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Kidnapped, Then Forced Into The Sideshow: The True Story Of The Muse Brothers

Journalist Beth Macy talks about George and Willie Muse, black albino brothers who were born in the Jim Crow South and were forced to become circus freaks. Her new book, Truevine, retells their story.

35:27

Other segments from the episode on October 18, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 18, 2016; Interview with Beth Macy; Review of Mary Oliver book; Review of Mahalia Jackson collection

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the era of the freak show when people paid to gawk at people who look different, two albino African-American brothers whose condition left them with white skin and light-colored hair were exhibited as rarities. They were billed in several ways Eko and Iko, the sheep-headed cannibals, two Ecuadorean white savages, ambassadors from Mars. One spiel about them said the brothers were descended from monkeys in the dark continent with Neanderthal heads, caveman bodies and tremendous shocks of hair that stand out on their heads like the wigs on Raggedy Ann dolls.

But these brothers weren't from Africa, Ecuador or Mars. Their real names were Georgia and William Muse, and they grew up in Truevine, Va., near Roanoke, the sons of a sharecropper. My guest journalist Beth Macy is the author of the new book "Truevine," investigating the story of these brothers that tells a larger story about race, class and entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. Macy is a former reporter for The Roanoke Times and author of the earlier book "Factory Man."

Beth Macy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The Muse brothers performed in freak shows at the height of the freak show era. Would you describe what freak shows were like in the early 20th century and who some of the human exhibits were?

BETH MACY: Sure. So the circus was the most dominant form of entertainment between 1840 in 1940, and the sideshow was a big part of that. It was a way to get an extra quarter out of a patron. And there would be banners on the side of the tent trying to entice people to pay that extra quarter. And so there would be photos of Eko and Iko, ambassadors from Mars or there would be photos of a large woman or a very thin man - the skeleton man - there would be the doll family was a popular family of small performers who were also - many of them cast in the "Wizard Of Oz." Jack Earle, the Texas Giant was a big draw during that time. It's kind of a strange time to get your head around because it's hard to imagine that people would want to pay money to see people with some of whom had disabilities, some of whom just had special skills like sword swallower. And maybe that person would also have a snake wrapped around their neck, too.

GROSS: Then there was Ota Benga who is billed as the missing link between human and ape. He was called a pygmy who had been liberated from the Congo by an American missionary. He was first displayed in 1904 at the World's Fair, alongside Eskimos, Filipinos and Native Americans. It's - he was displayed in the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan.

MACY: Right.

GROSS: I mean, who was Ota Benga He was not really a pygmy liberated from the Congo.

MACY: (Laughter) Right. They brought him over, and they put him in a cage. And The New York Times kind of celebrated it, and a few African-American ministers had raised a stink about it, and said, you know, we're treated bad enough. Do you have to put us in a cage, too? And, you know, The Times are reflecting very much white attitudes of The Times said, you know, this is ridiculous. Everybody's enjoying watching him there. And so finally they were able to talk the the zoo into giving him back, and he landed with a family in Lynchburg, Va., which is just an hour from Roanoke where I live. And this was all sort of going on in the background at the same time.

Harriet Muse was wondering what had happened to her sons.

GROSS: How were the Muse brothers billed over the years?

MACY: Oh, many different ways. In the beginning, they were just exhibited. They were young children, somewhere between the age of 10 and 13. It's hard to say exactly because the records of their birth weren't found. But they were exhibit initially as Eastman's monkey men, Darwin's missing links. Then later once they were given instruments, and it was, oh, my gosh, they can actually play these instruments. At first it was just supposed to be a photo prop and kind of a joke. They were then displayed as the Ecuadoran savages. And for most of their time on the road with carnivals and circuses, they were known as Eko and Iko ambassadors from Mars, where they were said to have been found in the Mojave Desert coming out of a spaceship.

GROSS: And during this period, freaks - you know, so-called freaks - were discovered and recruited through ads and through traveling recruiters. And you quote some of the ads that say things like (reading) wanted freaks, novelties, strange people, any acts suitable for a real live pit show - wanted fat man, midget, glassblower, magicians, anything suitable for high-class pit show.

