The Baptist church is separated from the supply company by a patch of sparse woods, the kind you’d see anywhere and ignore. I lost count, but we couldn’t have been more than a hundred feet in before we came across the first tent. Stewart’s tent was maybe thirty paces further along, situated somewhat in the middle of the six or seven other tents and makeshift shelters spread around the area. Hanging between two thin trees near his tent, a ‘No Trespassing' sign draped with a purple strand of Mardi Gras beads. A bicycle leaned against another nearby sapling. He checked it, said he couldn’t believe that he left it unlocked, and quickly secured it with a chain and combination lock.
I first met Shannon Stewart earlier that morning at the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), a day center in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina that offers services to those experiencing, avoiding, or recovering from difficulties associated with homelessness. I was accompanying cross-disciplinary artist Ted Efremoff on his video shoot for "I'm Walking” by Carolina blues band Lawyers, Guns & Money.
The song is one of fifteen on The Healing Blues, a compilation album that memorializes the life stories of thirteen individuals, all IRC clients, in song. The CD liner notes call it “an audio documentary.”
While we were waiting just inside the entry for Stewart to arrive, I learned that he had cast the metal door handles (shaped like giant bent spoons) on the doors that lead into the IRC. “He’s a fellow artist,” Efremoff said.
It was a chilly, not quite freezing, morning in the middle of December. Stewart had arrived wearing a red sweatshirt, khaki cargo pants and an ear warmer with the UNC logo. I later learned he’s 43 though, he said, “Everyone says I look younger.” And he does. He went inside to grab a cup of coffee, and Efremoff explained the shooting schedule: three to four hours with Stewart in the morning, break for lunch, then 3 hours with the band and Stewart in the afternoon.
Efremoff had scouted numerous locations downtown, though at least one was still uncertain. He wanted the final location to be a downtown rooftop where the band could perform with a view of the city behind them.
The first location was supposed to be the tent encampment. Efremoff asked if that was still okay and Stewart said he thought everyone would already be awake so it should be fine. While Efremoff checked and loaded up his equipment, Stewart pointed across the street. “See where that white truck just turned, it’s just down that direction, behind the church.”
Unsure at first whether we needed to drive, I was surprised to find out the tents were so close to the IRC. We walked down an embankment, across two lanes, the grassy median in the middle, then two more lanes. Twenty or 30 feet from the road, we entered one of those hidden, in-between places.
We had only been there for a minute or two before a younger man peeked out of a nearby tent. Stewart assured him that it was okay, that we were with him and just wanted to get a few shots of the camp. The man glanced around, hesitated, then disappeared back into the tent.
Otherwise, the camp appeared deserted. But Stewart said they never leave it completely empty, that someone always stays behind, and throughout the day someone is always heading back to check on everything.
It’s unclear whether the church, the supply company, or the city actually owns the property on which the tents are perched, though Stewart thinks it must belong to the supply company because someone who worked there came and brought them sodas and snacks one day and said that it was okay for them to stay there so long as they kept the area clean.
“And the people from the church, they don’t bother us,” Stewart said. “I’m pretty sure they know we’re back here though.”
He has considered going to the company to officially request permission, but worries that might just call unnecessary attention. The tents used to be in the parking lot behind IRC. They knew no one would bother them there, but the spot is right next to the tracks making it impossible to sleep whenever trains came during the night. “We were so close,” he said “that you could see the rocks moving on the ground when a train passed.”
He said staying so close to the tracks could also be dangerous. “People sometimes wander off during the night, you know, and get lost or hurt. A couple of people even ended up getting hit.” So they decided to move the encampment and settled on the spot across the street because they wanted to stay within walking distance of IRC, which made clear just how vital a lifeline the resource center was to them.
Even though the tents are a short walk from the road, unless you know they’re there, you’d drive right past the spot. Even walking, unless you had cause to walk into the wooded area, you’d never know a small community huddled within.
In the grassy area beside the curb: an upturned sleeper sofa, the remains of a patio umbrella, some fabric, and a couple of trash bags. Things you might see at the curb in front of someone’s house on bulk trash collection day or after someone has moved out, or been evicted. When I ask about them, Stewart says that was what was left behind when someone just picked up and left. “We had to clean up after them.”
