I woke up in the still cold of an early Mississippi morning, exhausted. I would have to leave, though. The truckers had all started to abandon their parking spots. I would be obvious.
I drove on to Crystal Springs, a quaint town constructed as quaintly as many other little Southern towns. A few gas stations on the highway, a grocery store, a drug store, and then a vintage, worn-out downtown that looks like it came straight out of the 1950’s. I parked in the drug store parking lot, to get my bearings straight, to try to wake up, but I was in a fog. It was a hazy malaise, and I sat there for a while waiting for the drug store to open up. I went inside to use the bathroom, then I decided to go for a bike ride. The town is beautiful, most notable for being the hometown of Tommy Johnson, an influential blues musician, whose namesake and backstory resemble the character of Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (including that bit about selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads). I found a recording of his “Canned Heat Blues” on my iPhone, and listened to it while sitting in the gazebo in the center of town. There was something about it, something in the eerie, wallowing intonations of the man. No one else was near enough to hear the song, and I was just sitting in the center of the tiny town, watching the traffic flow languidly across the pot-holed asphalt. Perhaps Johnson had written the song very near to where I was. Perhaps his high falsettos and deep vibratos had once rang out through to the purlieus of the dusty town. I don’t know. But there was something—a keen, hallucinogenic misery in his voice, the sounds of gloom, of poverty, of the faint but ardent spirit of the cast-down, rising sorrowfully in an otherwise languorous Mississippi town. And, at once, I felt connected to the past and present of Crystal Springs, the gradual procession of its daily life like the slow drip of molasses in an hourglass. Slow time is psychotropic, heavy like the intoxicating sterno (“canned heat”) that was Johnson’s vice, and you could see it flow, or feel it flow in wavy, humid, disorienting lines.