Were pit shows freak shows?

MACY: Yeah, yeah. That was one of the names for him, also 10 in one. You could see 10 acts in one.

GROSS: Why were albino African-Americans like the Muse brothers considered such valuable finds for freak shows?

MACY: Yeah, well, so they were fairly rare. It just happened that in this family three of the five children had albinism. Albinism in African-Americans is actually more common than albinism in European Americans. And they were considered pretty good finds, especially in the early years. Now, after, say, in the 1920s and '30s when the freak shows started to wane a bit in popularity, and you didn't see them as much coinciding with the Disability Rights Movement, it wasn't as big a deal. But they were considered a pretty big find kind of right under - the pecking order would have been, say, Siamese twins, a person with no legs who did tricks and then perhaps albinos.

GROSS: So let's talk about the story of the Muse brothers. They were born in a small town near Roanoke, a tobacco farming town and their mother was a sharecropper. Describe the circumstances they were born in.

MACY: Sure. So it wasn't even really a town it was just an incorporated little crossroads, very rural, mostly tobacco growing. And so the African-Americans, most of whom worked in tobacco, were sharecroppers, and the Muse brothers worked the typical sharecropper's shift which was daylight to dark, which they called can see to can't see or sometimes can to can't for short.

GROSS: And the brothers had a lot of health problems because of the albinism. What were some of the health problems that they had and how did that make life as sharecroppers difficult for them?

MACY: Right. So being out in the sun all the time would have been really hard. They burnt kind of the first flash of the sun, and their eyes - they had an oscillating eye condition that was sometimes referred to as dancing eyes. And so they had their vision problems from a very young age, and late in life they were totally blind. But you can imagine any one of those difficulties in working outside in agricultural circumstances - they had to clothe themselves in the heat of summer to cover up their skin.

GROSS: There are different versions of how they ended up in a freak show. My understanding is there's two versions of this story. One...

MACY: There's two versions of the story.

GROSS: Yeah.

MACY: One is the one that every African-American in Roanoke or in Franklin County over the age of, say, 60 would have heard growing up. And they would have heard it as a cautionary tale. These two brothers, not that much unlike you, were snatched up from the circus. So when you go out to the fair or festival, be careful or you might get kidnapped like Eco and Iko. That's the first version of the story that I heard. The second version of the story is a little more complicated. And I did find some documents that give some weight to the other story that was maybe also whispered but not ever within earshot of the family.

And that was because Harriet Muse was this poor, single mother that, perhaps, she had initially let them go in exchange for pay. And the piece of evidence that I found sort of halfway through in the reporting of this story was a notice that she may or may not have taken out - we have to remember that she was an illiterate maid and she couldn't read or write - but suddenly in December of 1949 in Billboard magazine, there appears this notice ostensibly written by her in quotes that her sons known as Eco and Iko have gone off with some showmen. They were supposed to be returned to her. But one of the showman took them from the other showman, and she wanted them back. You know, it was Christmas time. She was expecting them back. She had no idea where they were. They were actually traveling all over the country.

And she wanted them back. You know, it was Christmas time. She was expecting them back. She had no idea where they were. They were actually traveling all over the country. And you could - sort of reading between the lines, she's wondering if she's ever going to see them again. And according to the family, you know, she reached out to law enforcement, she reached out to the Humane Society of Virginia trying to get them back. And basically, no one lifted a finger to help her.

GROSS: Probably because she was African-American.

MACY: Exactly. I mean, this was a time - this was a really harsh time to be a black person in Roanoke, Va. And there had been a lynching, a really violent lynching, some really severe incidents. There were city codes saying where you could live and where you couldn't live and a lot of violence here.

GROSS: Either way, whether they were kind of leased to the carnival by their mother or kidnapped by people looking for new exhibits in the freak show, what were the conditions that they faced in the freak show once the brothers got there?