It’s clear he cares about the people who stay there, even caring for them like family. “I try. We’ll have meetings once a week. But I have my supporters and then those that don’t care for me or for what I’m trying to do. But,” he says, “it’s a lot safer being part of a group. Most people are just happy to have a safe place to sleep. But every once in a while someone tries to cause trouble.” I ask what happens in those cases and he says they try to talk to the person but if that doesn’t work they have to ask the person to leave. And if they don’t want to leave? “Then we have to make them.”
It was getting close to lunch time and, still not having heard anything definitive about the potential rooftop locations, Efremoff went inside the IRC to find out if it would be possible to film on their rooftop later that afternoon. There was a young woman sitting on the curb in the parking lot. Stewart sat down beside her while she smoked a cigarette. It was an intimate moment. I turned away and wandered around the front of the building.
Near the entrance to IRC, a sign detailed the day’s schedule. Off to the side, a rock garden with a small metallic bottle tree. Occasionally used decoratively nowadays, they were originally believed to ward off evil spirits. Rather, the evil spirit would be drawn to the brightly colored glass only to get trapped inside the bottle. Though most of the ones I’ve seen use bottles of any color, all blue bottles were traditionally used. There may be no rhyme or reason for this, though my Nana claimed it was because they chased the winter blues away from the house and, presumably, away from its inhabitants as well.
Efremoff came back outside as I was snapping a picture of one of the bottles that IRC clients had painted and decorated. They told him he could use the rooftop, but that he would need two large step ladders to access it. When he saw Stewart sitting on the curb beside the woman, he asked if he could get a quick shot of them together.
It was obvious why he wanted to capture such a genuine, tender and quiet moment. The young woman smiled shyly, then shook her head and turned away. Stewart implored her, but she held a hand up and turned her head further, towards him. In a sympathetic tone, he said, “Aw, she doesn't want to do it.”
They had already gotten a table when I arrived. I saw Stewart lay something face down in one of the chairs at the empty table beside them. After we ordered, I asked if The Healing Blues album was also available as a download, and Efremoff checked his phone before handing it to me. It was playing Stewart’s song, "I'm Walking." Stewart smiled and said, "I still love to listen to it." The song was interrupted by Efremoff's phone ringing. He looked at it, nodded, and walked outside to take the call he had been waiting on; the one that would let him know whether they would be able to film from the rooftop of the Cress building downtown that afternoon.
“He reminds me of you,” Stewart said, unexpectedly. And I thought he meant the waiter who had just dropped off our pizza, then realized he was talking about the one who peeked out of the tent earlier. He said the young man, call him John, got jumped a couple weeks ago while he was asleep. “No one should have to wake up to someone attacking them. After that, I told him he could stay with us.”
I asked about the woman he was talking to before lunch. He said, "She just up and left her husband one day without a word. Somebody like her, out here alone, wouldn’t last too long if someone didn’t help her out." He indicated they're just friends. "I let her sleep on the little cot and I sleep on the floor beside her.” I noticed he hadn't touched his second slice and wondered if I was asking too many questions. Turned out he wanted to get it to go. "She'll be surprised," he said. "She told me she hadn't had anything to eat today. And everybody likes pizza right?"
Stewart said he wished that John, or the woman who just up and left her husband, would talk to us so people could also hear their stories and see their faces. He tells me that John had a college degree, came from a good family, had a good office job working for a professional football team. “People see me and see someone who grew up in foster homes and group homes and they aren’t really surprised. But someone like him, that’s a different story.” The other part of it, the part he isn’t saying outright, is that John is white and the woman is Asian-American. Stewart is African-American. “But people are ashamed," he said. "They don’t want to be seen or judged. I understand. I used to be like that. But still they need the help provided by IRC.” He paused, and added, “It’s called the Interactive Resource Center for a reason. You’re supposed to interact.”
Over the course of the day, between takes or en route to the next location, Efremoff asks Stewart about others who participated in the project. I find out it’s not particularly uncommon for someone to just pick up and leave, or disappear. “I haven’t seen or heard anything about her in a while,” Stewart said in response to one such question. I asked if he ever tried to stay in contact with people. “With some, I do. Of course, not everyone has a phone. But if they do we’ll exchange numbers. Or email addresses. But with people who were just acquaintances, sometimes they just disappear. They’ll maybe leave here and go from city to city for a while—Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington, Atlanta, Tallahassee. Sometimes they get off the street. Sometimes after making the rounds, they end up back here. Other times, you just never see them again and don’t know what happened.”
