Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Of Sausages and Self Sacrifice: Jimmy Dean: "Big Bad John"

A man and his son look at the marble stand near the new mine, in silence; it is a quiet, nearly windless day somewhere in Tennessee, perhaps West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Mining country, a place of stoicism and endurance. They look at the inscription and the boy blinks and then the father begins to recount the story. Was he a bad man? Well, you wouldn't want to cross him, there were rumors...about New Orleans, but New Orleans is a place, a world away from the green grassy hills here. He came here to get away from all that. Maybe he did something so bad he needed to get away from the world, to literally go underground. The pitiless labor of the mine is not something you do on a whim. But he did it, and he did it well, and nobody bothered him much and everything was fine...until...that day. Like that one, dad? he asks. Yes, much like it. John just stood there and held that roof and everyone scrambled up to the sky for their lives. And he remained? Yes, and he remained. A slight pause. Was he a good man after all that? Yes, he was. Was he happy? A longer pause. I read a man once who talked about mining, in his way. The labor, endless labor of it. "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." He wasn't in the habit of quoting Camus out loud, but the Algerian knew what he was talking about. Was Big Bad John's life absurd? Not in the least. He didn't treat it that way. But yes, he died as happy as a man could be expected to, in such a short time. Self sacrifice, you know, is a tricky thing. To give your life for others is the most profound thing of all. They walked away slowly down the road.

It is absurd, in its way, to know that Jimmy Dean went on from this and other country hits to being a maker of sausages; but perhaps after positively existential hits like this one, the more tactile and solid world of food appealed to him. A quiet, shy drifter comes to town and saves many men (courtesy of Lee Hazelwood, of course - this is a soul record of sorts, by the way); an amiable Texan starts a food company to give literal nourishment to the U.S. Dean's voice is authoritative and yet admiring; and yet another bad-man-comes-good story is added to the many that America has already given the world. 1961 comes to a close, on a note of seriousness of purpose, as if something is about to happen. And in a way, it is.

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