MACY: They were told their mother was dead when they - because they wanted to go back home. And they said quit crying, your mother is dead. And later in life they would talk about - Georgie (ph) was the older one, and he would comfort his younger brother Willie. And there was this song - really popular song at the time called "It's A Long Way To Tipperary." It was a World War I anthem about missing home. And they would sing that song to each other at night as a comfort.

They would talk about - you know, they were from very modest means. And one of the things she always begged for them was kind of a simple corn meal biscuit, called an ash cake. And they would talk about the foods they missed. Whenever there was a rainbow in the sky, Georgie would point it out to Willie and would say - remind them what their mother said. That's God's promise after the storm and, like, our storms are going to be over one day, too, and we know she's alive and we'll get to see her again. So he was more like the father figure for most of his growing up.

GROSS: And how do you know this?

MACY: I know this because this is a story that the family's been handed down. I know that they were children when they were exhibited because we have these early photos from around 1914. And they're wearing these suits - this is before they were handed instruments - and the suits - I first looked at the picture and I thought, well, that's a kind of a nice suit. You know, their ties are sort of askew and whatnot.

But then I sent the photograph to a historical costuming expert. And he blew it up, and he said, no, they've been wearing these suits for a couple of years now. And, you know, that was one of the hard things is you have the family stories and then you have very few documentations. One of the things that were incontrovertible were photographs. So when I got a photograph, a rare photograph, like that first photograph I found maybe a quarter of the way through the research, that was just like gold to me. But then I really had to suck every fat I could out of that photograph.

GROSS: I think it's interesting that you took it to somebody who analyzes photographs who blew it up and realized that there - they had been wearing these suits for a long time because they - what? - he could see the frayed edges, he could see that they were worn?

MACY: He could see the seams. Like, he could see the stitching in the seams where it was wider than it should have been. And then he - I thought it was just the style. Like, you know, you see the old pictures and sometimes they're wearing shorter suit coats. But no, he was like, no, this would not have been the style. He knew the exact kind of suit.

It's amazing what you can find out if you just call an expert, you know? The same thing with the second picture, where they're holding instruments. I called musicologists, and they pointed out that the way Willie was holding the banjo was claw-hammer style, which would have been common in the Piedmont region of Virginia, where he grew up, that kind of country-blues music in claw-hammer style. So then I wondered if they already knew how to play music before they left.

GROSS: You described the Muse brothers as being the equivalent of modern day slaves during much of their lives in freak shows. I'm sure you don't use the word slave lightly. What qualified them as being slaves?

MACY: Well, I think from the moment in late 1914 when they weren't returned to their mother, and then they were - they were exploited. They were forced to work for no money. They were told their mother was dead. They were taken somewhat care of because you wouldn't want to exhibit somebody that you were outwardly harming.

I think there was a little Stockholm Syndrome developing. The only world they knew was the circus. They were reliant on this manager for housing and food and clothing, but he didn't treat them very well according to their accounts later in life. And - and then various circus and show owners - as their manager would take them from one outfit to usually a bigger outfit in order for him to make more money that he himself would pocket - we have later accounts of show managers bragging about buying them. And at one point, one of the showmen that was managing them broke off from their main manager, whose name was Candy Shelton, and the guy who was running the circus at the time, who was Al G. Barnes, said, OK, well, I'll give you money to go back to the East Coast. But you have to leave the boys with me as a down payment.

And so they were just sort of bought and sold as chattel. And when he - in his memoirs that he wrote in the early '30s brags about treating them as, quote, "a paying proposition." I mean, there it is right there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Beth Macy. She's the author of the new book "Truevine." It's about Willie and George muse, two brothers who are African-American with albinism and spent much of the first half of the 20th century working in freak shows. We're going to take a short break. Then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Beth Macy, author of the new book "Truevine." And it's the true story of two albino African-American brothers, George and Willie Muse, who spent much of their lives in freak shows in the first half of the 20th century. And the larger story she's telling here is about race, class and entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. So at some point they're reunited with their mother by accident. They're performing in a - was it a carnival or a circus? - in Roanoke, where their mother now lived.

