Wunderkammer: The Unexpected Literary and Musical Heritage of Rocky Mount, NC

Megan Mayhew Bergman
November 16, 2011
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A wunderkammer is a curiosity cabinet; it means “wonder chamber” in German.  In these posts, I’ll assemble trivia and a handful of oddities that evoke the spirit of a particular book, author, or idea.

Before it was a town with a high crime rate struggling under the loss of industry and damage from Hurricane Floyd, Rocky Mount was a mill and tobacco town, and a popular stop off the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad.  Life Magazine even noted its lively June German dance in 1937–a weekend-long party with 8,000 guests which sometimes attracted big musical talent like Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw.

I grew up there and, only after moving away, became fascinated by the musical and literary talent that had passed through my hometown.

Rocky Mount Train Station

Read more…(Kerouac, Thelonious Monk, and Allan Gurganus)

In 1956, Jack Kerouac spent time in Rocky Mount, NC, with his sister Caroline (“Nin”) and her husband, Paul.  Kerouac later referred to the town as Testament, VA in On the Road, Visions of Cody, and Dharma Bums.  In On the Road Kerouac writes:

One day when all our Southern relatives were sitting around the parlor in Testament, gaunt men and women with the old Southern soil in their eyes, talking in low, whining voices about the weather, the crops, and the general weary recapitulation of who had a baby, who got a new house, and so on, a mud-spattered ’49 Hudson drew up in front of the house on the dirt road. I had no idea who it was. A weary young fellow, muscular and ragged in a T-shirt, unshaven, red-eyed, came to the porch and rang the bell. I opened the door and suddenly realized it was Dean.

Kerouac's Sister's House in Rocky Mount

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Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount wound its way into other Beat work.

Allen Ginsberg namedrops Rocky Mount in his epic poem Howl, writing of those “who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys or Southern Pacific to the black locomotive or Harvard to Narcissus to Woodlawn to the daisychain or grave.”

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Rocky Mount wasn’t just known for its Old Nash tobacco, but also for its music.  Thelonious Monk was born there in 1917 and renowned tenor saxophonist Harold Vick in 1936.  Rocky Mount Instruments (RMI) designed and produced electric pianos that deeply influenced 60s rock.

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Perhaps Kerouac was influenced by both the sights and sound of Rocky Mount.  In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg said:

“Yeah. Kerouac learned his line from–directly from Charlie Parker, and Gillespie, and Monk. He was listening in ’43 to Symphony Sid and listening to “Night in Tunisia” and all the Bird-flight-noted things which he then adapted to prose line.”

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Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus, born in Rocky Mount in 1947 and author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, speaks to NPR about the sound of Rocky Mount in Thelonious Monk’s work:

“The combination of that industrial sound overlaying a sense of strangled melody, which is what you feel in him sometimes – this flirtation with the melodic that’s then sort of suppressed by these big cords and percussive overlay – I can’t help hear Rocky Mount when I hear the music,” Gurganus says.

Downtown Rocky Mount

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In an interview with Robert Birnbaum at Identity Theory, Gurganus muses about what it means to be a southern artist and maintain a connection to home:

“…You would be a crazy person not to be rejoicing everyday not to have been born in the south. The sheer density of narrative, the sheer capacity for telling amusing stories, not just by people that are paid to write…

…We just owned that patch for a long time and paid our club dues and turned up at church and knew where we were going to be buried. Over enough generations, that really amounts to something. For a story teller it gives you a tremendous kind of fossil fuel, a tremendous sense of material and a tremendous kind of trajectory.”

 

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