The last time I saw Paul Hemphill was in September 2007 at Manuel’s Tavern. I was in Atlanta for the opening of my first photo exhibit and wanted to get his opinion. I had suggested we get together for a few beers and chew over old times. Paul had been a legendary columnist for The Atlanta Journal, quitting the year I moved to the city to write his first and most successful book, The Nashville Sound.
Paul arrived late and, looking more haggard than his usual Raymond Massey self, politely passed on the beers. “Those days are behind me,” he said in a licorice-smooth Alabama baritone. We talked about meeting for the first time when he was signing copies of his latest book at Cliff Graubart’s legendary Old New York Book Store in Midtown, reflected on life in Appalachia and my attempts at convincing National Public Radio to add him to its roster of regional commentators. He had contributed several monologues to my southern radio magazine “Southwind” and I thought they were as good as anything NPR was airing. Besides, the nation needed to hear an articulate, passionate southern voice.
In September 1983, freelancer Scott Ferguson and I produced a 15-minute radio feature for Southwind about Paul and his truck-driving Old Man, Paul Hemphill Sr.
Here are some excerpts from those interviews.
PAUL: “I’m 47 and we were the first generation of southerners to go to college en masse. We also traveled around the nation and the world a lot more than in the past. I’m stronger as a southerner when I travel to Frisco or Paris, then come back home. I come back with progressive thinking instead of being trapped in the old inbred way of thinking in the Bible-pounding South. Those of my generation in their 40s went away, got liberal thoughts about race and progressive thinking. But we still hear momma callin’ us, like Bear Bryant coming back to coach at Alabama, forever coming back to the womb.”
PAUL Sr. “The Yankees came down here, raped our women, burned our homes and went back laughing. What started the Civil War was the Pennsylvania Dutch wanted revenge on the South for making it. The South prospered using the slaves brought here by the (ahem) Dutch traders. They went back to Pennsylvania and bragged how they unloaded all that meat for nothing on southerners. Hostility between the Pennsylvania Dutch and southerners was because they got overdone by the southerners on their own crooked trading.”
PAUL: “I grew up in Birmingham. It was about 60 percent black but my high school was all white. We were separate but not equal. I didn’t know many black people except our maid Louvenia who suckled me. She prepared our lunches but had to sit on the cold back porch to eat because she wasn’t allowed to sit at the kitchen dinette table to eat. We had our feet on their backs until the mid 1950s.”
PAUL Sr.: “Birmingham used to be a nice town but the environmentalists and unions closed the steel mills. When the air was dirty, people had money. Birmingham is practically dead. Some of what my son wrote about me I’m not proud of. Some of it is a tribute to the old man who worked hard all his life. Then there was what he wrote in the Baltimore Sun. He talked to me long distance for about 45 minutes and asked me about Birmingham today. I said the unions and environmentalists finished off the steel mills. His last remarks in that story didn’t set well with me. He said, ‘We’ll see, old man, we’ll see.’ That’s like he’s saying I don’t know what I was saying. I don’t take orders from my wife very good and I damn don’t take orders from him.”
PAUL: “The last steel mill closed about a year ago (1982) and all of those steel workers are out of a job. There’s about 14 percent unemployment in Birmingham today. But the University of Alabama medical center is expanding and now has about 8,000 people, highly educated people, on the payroll. They’re extremely liberal, come from all over the world and speak many languages. They’ve brought a certain patina to Birmingham and are demanding certain standards of culture, like the opera. The Birmingham I grew up in was big on Friday night wrestling.”
(Paul Hemphill is asked about the overall change in the South brought by migration from other parts of the country):
“I have mixed feelings about all the people from the North coming here. They come for jobs and the weather but they can be even worse in their racism. They’re closet racists. Southies in South Boston are as mean as anybody I ever met in Anniston. A lot of them don’t come South for the right reasons. I question their motives. Some of them come down here and think they can say ‘niggernigger’ and get a lot of laughs but the joke’s on them. We have more liberally minded people here than they do where they came from.
“I can only write about the South. I could never write about Philadelphia. I’m writing my sixth book and second novel. It’s called The Holy Ghost and it’s about generations of southerners from Six Killer Gap, North Carolina to Harvard. It’s my farewell to writing about my old man and the good old boys who’ve started to talk just like they do on ABC TV. I don’t know if the homogenization is good or bad. That’s the sadness I feel about the New South. This is the 18th New South we’ve had since Henry Grady announced it 100 years ago. But I feel we’re really becoming that — a new South.”
Paul Hemphill died July 11, 2009 of oral cancer. He was a journalist, author, friend and conscience of the South.