MACY: Right. It's 1927. Roanoke is this - was once a really booming city, and it's now big enough that it can play host to the big one or the Greatest Show on Earth, which was Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. And somehow it came to her attention that the circus was in town. Remember, she couldn't read. She told relatives that it came to her in a dream that the circus was in town and her boys were on it. And she was going to go get them.

GROSS: And she did. How did she do it?

MACY: So she found her way to the fairgrounds in Roanoke, Va., which was just in the southern part of downtown. It was also the site of a roaring KKK rally soon before. And during that era when a carnival would come and play a show for a week, there would be one day that African-Americans would be allowed to attend. But on circus day, a big circus like Ringling would only stay one day and they'd go to the next location. And so there was seating in the back of the big top for African-Americans to sit.

And the side sideshow was the one place I was told where segregation codes would sort of break down because there wasn't seating. So you would come in to - you'd pay your quarter. You'd come into the tent, and the spieler would sort of walk you around to each act. And each act would take, like, three or four minutes to present a skill or play a song in the Muse or others' case or answer a few questions from the audience.

And so as they're going from act to act and then they finally get to George and Willie, Harriet Muse - and we have a photo of her from that time that was taken either that day or the next day and she's wearing this sort of long dress that she had made herself and laceless oxfords and she's got this hat on. And she's - for all those sort of impoverished-looking clothes she's wearing, she's looking very tall and dignified. And she makes her way to the front of the audience. And in a scene that's been recounted for four generations now, Willie, the older brother, sees her, elbows George and says, look, there's our dear old mother. She is not dead.

GROSS: Because they'd been told by the people who, quote, "owned" them that she was dead.

MACY: Yes, yes. And they said they never really believed that, but they had never been in Roanoke before. They were from rural Franklin County, an hour away. And there was their mother, and she wanted them back. And they sort of dropped their instruments, came down from the stage and were enveloped by her. And I imagine, you know, just must have been quite something that reunion scene.

GROSS: What did it take for her to bring them home with her?

MACY: We know that eight armed policemen showed up. We know that the head law enforcement officer in the city was also the founder of the local KKK. But we know that it was kind of the highlight moment of Willie Muse's life. He kept a photo of her next to his bed in late life. And even though he's blind, he couldn't see it, he would touch it every night before he went to bed. And he - and he would talk about, our mother came for us. She could have died. She could have been arrested. And the lawyers turned out in droves from Ringling. They traveled with lawyers. It would've have like going against the Carnegie's or somebody. Ringling was a huge deal. And still, she was able to convince eight police officers and the lawyers that these - these were in fact her sons. They're saying they're her sons. They're saying they want to go home and spend some time with their mother. And so finally, they let her bring them home.

GROSS: My guest is Beth Macy, author of the new book "Truevine." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of essays by poet Mary Oliver. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A LONG WAY TO TIPPERARY")

JOHN MCCORMACK: (Singing) Up to mighty London came an Irishman one day. As the streets are paved with gold, sure, everyone was gay. Singing songs of Piccadilly, Strand and Leicester Square, till Paddy got excited, then he shouted to them there. It's a long way to Tipperary. It's a long way to go. It's a long way to Tipperary to the sweetest girl I know. Goodbye, Piccadilly. Farewell, Leicester Square. It's a long, long way to Tipperary, but my heart's right there. It's a long way to Tipperary. It's a long way to go. It's a long way to Tipperary to the sweetest girl I know. Goodbye, Piccadilly. Farewell, Leicester Square...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist Beth Macy, author of a new book that investigates the story of two albino African-American brothers who spent much of their lives exhibited in circus and carnival freak shows. The book's title "Truevine" refers to the place in Virginia near Roanoke where the brothers Willie and George Muse grew up. Macy says it's still unclear whether circus recruiters kidnapped the boys in 1899 when they were age 6 and 9 or if there mother Harriet reached a financial agreement with a recruiter. But it is clear she was unable to locate them after that in spite of her efforts until 1927, when they came to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's circus. She successfully fought the circus for their release.

And so they go home, and you write how in many ways the living conditions at home were worse than in the circus and the carnival.

MACY: Yeah. They came home. They lived in a 517-square foot, two-room shanty. The one photo that I talked about being distributed over the wires is a photo of them standing in front of an old rug that I assume had been trotted out for the occasion. And they're standing there squinting, their light is right in their eyes. It's late afternoon sun, and they're flanked between their stepfather and their mother. And there's no running water in the house. There's a outhouse in the back, one spigot that the whole little neighborhood had to share.

And you just wonder what's going on in their minds. They're squinting and they're not looking very happy in the picture. George is holding a handkerchief. And the next day, the mother finds a very ambitious young, white lawyer and files a lawsuit for back wages against the Greatest Show On Earth.

GROSS: Does she win?

MACY: And I just think the moxie in that, whoa.

GROSS: Does she win?

MACY: She wins a very satisfactory, according to the newspaper, settlement, but I never could find out how much she won. I mean, the stepfather who isn't a good guy ends up sort of taking the money, buying a car and - which would have been very unusual for a black family at the time. He worked as a chauffeur and sort of absconding with the money, sadly. So the brothers go back to the circus the next year probably to help support their mother. I'm sure that was part of it, but this time they were going back on their own terms. It was the only life they knew and now they were able to make sure they were actually getting paid, and they were sending much of that home to their mother, Harriet Muse.

GROSS: So they returned to the circus in 1928?

MACY: Yes, yes. And the way that was covered was really kind of shocking. The New Yorker said they rejoined the circus the following year because, quote, "the fried chicken had given out in Roanoke." There was no mention of the years in solitude, no mention of the lawsuit, no context about poverty and Jim Crow because it was just a given that blacks were considered subhuman beings at that time. And so that was part of the frustration with this story. You never got to have a quote from them or from their mother.

In the 1928 season opener coverage of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey at Madison Square Garden where they opened every year, the headline in The New York Times was Eko and Iko are happy, and then later the story says - doesn't mention the lawsuit or the servitude either, just said they were back now and happy because finally they had the permission of their parents to be on the road.

GROSS: Because they had albinism, the brothers were almost totally blind by middle age. When did they retire from the circus?

MACY: Oh, 1961.

GROSS: So who cared for them once they returned home?

MACY: They were taken care of by their sister Annibal (ph) until she passed away, and then Annibal's daughter Dot - Dot Brown (ph) and her daughter Nancy who was a little girl when they first came home. Nancy Saunders (ph) is the one who ended up being Willie's longest caregiver. George died in 1972, so she knew Willie much longer, and she always told him that she would never put him in a nursing home, and she would always look after him. And she did.

GROSS: So you met Nancy the brothers' grand niece in the late 1980s when you moved to Roanoke and at the time she had, like, you describe it as a soul food restaurant in...

MACY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In Roanoke. And so you tried to convince her to let you write about the brothers, and she was very protective of Willie who was still alive and she was very protective of their story. Why was she so protective of it and so wary of telling you about them - or of letting you interview Willie?

MACY: I didn't really understand...

GROSS: Yeah.

MACY: Yeah. She wouldn't let me interview him. She said I'll probably let you write a story about him after he's died. She said he's resting. He's been exploited his whole life, and he needs to be in peace. And so, no, I'm not going to let you tell the story. And she says the first time I sauntered in, sort of demanding an interview - I don't remember it quite that way - but I'm sure I went in, and I was trying to be charming and trying to talk her into letting me tell the story about her famous great uncles. She pointed to a sign on the wall that a customer had given her, and the sign said sit down and shut up. And she meant it.

GROSS: So when you approached the Muse brothers' great niece about writing about them, one of the reasons why she rebuffed you it was that she didn't trust newspapers, and you write about how the Roanoke Times had really misrepresented African-Americans in the past. And what are some examples of that?

MACY: During urban renewal which was a time when two really important historic African-American neighborhoods in Roanoke were just demolished to make way for a new interstate coming through the city and the civic center and a large car dealership. I mean, these houses were - they were declared slums and the people were moved, many of them into public housing and many of them not given fair price for their homes because their homes were just considered slums. And this was going to be a great thing urban renewal.

Well, the blacks I talked to called it negro removal. And there is still a lot of anger about what happened to people's homes. And the newspaper editorially cheered when this happened. This is all in the aim of progress. The newspaper also didn't let black brides be in the pages of the feature section until the mid-'70s and only after a protest happened. And even when I arrived in the late '80s, there was always the claim that you guys never write about us unless we're in trouble for something.

GROSS: How did you actually convince the great grand niece to cooperate with you in writing this book?

MACY: Well, I called her. It was November 11 because I wanted to see how many days it took because she said, I'm going to have to think about it. And don't call me, I'll call you. So Thanksgiving came, early December came, I always send her a Christmas card 'cause now I've been knowing her for, like, 25 years. We're friends, sources, we're all of these things to each other. And so I sent her a Christmas card. And I said p.s. my phone number is - I put my phone number down, still no phone call.

And the Christmas morning of 2013, we were driving - the family's driving over to my uncle's house, as we always do. And the phone rings, and it's Nancy. And she said, well, I made you wait so I could give it to you as a gift. I'm going to let you write this story. But just remember, I know you're going to find out some uncomfortable things. But just remember, in the end, they came out on top.

And I said, well, of course they came out on top because I had already interviewed all these people who described sort of the caring nature that she had with him and what a great caregiver she was. But she knew they were going to be uncomfortable things. And there were, and we just had to go over them every time a new uncomfortable fact was unearthed. And we sort of had to figure out what she thought about that and what the documents were saying and put those documents in context.

GROSS: What's an example of one of the uncomfortable things you found?

MACY: Well, the most uncomfortable thing, the thing I was really worried about was that notice when - that Harriet Muse may or may not have taken out in Billboard magazine suggesting that maybe Harriet had initially let them go for pay and now she wanted them back. That wasn't comfortable (laughter). So I called her up and I told her about it. Oh, and the other thing I forgot to say, her name wasn't Harriet Muse then. It was Harriet Cook (ph). She actually went by Haddy (ph). So it was Haddy Cook (ph), but it was the mother of Eko and Iko. And then I found her in the census living somewhere that the family didn't even know she had ever lived. And that led me down a whole new rabbit hole of discovery. But when I called her, I said, did you know she - that they were originally named Cook? She said no, and she was kind of stymied by it all. And then she finally said, well, you know, old people they could keep some serious secrets.

And so she seemed like she was willing to entertain that possibly that could have happened. And then later I gave her a draft. Actually, it was an edited version of the book for fact-checking purposes. And I had recently found out where Harriet was buried, and I wanted to show it to her. I wanted - she should know.

And so we were walking along in the cemetery and I was pointing it out to her. And it was an unmarked grave. And she said, I don't dispute those documents, but I will never believe that Harriet sold her children to the circus based on the love that I witnessed that Uncle Willie had for his mother. And I said, well, I can show you the document. She said, I believe that you have the documents. I'm just never going to believe because - and then she, you know, understandably recited a list of the way - that the documents had lied in the past and the newspaper documentation had lied. And the census documents weren't correct often. And she said, well, why are you going to give those documents more weight than the love I witnessed between Willie and his mother? You can say what you want, but she didn't do it. I will never believe - they were kidnapped. All she had to cling to was her children and her Christ.

GROSS: So you're not sure what happened in that part of the story.

MACY: I'm not sure what happened. The other thing she reminded me of was that Uncle Willie always said that they had been kidnapped. And she said this again during the same exchange. And I said was the word he used kidnapped? And she said no, his word was stolen. And she was kind of angry. And so you asked me what do I think, I think I don't want to be one more person that doesn't give him a voice. Who am I to say that he was telling the truth or wasn't telling the truth about his own story? I'm not going to go against what Uncle Willie himself said.

