legacy of Louis Armstrong beside his statue in Congo Square, one of the few spots on the continent during the eighteenth century where African-Americans were allowed to gather, make music, and dance. Since going to the source of history is what the Majic Bus is all about, what better place to lecture on the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 than in the Cabildo at Jackson Square, where the transfer from France to the United States of 827,000 square miles for fifteen million dollars took place? Where better to speak about the War of 1812 than a few miles downriver at the Chalmette National Historic Park, site of the Battle of New Orleans?
In new orleans I’d conduct lectures on Tennessee Williams over beignets at Cafe du Monde, or on Louis Armstrong in Congo Square.
Guest speakers were omnipresent during our New Orleans week. Ishmael Reed came from California to talk with students about his books Mumbo Jumbo and Airing Dirty Laundry , former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs spoke about Louisiana politics, and the social commentator Andrei Codrescu gave a special showing of his film Road Scholar . We took a literary walking tour of the French Quarter; a Bayou Segnette excursion to spot alligators, nutrias, and cypress trees dripping Spanish moss; heard a sobering symposium about David Duke and a heartening seminar on Asian immigrants with the Pulitzer Prizewinning writer Robert Olen Butler. The three-deck sternwheeler Natchez took us down the Mississippi; Bo Diddley led a Delta blues seminar and demonstrated his “hambone” beat, imitated by countless lesser acts. Each night we were treated to superb music by the likes of Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, Clarence (“Frogman”) Henry, and Townes Van Zandt. As a sendoff for the students, “Mr. Mardi Gras” threw a Dixieland jazz parade that roistered down Decatur Street to the House of Blues, where it became a doubloontossing street party. A Sunday gospel brunch followed, the soulful notes of the white-suited Zion Harmonizers mixing with spicy Creole fare.
The guest escort on the Majic Bus during our pre-excursion week was Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, perhaps the only person alive who can sing and strum on his weathered Gibson the entire Carl Sandburg American Songbook . The famous troubadour has put John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to music, performed rope tricks in the rodeo, and sings the world’s most boisterous version of Jesse (“Lone Cat”) Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” The students had read Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory and were eager to discuss the autobiography with the peppery Jack. With his cowboy hat perfectly affixed and his sixstring never more than a foot from his boot heel, Jack related hard traveling yarns about his buddy Woody, whom he first met at Coney Island in 1947.
As we prepared the bus for departure, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, in his Shaker-plain voice, sang “This Land Is Your Land.” With the refrain lingering on our lips, and our bellies full of jambalaya and po’ boy sandwiches, we pulled out of the city of New Orleans and on to the rest of America. For the most part, every- one had kept to the rule of one suitcase plus sleeping bag and pup tent per person. Musical instruments, laptop computers, and sports equipment were also allowed, and there were so many paperback classics aboard that at times onlookers mistook us for a bookmobile. Besides reading fifty books, half of them before departure, the students were responsible for keeping daily journals and taking five essay exams at various stops during the journey. Over the years I have given tests in neon casinos and cheap motels, Nathan Male’s schoolhouse and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Group meals have been cooked over Wyoming campfires, in 7-Eleven microwaves, and for Bronx homeless shelters.