As we were getting up to leave, Stewart picked the something up from the chair of the nearby table. He said that was the painting he had mentioned earlier that he had planned on just throwing out. "But," he said, "I found out Janice really likes birds so I decided to finish it and give to her." Janice co-wrote Shannon Stewart’s song on The Healing Blues album ("I'm Walking") with her husband Terry Vuncannon.
Leaving the restaurant, I asked if I could snap a picture of him holding the painting; he paused before turning it around towards me, balanced atop the to-go box that contained the slice of pizza.
I headed back to the IRC to get my car so I could meet them at the next location. As I rounded the corner of the building, I looked over towards the wooded area between the church and the supply company and was surprised I hadn’t really paid attention to the billboard before; looming above the spot where the unmarked trail leads through the wooded area to the tents, it reads: “Welcome Home The Brave.” Inside the red ‘A’ in Brave, the silhouette of a soldier is carrying another soldier over his shoulder.
The Healing Blues project started, for all intents and purposes, when Efremoff saw a call requesting “blues-inspired art installations” for a storefront project sponsored by the Open Art Society (OAS).
OAS grew out the Durham Storefront Project, which creates opportunities for artists while also bringing downtown to life each spring and fall with “innovative art installations in idle spaces.” It has since changed its name to Pop! Art in Downtown and expanded its Durham storefront installations to other cities.
For Pop! Art Downtown Greensboro, the Open Art Society was looking for “blues-inspired installations” to honor both the history of blues in the region as well as the Carolina Blues Festival, the longest running blues festival in the Southeast.
To help understand how and why the blues developed, and developed a different sound, in the Piedmont than the Delta, take a look at these USDA maps from Jan. 1, 1920 which show "Farms operated by colored owners " and “Farms operated by colored tenants and croppers.” (Source: U.S. Dept of Agriculture Yearbook 1921)
The largest number of African American-owned and operated farms was in eastern Virginia and southeastern South Carolina. And the largest number of sharecroppers and tenants were concentrated along the Mississippi river. However, notice that the second largest concentration was along the Piedmont plateau region, generally considered to stretch from either Washington, D.C. or Richmond, Virginia south to Atlanta, Georgia or Birmingham, Alabama. The vast region includes several cities and urban areas and for that reason alone musicians in the Piedmont would have been exposed to a wider range of musical styles than their counterparts in the rural Mississippi Delta.
Nick Spitzer, professor of anthropology and American Studies at Tulane and host of American Routes, also points out that in the Piedmont “black and white economic and cultural patterns have overlapped considerably—more so than in the nearby areas or the Deep South. Piedmont blues styles reflects this, meshing traces of gospel, fiddle tunes, blues, country, and ragtime into its rolling, exuberant sound.”
While Piedmont blues is infused with elements of these other genres, most agree that its defining characteristic is a style of guitar picking that echoed ragtime piano playing. Blind Blake is considered by many the master of this style. A compilation released in 1990 was titled Ragtime Guitar’s Foremost Fingerpicker, and another released in 1996 was titled The Master of Ragtime Guitar: The Essential Recordings of Blind Blake.
Ragtime itself is said to have derived from the regular percussion-driven rhythm of marches (or music originally written for military marching bands). Echoes and modifications of that marching rhythm have frequently found their way into the blues as well, especially in songs about rambling, traveling, or walking.
Son House’s “Walkin’ Blues,” first made famous by Robert Johnson, has been covered by the likes of Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Cee Lo Green. On the Piedmont Blue classic “Walking My Troubles Away” by Blind Boy Fuller, you can hear the influence of both the march and ragtime—the guitar almost sounding like a piano roll at times before returning to that regular base rhythm, like a shuffling gait. Band leader Fulton (Fuller) Allen was from Wadesboro, North Carolina and member Sonny Terry was from Greensboro, Georgia (though, oddly, some accounts also cite Greensboro, North Carolina).
SLIDESHOW FROM ART IN ODD PLACES IN GREENSBORO, NC
Eight artists were selected to exhibit installations in downtown Greensboro storefronts. One installation (“There’ll Come a Time” by Atlanta artist Terry S. Hardy) contained trees suspended in the air with networks of roots dangling as if they had just been ripped from the mound of dirt beneath them. It’s not difficult to see this image of rootlessness as symbolic of the South, the blues, and the modern industrial era in general.
