The Jack Daniels Sessions EP – review

The Jack Daniels Sessions EP
by Elwin Cotman
Six Gallery Press, 2010 (Second Printing)
Reviewed by Erzebet YellowBoy

The Jack Daniels Sessions EP by Elwin CotmanWhat does one do with a book like this? Read it, obviously, and if you could have seen me as I read it–eyes widening, jaw dropping, hair standing on end–you would probably have laughed. This is not always a comfortable book to read, but it is a magnificent one. The Jack Daniels Sessions EP: A Collection of Fantasies is comprised of short stories and vignettes that flow into one another like the Mississippi rushes over the Delta. Elwin Cotman is a writer, an activist, a performance artist and above all, an impeccable storyteller.

The books opens with a creation story: in a filthy punk club in Washington D.C., a Dominican girl named Ingrid shreds her guitar–an instrument whose strings hold the memories of the great wyrms that once ruled the human world. An instrument she stole from one of the wyrms when she found them squatting on their mountain of treasure–

“The bastards thought they had a right to all this just because they could breathe fire and shit?”

A great battle had ensued between the wyrms of sunrise and sunset, until finally only three of the beasts remained. Three wyrms of greed and anger, who did not perish in the great age of ice, took human shape and lived on as skinheads. That’s right, skinheads. And when they see Ingrid at the club with their guitar, you can almost guess what happens. Almost–but not quite. I won’t spoil it for you.

There is no such thing as a table of contents; we are thrown into story after story beginning with page 5 until, on page 148, we find ourselves at the breathtaking end. The second story, When the Law Come, takes us into the American south, the deep south, an unreal but all too real south, where we set a spell and listen to many small tales about “that ole gen’ral stow”. You know, the one that got burnt to the ground.

“The law came to Mister Cousins’ gen’ral stow like a whisper through the wheat. Most folk slept quietly in they beds as it snuck cross the cornfields and stole up to that li’l shack that sat halfway between Birmin’ham and the land o’ shadows.”

Written in Black Southern Dialect, When the Law Come is a mixture of folklore, fantasy and truth germinating from a region of the United States that is too often overlooked. If I had to choose a favorite section of the book, this would be it. Sadly, the one page given to the vignette “The Law Comes to Mister Cousins’ General Store”, quoted from above, ends mid-sentence, and I don’t think that was intentional. The following page begins with a new vignette, “The Right Way to Worship”, in which we meet Jim, an employee of the General Store who had “wukked there a hunnerd years.” Jim wasn’t born, he simply appeared there one day in a splash of fire. This is no surprise when one considers the store’s customers: harpies, the Fates, a bone-rattling witch, Beelzebub and Remus, who had just escaped from Hell for the second time.

Not all of the stories are like this. We also have “Dead Teenagers”, a modern and rather raunchy coming-of-age tale, and finally, the book closes with a short novella called “Assistant”, which begins in Bogota, Mississippi, in 1920.

With raw and sometimes shocking authenticity, Cotman turns the ordinary into the sublime. There is no pretension here, just a million-watt light shining into corners of the human condition that many people would prefer forgotten, with a large helping of fantastic creatures, classical myth, and modern mayhem. I am reminded of the early blues recordings as I read this: Bessie Smith, Geeshie Wiley, Elvie Thomas, their voices scratching out from old vinyl, mournful and deep in one moment, joyous and sharp in another, but always, always full of soul.