ords of urban hope open one of the most hauntingly melodic blues songs ever recorded:
Meet me over in the city
And I see everything is so fine
We’ll get together now, darling
Oh yeah, we will
We’ll make everything alright
Oh honey, don’t
Please, please don’t leave me right now
“Meet Me In The City” barely sounds like blues. Under the melancholic, fumbling picking of strings, a bluesy bass line takes a slow-paced stroll. It has the bone-structure of a blues song but none of its markings. In some ways, its narrator reflects the simultaneously transcendent and delusional theme of the song itself: a rural man entertaining the possibility of repairing a broken relationship, if only he and his darling could meet again somewhere else — in the city — as new people. This rural setting, and the blues, he thinks, just won’t cut it if we’re going to get anything done. At least that’s the way I hear it.
Junior Kimbrough wrote the tune sometime in the 1970s, likely with the intention of playing it at the blues bar he ran in Holly Springs, Mississippi. His Juke Joint was known for incredible parties and honest music and was, in the minds of some, representative of the kind of beautiful community the blues could still assemble. In North Mississippi, the flat farmlands of the Delta rise up into rolling hills and dense vegetation, and people are hungry for ways to mingle and connect with. It’s Mississippi’s “Hill Country,” and it’s beautiful, even in its unique struggles.
But as they have since the industrial revolution, city-dwellers devalue the rural setting, as do many who live here. To be rural is somehow to be less, to know less, to have less. To be rural is to be stubborn, stuck in old habits and beliefs. The national narrative of progress points towards the urban centers, so it’s only natural that Kimbrough wants to take his honey there, where things might change and “we’ll make everything alright.”
However, the events of this year have shown that the fabric of many American cities is being torn apart by the charade of color-blindness. Diverse urban centers that progressively insisted everyone was being treated equally have been exposed and are finally being forced to confront the age-old reality that race defines opportunity. In some cases, it even defines your opportunity to live: Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and New York City have all joined the list of big cities where murders are disproving the belief that we live in a meritocracy. Police are killing black men and women, and the resulting debate and turmoil have demonstrated that cities are hardly as progressive as they claim to be.
But this isn’t just an urban issue. In mid-July, a black man was choked to death by a white police officer in the rural town of Stonewall, Mississippi on July 8. It is still unclear what caused Officer Kevin Herrington to restrain Jonathan Sanders in what became a violent altercation. Witnesses insist they saw no reason for Herrington restraining Sanders, particularly when he said, “Let me go. I can’t breathe.” Sanders died, and just like that, a town of just over 1,000 residents became an entry into the conflict sweeping urban centers.
Mississippi’s response to the Sanders’ death has been disconcerting, perhaps unsurprisingly so. Only a handful of articles popped up online, all recounting the same fragmented and disconnected facts. While thousands protested the police-provoked deaths of Freddy Grey and Michael Brown, only a couple hundred marched in Mississippi on behalf of Sanders, most of them Stonewall relatives and community members. Only a couple of people held up #blacklivesmatter signs in Oxford, the largest town near our home, and a statewide intellectual center. Granted, a rural population is limited by its small scale. Still, I worry that Mississippians (myself included) are not joining this critical conversation. It seems we’re poised to confirm the rural stereotype: isolation breeds isolationism and stagnation.
Mississippi has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any U.S. state, and according to the Jackson Free Press newspaper, “from 1984 through 2009, the wealth gap between black and white families tripled.” Racial inequity is rampant. In a time of senseless, blatant murders across racial lines, I would have hoped for a stronger, less complacent response.
In 2006, The Black Keys, a white blues-rock duo from Akron, Ohio, released a tribute album to Junior Kimbrough, who died in 1998. On it, they covered “Meet Me In The City,” which is when I first heard this remarkable song. The band hails from the post-industrial landscape of the Midwest, where urban centers are hollowing out. The concept of a romanticized, all-healing “City” is a slippery one. And yet, just like the country-born Kimbrough, the band intones the lyrics with just as much idealized resolve, with the hope contained in city lights at its core. When it comes to racial reconciliation, maybe the rural and the urban experience aren’t so different after all. Maybe it’s a shared dream of an elusive city in which “we’ll make everything alright.”