But where Hardy’s piece for Pop! Art Downtown Greensboro implied a kind of call-and-response with the viewer, Efremoff’s installation essentially required one. Just in front of Mosaic Piano on Elm St. in downtown Greensboro there was a tree that held a little chalet-type house, and pencils tied with white string dangled from its branches. A sign on the little house solicited anonymous experiences of or with the blues from passers-by. So those who stopped to share a story also became part of the installation.
The anonymous letters were also displayed in the storefront. The Open Arts Society awarded Efremoff’s installation a Juror’s Choice Award, calling it “part installation, part performance, and part concept album.”
Born in Moscow, Efremoff remembers the weeks that his family spent in Rome, waiting there to receive clearance to come to the United States. “I think we basically had refugee status,” he said. He describes Rome then as “almost like a clearinghouse for a lot of Russian refugees, a lot of Russian Jews, Armenians as well. This would have been the end of 1979, beginning of 1980. And I turned 16… I guess, in Rome. I had my 16th birthday in Rome.” He remembers wandering, “kind of in awe of the city,” through the streets of Rome.
We talked about Guy Debord’s idea of psychogeography and the dérive, often translated as drift and sometimes associated with walking without a destination or wandering aimlessly, but directed by the feelings the landscape produces. Efremoff is fascinated by “the wonder of transporting yourself through space. I’ve always had a kind of affinity for that and how places make me feel. So even when I walked around Rome, at 16, that was always there. I just didn’t have a name for it.”
Much of Efremoff’s previous work concerns borders, bodies, limnal or in-between places, or places that might be called ‘no-man’s land’. Consider Monument to the Hopeful Fisherman, for example. Efremoff often terms his interactive work ‘actions’ as opposed to performances. In this action, (done in Sofia, Bulgaria while there on a Fulbright in 2009) he went fishing in a few inches of muddy water; what appeared to be the flooded section of a street in the middle of an urban area. Bulgarian National Television did a segment on him called “The Artist Who Fishes in a Puddle.”
In a video clip we see drivers pause to look or speak to him (the dialogue rendered in English subtitles). Efremoff said he was searching “the margins of the built environment, for the places not yet resolved… the spaces between spaces” and “trying to figure out the potential, the possibilities.” He concluded, with regard to fishing in a few inches of muddy water, that it’s “a fruitless activity, but somehow full of hope.” Which sounds a lot like the definition of any art.
Efremoff also has a history of creating work centered around social justice and action. While teaching at Eastern Connecticut State University in 2008, he did a project with students in a 2-D Design class. He says that he wanted students to have a real experience of the city and to do something altruistic. He asked them to study homelessness in the town of Willimantic, and come up with typefaces in which they could write certain statements about the issue. He spoke with local organizations that helped the homeless and then got “permission to write some things on the sidewalks that had to do with homelessness and organizations that help the homeless.”
Students made large stencils, each letter about a foot tall, and set out to spray paint their sentences on the sidewalks around town. The sentences said things like “Even I could use some help,” “Even I could help,” or “Even I could freeze,” followed by the web address of an organization that provides support to the homeless. “I documented it,” Efremoff says, “and everyone at the school loved it. But then there was this kind of a backlash from the merchants of the town. They said ‘this is blight’; ‘you guys are graffitiing our sidewalk’; ‘You guys suck basically. And especially Ted Efremoff sucks because he came up with the whole idea.’
This became a war of words in the newspaper with the people who were disgruntled, and Efremoff pointing out other markings on the streets, the ones construction crews leave to identify things underground. And since the frog is the symbol of Willimantic, he said there were also these frogs stenciled all over the streets. “What we’re talking about here is homelessness,” Efremoff said. “Do you consider the people hanging out on your corner blight as well? Do you look at them as graffiti and think ‘Let’s erase them, let’s not have them’? Where do they go? This was intended to raise awareness, to make people see them.”
Ultimately, he had to go to his students and tell them they were getting into trouble with some folks in the community. He said the students were very invested in the project and one in particular wanted to figure out a way to deal with it. They put on hazmat suits, masks, and gloves, and wrote ‘Art Removal Task Force’ on the back, venturing out in the snow to erase their own words.
