Welcome to Wobegon ... er, 'Bama
Washington — THE old lady is on the warpath again. ``Nothin' but hot tongue and cold shoulder,'' Wash moans. ``I'm limited to the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen.'' She's also put on 30 pounds.
But Wash is a forbearing man. ``It might not be any fun with her,'' he says. ``But it ain't never no fun without her.''
Welcome to the ``'Bama Hour,'' a gem of Washington's local culture that has been dubbed a ``black Lake Wobegon.'' Running midday Saturdays on Pacifica affiliate WPFW, the 'Bama Hour is three unpackaged hours of the blues, both music and life, the latter in the person of host and raconteur Jerry Washington, better known as ``Wash.''
With Garrison Keillor's ``A Prairie Home Companion'' reduced to reruns, some people think the 'Bama could help fill the void. Keillor and Wash inhabit opposite regions of the American imagination. A ``'Bama,'' as one Washingtonian put it, is the guy who gets off the Trailways bus wearing clashing plaid shirt and pants. While Keillor has evoked small-town America, prim and white, the 'Bama harks back to dirt farming in the rural South; Northern migration to cities like Washington and Detroit; and the slow climb to respectability through the auto plant or the post office. The music is the sound track of those experiences: the blues.
The heart of the show is a running domestic melodrama. As Wash has recounted for more than one reporter, when he started out he wanted a story line to establish an emotional connection with his listeners. He asked a former colleague at a local antipoverty agency, whom he just calls ``Denise,'' whether she would serve as his fictional mate.
Through Denise, his on-air persona has evolved into a beleaguered blues Everyman. His ex-wife is turning the kids against him. His downtown lawyer is getting rich off him - ``They got a whole new floor off of me,'' Wash says.
He's got three families to support and that isn't easy. ``You can sell just about anything to the 'Bama,'' he said during a pitch for ads for the station newsletter. ``Bama's got three families and he's got to cover all aspects of buying.''
The details vary, but not the song. ``I wanted a theme of `somebody done somebody wrong,''' he says. ``A lot of people can relate to this.'' When Wash plays, say, Latimore's ``(She left me with) One shirt and Soleless Shoes,'' he's got you there already.
For Wash's core audience, middle-aged blacks of his own generation, he plays the music they grew up with - the neighborhood jukebox, college days, the first kiss.
Wash is not big on the old-timey blues, though he plays them for his white listeners. His taste runs more to sophisticated, nightclub blues on the borderland of soul, from Bobby (Blue) Bland on through people like Jimmy Witherspoon, Esther Phillips, Sam Cooke, Latimore, and others, many of whom he knows, or knew, personally.
For whites, the 'Bama Hour is an introduction to this music, and a rare glimpse at the world that provides its context and life.
``I feel as though I'm eavesdropping on a subculture I have no entrance to,'' says Arthur Levine, a Washington writer and blues fan.
The show is much more than three hours of domestic travail. Wash is a yarn spinner in the old Southern tradition, who turns the banter of front porches, government mailrooms, and auto-repair shops into a semi-imaginary inner-city bluesland, complete with characters such as Willie Vince, ``Bad'' Black, ``Bald Head'' Billy, and ``Bad News'' Barnes, who has gone from the National Basketball Association to gentleman chicken-farming. You never know where fact ends and the 'Bama begins. And nobody really cares.
Not long ago, for example, Wash was talking about a pinochle game at his house, which led to the subject of his dog, Fuzz. ``Fuzz [is] the same fella that tore up Denise's fur coat,'' Wash explains.
Wash can't get a moment's peace because of that coat. Denise is on his case about a friend whose husband works three jobs to provide her with life's finer things, coats included. ``That might be love, but that ain't the type love that I professed,'' Wash growls. ``I didn't promise her no three-job love.''
Wash and Fuzz are clearly allies on life's hard road. He did a real job on a Washington Post reporter who was poking around the house after Wash asked him not to. ``I told him,'' Wash says. ``Fuzz ain't never seen no white folks.'' After more Fuzz exploits, its back to the coat. Can't blame Fuzz, Wash says. ``He don't got nothin' 'gainst no minks no way. He don't like squirrels and rabbits. Ain't no tellin' what kind of coat that [really] was.''
Fund-raising becomes improvisational theater. A pledge from Baltimore reminds Wash of an old buddy who, last he heard, was driving a cab there. ``Natalie put him out of the house where he belongs,'' Wash recalls.
Wash ``talks country,'' as they say. But the bumpkin 'Bama is really an artistic pose. A large man with black-framed glasses and an expressive, brooding face, Jerry Washington attended prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta and served 23 years in the Air Force all over the world. He is both well-read and world-wise.
Wash puts ``an incredible sophistication of how the world works in the context of [being] one of the Southern guys,'' says Marie Nahikian, a former member of the WPFW board. Wash's Georgia patois provides a cover for his trenchant observations about politics, culture, and race.
The result is a street-level iconoclasm that is generally off limits to whites. During the outcry last fall over Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's disparaging remarks about American blacks, Wash recalled his Air Force days in Japan. It seems two black congressmen had traveled to that country, ostensibly to see how black servicemen like Wash were being treated. As it turned out, they spent all their time at the officers' club and in the ``white section'' downtown. ``But they put it in the paper that they came over to see about `our boys,''' Wash says, with irony you could wipe up with a mop. Here's Wash on why he doesn't wear a tie: ``The section of the country I'm from, you don't wear nothin' around your neck. Brings back bad memories.''
Then there was that civil rights march in the all-white town of Cumming, Ga. Wash couldn't understand what all the excitement was about. ``Ain't nothin' in Cumming I can envision anybody wanting, even the people that live there,'' he recalled in an interview. ``If the white folks want to have an all-white town, they can have it. I don't want nothin' down there.''
WPFW considers itself a ``progressive'' voice, and there were those at the station to whom Wash was on the wrong side of a generational divide. He was a ``homeboy,'' a ``Tom,'' who played that old blues music their parents liked. But his supporters won out. ``WPFW was struggling to be a station that reflected the local black voice of Washington,'' Ms. Nahikian explains. ``He represents a very real point of view.''
Nahikian thinks Wash breaks through a racial divide. ``He talks to whites the way blacks talk to blacks,'' she says. ``That's controversial in itself.''
The phones tend to ring a lot when Wash is on the air. Some callers berate him for his politics, his gab, even the Frank Sinatra records he plays on his Sunday jazz show.
Wash takes the calls himself. ``If you don't like the way I run this show you just keep your money and keep your comments and go someplace else,'' he says on air, tongue only partly in cheek. In an era of readership surveys and media pandering, most listeners seem to find his candor utterly refreshing. ``I've heard him say things that were mildly offensive and sexist,'' says Phyllis Goodnow, a longtime fan. ``But you can forgive him because he's so honest.''
Gene Seymour, a black writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, who is married to Ms. Nahikian, contrasts Wash's 'Bama with Archie Bunker. ``Archie's anger was that nobody gave him the right to be limited,'' he observes. ``Wash is against those who would deny him his right to be unlimited.''
The show's following is intense. Tapes circulate among expatriate Washingtonians, and Peace Corps volunteers have played them in nightclubs in West Africa.
After eight years, however, Wash professes to being a little tired of doing a strictly local show, for no pay. Both he and the station have explored syndication, with no success so far.
To be sure, the show is rooted in the black culture of Washington. But supporters point out that the very localness of Lake Wobegon is what gives it universality. As for taste, Wash is certainly no stranger to life's earthy side. But at heart he's the kind of old-fashioned moralist whose instinct is to avoid certain words in front of the ladies. Often, his mood is lyric and tender.
Some fans, in fact, are apprehensive that the big time could stifle Wash's originality. ``I would hate to see [him] get sucked up by the demands of national radio,'' Seymour says. ``He's such an instinctive artist.'' A more practical problem is whether the 'Bama would work on stations lacking WPFW's unique mix of black and white listeners - and whether white stations would even give him a chance.
Wash is convinced he can do it. Meanwhile, his local fans hope he just keeps ``doing what he's doing,'' as one put it when he opened up the phone lines last winter. Wash is especially popular among the ladies, and several made it clear that he could enjoy no shortage of social spinoffs from his volunteer radio work.
But Wash already has Denise. ``I'm a watched man,'' he says.