GROSS: Right. Beth Macy, thank you so much for talking with us.

MACY: Thank you so much, Terry. It was a privilege.

GROSS: Beth Macy is the author of the new book "Truevine." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of essays by poet Mary Oliver, which Maureen describes as a kind of sporadic spiritual autobiography. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Over Mary Oliver's long career, she's received many honors for her poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Oliver has also published numerous collections of essays, ranging from subjects like her decades of living by the ocean in Provincetown, her most beloved writers, as well as her dogs. Oliver's latest collection is called "Upstream," and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I need a moment away from the unceasing word drip of debates about the election, about whether Elena Ferrante has the right to privacy, about whether Bob Dylan writes literature. I need a moment - more than a moment - in the steady and profound company of Mary Oliver. And I think you might need one, too.

Mary Oliver's latest book is a collection of essays called "Upstream." Most of these pieces have been published elsewhere. But reshuffled here, they form a kind of sporadic spiritual autobiography. If that label sounds precious, you don't know your Mary Oliver. As much as she's a visionary poet, she's also the quintessential tough-old broad who finds traces of awe in, for example, scooping out the shining wet pink bladder of a codfish or getting down on all fours with her dog out in the woods and for an hour or so seeing the world from the level of the grasses.

These essays are the product of a lifetime that Oliver has spent closely reading nature as well as the work of other writers. The rewards of paying attention, says Oliver, became clear to her early on. In an opening essay called "Staying Alive," about escaping from her difficult childhood into nature and literature, Oliver recalls, this is what I learned - that the world's otherness is antidote to confusion that's standing within this otherness, the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books can redignify the worst-stung heart. There's hardly a page in my copy of "Upstream" that isn't folded down or underlined and scribbled on, so charged is Oliver's language. What her language is not is sentimental or confessional. As a teenager coming of age in Ohio in the 1950s, Oliver says she felt painfully different. Certainly one could assume her sexuality and literary ambitions set her apart. But rather than supplying biographical details, Oliver conveys the raw essence of her isolation in an essay entitled "My Friend Walt Whitman." Oliver calls Whitman the brother I did not have. In her youth Oliver says, I lived many hours within the lit circle of Whitman's certainty and his bravado. Oliver's affinity with Whitman and other outdoorsy-types like Wordsworth and Emerson makes sense but her empathy for claustrophobic tale of terror master Edgar Allan Poe is surprising, until you remember the emotional isolation she hints at in those essays about childhood.

Her essay here on Poe turns out to be the most compassionate piece on him I've ever read. The second half of this collection takes Oliver through middle age and beyond. She's 81 now. A standout is the essay called "Bird," where Oliver recalls finding an injured seagull on the winter beach in Provincetown where she lived for many years. She carries it back to the house she shared with her late partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, and, together, they settle the gull on an island of towels near a glass door that overlooks the harbor. The gull's injured body, Oliver says, is a shattered elegance, one wing broken the other hurt, both feet withered. Nevertheless, the gull is responsive, even playful. He looks forward every day to a dip in the bathtub and then sunning himself and having his feathers smoothed by visitors. Weeks pass. The gull loses an atrophied leg, a wing, still he hangs on.

Oliver writes (reading) but the rough-and-tumble work of dying was going on even in the quiet body. When I picked him up, the muscles along the breast were so thin, I feared for the tender skin lying across the crest of the bone. And, still, the eyes were full of the spices of amusement. He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact. This is the other part of knowing something when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief.

Attaining that other part of knowing something has been Oliver's lifework. Her poems and essays are her own full-throated response to the question she poses at the very end of one of her best known poems "The Summer Day." (Reading) Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Upstream" by Mary Oliver. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new album by Mahalia Jackson called "Moving On Up A Little Higher." It contains 22 never-released tracks from the 1940s and '50s, when Jackson became the most famous gospel singer in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S BEEN A GREAT CHANGE IN ME")

MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) And there's a great change in me, great change in me. I am so happy. I am so free 'cause Jesus brought me out of darkness into the marvelous light. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, the great change in me. There is a...