“I remember we were right in front of the library and some people thought we were city workers and they were like ‘Oh no, they’re making you work in the snow’; and other people came up and said ‘Thank God, you’re removing this graffiti’; and then some were like ‘Why are you removing this? It should be here. People should be aware of this.’”
When he went to Bulgaria in 2009, Efremoff took the Art Removal Task Force’ with him and, with a group of Bulgarian students, did a symbolic removal of a Soviet monument “We were kind of doing this tongue-in-cheek thing asking: Does art make you think? Does it make you uncomfortable? We can come and remove it, or blow it up!” But he points out that this plays off a very serious idea about the power of art and about addressing things that people often don’t want to hear. And as a result many simply ignore it.
Efremoff knows what that feels like. In an action in Berlin in 2009, he sat in the train station holding a signthat read: “Ich Bitte Sie Für 1 Wort” (I Beg You For 1 Word). In his Artist Statement, he says “To facilitate dialogue, I begin by creating situations, spaces, or events that engage people to question their relationship to the status quo.” In this case he was interested in understanding attitudes and behaviors towards a beggar. Most didn’t bother to read the sign and just assumed he was begging for money. “The experience was humbling,” he said. People averted their eyes, ignored him altogether, or walked in a wide circle to avoid him. But twenty-eight people did stop to give him a word. Thus, the title of the project, Monument to the Hopeful Beggar/ Ich Bitte Sie Für 1 Wort.
It’s easy to see how ideas and themes from Efremoff’s previous work echo and reverberate in the The Healing Blues project. Even before the initial installation at Mosaic Piano, Efremoff became interested in pairing people who were experiencing the blues (from homelessness, PTSD, abuse, or other trauma) with local blues musicians. At first he had no idea how he could go about finding musicians and briefly contemplated taking an ad out on Craigslist. “But,” he says, “I decided to reach out to my colleagues in the music department at Greensboro College.”
Despite the large number of people and organizations that have been involved in the project, no collaborator has been as instrumental as Dave Fox.
“You could call me the musical director,” Fox said. “I came on board and handled pretty much all the musical end. I got the storytellers together and arranged the meetings with the storytellers and the blues musicians, and then produced The Healing Blues CD.”
Both were surprised by how much the project grew, and how much time and energy went into it, but they have already been considering producing a follow-up album. “The Healing Blues has legs to grow. People are still hearing about it. We’re still selling the CD, still trying to raise money for the IRC. And every other week there’s some new radio station that picks it up, or a new reviewer writes about it.” Recently, the album was reviewed across the pond in the prestigious British The Blues Magazine. Fox indicated that a volume 2 of The Healing Blues would have the same goal, “to raise money for the IRC and raise people’s awareness about homelessness.”
But before there was any talk about another album, Stewart said that when it came to telling their stories and having those stories turned into songs, not all of the IRC clients were lining up to get on board. But after they heard his song, saw all the positive things to come out of the project, or found out that the storytellers shared in the profits, “now everybody’s coming up asking if there’s going to be another record. And how can they get involved.” Stewart smiles when he says he still listens to the song every day. “I know some people probably get tired of hearing me talk about it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.”
In addition to considering a follow-up album, Efremoff is currently interviewing storytellers and musicians and working on creating a documentary film out of the footage that he shot throughout the process. Efremoff allowed me to screen some of the footage. One of the clips involved Shannon Stewart.
In it, two members of Lawyers, Guns & Money (Terry Vuncannon on slide guitar and Steven Headen on vocals) play the song live for Stewart at the Interactive Resource Center. Janice Gatton-Vuncannon, who co-wrote the song with her husband Terry, is seated beside Stewart. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation. She said they “really wanted Shannon to love it.”
It’s also great to hear the song stripped down like that. Because even without the percussion of drummer Mike Thomas, we can still hear the influence of both ragtime and the march in the steady locomotive rhythm of Vuncannon’s slide guitar. And Headen’s delivery manages to be simultaneously smooth, understated and emotive.
You can tell the song is still brand new as Headen glances at the lyrics a couple times near the beginning. It’s also moving just to watch Shannon Stewart listening to the song, his song, for the first time.
This story was produced for The New New South through the Digital Publishing Project at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies.