By Jim Ewing
Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story should be included in every workshop on How To Write.
Professors of English can point to its lyric prose that coils on itself like a snake. Political scientists and historians can find ample fodder for topics as diverse as the forces that brought the likes of Huey P. Long and Theo G. Bilbo to power.
Religious scholars and sociologists can refer to its accuracy in exploring the relationship between cultural conservatism and the moral implications of rock ’n’ roll. But readers are at once ensnared by the man Jerry Lee Lewis himself, whose music “made Elvis cry.”
As Bragg, a Southernor, well understands, we cannot fathom Lewis’s music until we have felt the lash and storm of his upbringing. Bragg traces Mississippi-Louisiana history from its violent, bitter beginnings of conquest, duel, slavery and song into the 20th century.
He paints the place with levees so tall “a man had to walk uphill to drown.” A cauldron of people, passions and violence, from Ferriday, La., to Natchez, Miss., to New Orleans, to Memphis, he lays out the landscape where Jerry Lee Lewis found form and substance, where gamblers and oil speculators, prostitutes and hoboes “came off the boxcars like fleas.”
Lewis’s rearing came amid the vast wealth of the few torn from the misery of the many dirt poor working people, great river floods, rampant political corruption, and The Great Depression’s soul-killing darkness — that spawned hungry children and heartbreak, whiskey, drugs and the devil eternally dancing in the shadows. Preachers and bootleggers sometimes were the same. They were his blood kin, as some of us admit are our own. They all knew they were sinners and The Killer seemed preordained to sing their songs.
Jerry Lee was born of the stuff of country legends, learning to croon at the knee of his father Elmo between his prison stints and sitting in a pew with his mother listening to the Pentecostals speaking in tongues.
“It’s where I got my juice,” Lewis told Bragg, giving his music its characteristic guts, grit and power.
Bragg details Lewis’s long march into greatness and despair: the honky tonks, women, pills, hit songs, fist fights, and scandal over marrying Myra, his 13-old-cousin — one of six marriages by the pioneer of rock ’n’ roll — some memories “like playing catch with broken glass.”
Along the way are music trivia gems, such as Lewis’s signature hit Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, supposedly written by a black man at a fish camp on Florida’s Lake Okeechobee while drunk and milking rattlesnakes.
Bragg’s genius is alternating laser observations about the man and his milieu with stunning word play wrapped in seemingly effortless but exhaustive research. Bragg proves himself to be a journalist’s journalist by turning painstaking reportage into art.
Bragg doesn’t just chronicle a man but a region, and leads us like a secular evangelist to reexamine our own songs and sins.
Of Lewis, Bragg reports: “He did some meanness, God knows he did. But the music — funny how it turned out — was the purest part.”
Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating, and the forthcoming Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, Spring 2015. Jim is a regular contributor to the Lemuria blog.