On my first night on the trip, I met Mark Twain’s spirit at a midnight record release party. Loren and Alyssa, already two days into the project, picked me up at the St. Louis airport. After we embraced, we waited for the rest of my luggage to come through the carousel of interminable waiting that airports euphemize as “baggage claim” and this trip suddenly became real to me.
We drove two hours northwest of St. Louis and reached Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain spent his childhood years growing up along the banks of the Mississippi. My traveling companions informed me that to say downtown Hannibal didn’t have much in the way of nightlife was somewhat of an understatement. Tonight was different though. We were invited to a party on Main Street at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. After primping, we set off for a night on the town, eager to find out what Hannibal had to offer.
For five years, Cindy Lovell, a self-proclaimed “Twainiac” and executive director of the museum, had been thinking of a way to honor the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death. She wanted to rally a star-studded cast of actors, musicians and singer-songwriters to produce a double-CD and 40-page booklet that would chronicle Mark Twain’s life, from birth to death, through alternating tracks of spoken word and music.
Lovell called her longtime friend, Grammy Award-winning bluegrass musician Carl Jackson and told him about the idea. Without hesitation, Jackson agreed to co-produce the CD which they would call “Mark Twain: Words & Music.”
Tonight they celebrated their efforts, the culmination of “hundreds of hours of phone conversations, traveling, brainstorming and considering every possible idea.” Carl Jackson, accompanied by singer Val Storey, performed cuts from the new album, a sometimes riotous, sometimes moving experience that transfigured me from skeptic to bluegrass neophyte.
The twanginess, the Twaininess, the fable-like lyrics and the affected lilt of the singers’ voices were in my mind pieces of America’s identity. For a moment I thought we could stop our journey there. I came back to the United States after four ambassadorial months spent outside of the country. This night welcome me back to what I missed most about home. It was the perfect way to kick off the Twain trip for me.
During a song about the ink that flows through Twain’s blood, I had a visceral reaction, one of immense sadness, respect and curiosity for this man forever enshrined in American heritage.
Twain spent time in Germany and made cutting, hilarious remarks about the German language’s convolutions in his book A Tramp Abroad. “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.” He loved Berlin, where I lived during the summer, so much that he sent his daughters to school there. And during the performance, I also found out that Twain also spent time in India, which he describes in his book Following the Equator. During his time there, Twain reflected on the Indian crow, one of my personal favorite fixtures of the Delhi sky. He describes the crow as the perfected reincarnation of lifetimes upon lifetimes of thieving, pranking, hoodwinking and gossiping. The unabashed and feathery avatar of a writer.
Even though I just got here and the road trip has only just begun, it feels as if I’ve been following this guy, one Samuel Clemens, ever since the summer began.