MILO MILES, BYLINE: In the '50s and early '60s, even music dabblers knew that Elvis Presley was rock 'n' roll, Ray Charles was soul and the Mahalia Jackson was gospel. The latter two were a particularly apt king and queen because Ray Charles infused gospel into rhythm and blues to produce soul and New Orleans native Mahalia Jackson brought enormous blues inflection and passion to gospel. She's a clear church music descendant of Bessie Smith.

Sadly, Jackson left this world behind in 1972 at only age 59. And by the time I began to listen to her seriously, about a decade later, both Jackson and gospel in general had faded almost off-stage in American music. She spent much of her career on Columbia Records. And certainly by the second half of her tenure there in the '60s, her voice, an expressive rapture, had diminished. It was possible to have the heretical thought was Jackson most famous because she championed Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights and was richly entertaining on TV?

The new "Moving On Up A Little Higher," produced and selected by gospel authority Anthony Heilbut, banishes that thought to the outer darkness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARK WAS THE NIGHT AND THE COLD GROUND")

JACKSON: (Singing) Dark was the night and cold the ground. Dark was the night and cold the ground on which the my savior...

MILES: This version of the venerable church tune was done at a rehearsal in Mahalia's home in Chicago in 1955 and preserved in archivist William Russell's jazz collection. This is more evidence that, as Heilbut has argued, the recording studio is not the most inspirational environment for Mahalia Jackson. Besides the rehearsals, "Moving On Up A Little Higher" includes radio and television broadcasts, concerts in a church and a high school and nine selections from Jackson's performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, which sails above and beyond any Mahalia on stage I've heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YOUR HAND ON THE PLOW ")

JACKSON: You know, I'm really a church singer. And I may have had this rock 'n' roll, but I've got to feel this thing. It got to get to be a part of me, you know. Hallelujah. Well, let's keep our hand on the plow. Thank you so much.

(Singing) Hold on, hold on, keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on, oh, yes, hold on, oh, yes. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Mary had three lengths of chain, and every length was in my Jesus name. Keep your head on the plow, hold on. When I get to heaven, going to sing and shout, be nobody there to put me out. Keep your hand on the plow, hold on. Hold on...

MILES: As Mahalia says later in the show, she's pretty exposed on that stage without a band or a chorus humming behind her. She did have the advantage of the perfectly attuned piano accompaniment of Mildred Falls, part of the holy trinity of piano backers. The other's being Clarence Williams with Bessie Smith and Johnnie Johnson with Chuck Berry. As Heilbut notes, Falls was the only one who could cope with Jackson's slippery rhythms and cadence. The standout of the Newport show and maybe the whole collection is the unmatched rendition of "Move On Up A Little Higher" that reveals not only Jackson's irresistible power but also her oceanic tenderness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVE ON UP A LITTLE HIGHER")

JACKSON: (Singing) You know, I'm going out sightseeing in Beulah. I'm going to march all around God's altar. I'm going to walk, never get tired, Lord. I'm going to fly and never falter. I'm going to move on up a little higher. I'm going to meet old man Daniel. Then I'm going to move on up a little higher, yes. I'm going to meet Paul and Silas. I've got to move...

MILES: As the ruler of her music style, Jackson had one serious disadvantage over Elvis and Ray Charles. They recorded their best work for labels that kept the records available to new audiences. In the '40s, with her voice and spirit as pure as they would ever be, Jackson recorded extensively for Apollo Records, which has been out of business as long as Mahalia has been gone. The Apollo records are eternally tricky to find. But rejoice, "Moving On Up A Little Higher" is now the most varied and fundamental introduction ever for the queen of gospel.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed the new Mahalia Jackson album "Moving On Up A little higher."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guests will be playwright Tarell McCraney and filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who grew up in the same housing project in Miami raised by mothers addicted to crack. Their new movie "Moonlight" draws on their stories. It's about a boy coming of age in that housing project, who's quiet and introverted and bullied by other boys who assume that he's gay. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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