Essayist, visual artist, songwriter and philosopher Jim White has always written and sung about himself, and the various tensile strings he's fought and broken through.
His has been a bumpy ride, through the fire and brimstone of a Pentecostal childhood in world-renowned crazy town Pensacola, Fla., to severe depression, substance abuse, mental instability and abject poverty in America’s biggest and hardest cities.
White, who lives in Athens, is sort of a Georgian Townes Van Zandt—he’s not afraid to draw from the well of his own dark mind, a mind he couldn’t shut up if he wanted to, and make art out of what comes up.
He’s in Savannah this week for:
Wednesday, May 21 at 5:30 p.m., at the SCAD Museum of Art. A screening of the 2003 BBC documentary Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which features White considering the gritty South of his youth. Followed by a talk (admission is free);
Thursday, May 22 at 7 p.m., at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. White reads his Pushcart-nominated essay Superwhite and discusses southern literature. Free;
Friday, May 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Trinity Methodist Church. White and his guitar in concert, with opener Dare Dukes (White produced a track on Dukes’ Thugs and China Dolls album). Tickets are $15 in advance (brownpapertickets.com), $20 at the door and $5 for students (with ID) the day of the show.
Here are a few excerpts from my recent conversation with Mr. White.
Home sweet home
“I was brought to the south when I was a kid. It didn’t make a bit of sense to me, but I liked it. I came from a conservative, WASP-y Navy family. They didn’t pay much attention to me; they just dropped me in the middle of the South and let me run loose. So it was an interesting sort of science experiment. I was this polite Yankee kid with these crazy white trash Southern kids in Pensacola, a pretty backward place in many ways.”
Heaven and all that
“Ten years ago, Pensacola had the highest amount of churches per capita of any city in America. They had what was called the Brownsville Outpouring, that ran for five or six years. They’d sit in the parking lot for nine hours in West Pensacola, in the middle of the summer heat, waiting in line to get into this church. Same church I got saved in when I was a kid. Any time you find hardcore religion, I think you find desperation side by side with it. I think there’s a kind of a desperation in Pensacola that drives people towards thinking of a better place. And in America, the better place scenario always carries you towards a sort of Christian ideology, and heaven and all that.”
“There’s not just economic poverty, there’s a kind of poverty of spirit there. Anything that gains any slight aesthetic momentum in the town, any sort of secular momentum, gets crushed eventually. Or subsumed into the Christian gravitational field. There was a burgeoning punk scene in Pensacola, and within four or five years of it coming on, it all went Christian. It’s like the planet Jupiter; the gravitational field there is Christian and it’s powerful. What happens is that people who don’t fit any mold get chewed up. They get crushed because they don’t fit into the two exclusive categories.
“The subtle people went crazy. And I was one of ‘em. If they stayed, it turned into a compressed, dark, worrisome energy. If they left—like I did—they stood a chance of making some sense of things.
“I sincerely followed the teachings of the hardcore fundamentalist church for about 14 years. And when I walked away, I didn’t feel like I was making a smart move, I felt like I was betraying God. But I had no choice—either betray God or have my spirit crushed. So it was quite a battle.”
Creating as a cure
“It’s not a radical catharsis. One of my teachers in school said the way I formulate my artistic impulse is ‘doing the talking cure.’ So it’s a slow process, but definitely the goal of any art that I do is seeking clarity. If clarity and catharsis have some relationship, it’s absolutely cathartic.”
Validation through music
“If you’re wandering around saying ‘ Am I crazy? Look what I found,’ and eventually you come across another person who says ‘That’s interesting, what you found. You’re not crazy,’ that helps. And if a thousand people say ‘That’s interesting. No, you’re not crazy,’ that helps a lot. So as I traveled around the world and people embraced what I was doing, hell yes it helped.
“Affirmation and statements of worth are really important. I swing between feeling deeply insecure about what I do and wildly overconfident, so talking to people over the years has kind of created a middle ground.
“Much of the story of Southern literature is about people who couldn’t live in their skin. Who were twisting on the spit of life.”