The category is geography: what city meets at the convergence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers? The answer is Cairo, Illinois (pronounced by locals as Karo). The follow up question: what makes Cairo memorable? Well according to Stace(rhymes with ace) England, in his new release Greetings From Cairo Illinois there’s lots about Cairo to remember.
Greetings From Cairo Illinois is the history of a city that started out with such promise and has been in slow decline since the end of the Civil War. Straddling the North/South culture line it would have been an ideal way station in the shipment of goods across the country. Somehow, it was bypassed in favour of Chicago and Portland and it’s been one long struggle to survive ever since.
Stace England has created a musical portrait of this sad town. From its early days as a supply depot for farmers until its present state of decay he has either found or created a song for the high, or low, points in the citiy’s history. The songs reveal more about the soul of Cairo than any history book.
From the anticipatory pleasure of the farmers preparing to travel to the big town, in the traditional “Going Down To Cairo”, the acoustic blues of Henry Spaulding’s 1929 “Cairo Blues”, and the disc’s first original cut “Grant Slept Here”, a picture of an exciting, perhaps dangerous, town is painted.
Ulysses S. Grant spent five months of the Civil War based in Cairo, making successful forays into Kentucky and Missouri. In 1880, after he was done with the Presidency, he came down to Cairo for a party in his honour given by a local businessman and buddy.
But the city seemed intent on shooting itself in the foot. Instead of polishing the image of “friend of Presidents”, they managed to tarnish themselves with one of the worst examples of mob rule ever seen in the United States. “Equal Opportunity Lynch Mob” tells the story of the double lynching of Will James, a black man, and white Henry Salzner.
Both men were hauled from jail while awaiting trial and hung. When the rope hanging James broke, he was shot, burnt, and then decapitated. His head was stuck on a pole for public display. To commemorate the event the good citizens of Cairo had picture postcards made.
Racial strife has played a huge role in the downfall of Cairo. “The North Starts Here” tells how Cairo was the demarcation point for crossing over into a place where the colour barrier ceased to exist. Once buses travelling up from the south arrived, they were able to remove the curtains that separated the coloured seating from the white. Cairo’s white population, however, wasn’t in tune with the laws of the state.
“Far From The Tree”, “White Hats”, and “Jesse’s Coming To Town” try to depict the atmosphere of racial intolerance that was so prevalent in the 1960s. Cairo never recovered from its white population’s refusal to integrate. Black boycotts of white-only businesses closed most of them down by the end of 1973. The empty storefronts on Commercial Street are mute testimony to the city’s failure ever to recover from its self-inflicted wounds.
Of the final three tracks on the disc, “Buy My Votes” and “Prosperity Train” show that Cairo both has a long way to go yet in its attempt to recover, and the reality of their current situation. “Buy My Votes” is about buying votes in a circuit clerk race in 2000 for cigarettes, whisky, and three dollars.
Small time corruption like this does nothing to enhance the reputation of any city, but when you have the history that Cairo does it just serves to drag you a little deeper into the muck. The irony of “Prosperity Train” is that people are bemoaning the good old days, and realizing that they’re gone, but as usual are blind to how aspects of the way things used to be were the cause of how things are today.
Echoing Rodney King, Stace’s final song on the disc is a plea. “Can’t We All Get Along” is an open call to the people of Cairo to work together to build something out of the ruins of a great city. His genuine affection and frustration for the city and its inhabitants comes through loud and clear in the lyrics of this song. He offers them hope, but only if they are willing to get it together:
The glory days are gone, leaving only a trace.
But each time another building falls down,
A garden could grow in its place.
Hold on, hold on, and open up your heart.
We can build together
Or keep watching things fall apart.
Stace England’s music on this album is a perfect fit for the part of the world he is singing about. Blues, southern rock, country rock, and gospel are all part of the heritage of this area. The over fifty musicians he has assembled contribute everything from horns to slick guitar work.
He has engineered a project that both tells the story he wants told, and is musically entertaining at the same time. Lyrically he never preaches, he just narrates. The boastful voice of a white supremacist contrasts with the hope of black migrants searching for the promised land of integration, while a “some of my best friends are” type liberal rationalizes segregation.
Somehow or other Stace manages to keep us from hating these people. His genuine affection for the place, and his sincere hope that it could be better, shines through even when he’s singing about Cairo’s more sordid past. He is not an outside observer looking in; he is an oral historian recounting his people’s history.
Stace England’s Greetings From Cairo Illinois not only provides a portrait of the city in question, it succeeds in being a fine album musically. While the picture he paints of Cairo’s history may not be the most attractive, I don’t think the city could have asked for a better ambassador. If they had any brains, the town council and the chamber of commerce would make it their business to promote this disc.
Stace makes Cairo sound like a fascinating place to visit. I’m sure those who listen to it are going to be attracted, even if just from morbid curiosity, by his depiction. It would be the ultimate of ironies if this disc detailing its problems becomes responsible for Cairo’s revival. Who knows, maybe this long moribund city will finally live up to its potential because of one person’s affection and compassion.
Greetings From Cairo Illinois will made a great addition to anyone’s collection: for the music and for the story.
Unfortunately there is no Amazon ASIN for Greetings From Cairo Illinois To purchase or listen go to Stace’s web site.