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How's Bayou? Moon over Elvis

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1937, John McCrady (St. Louis Art Museum)

'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' 1937, John McCrady (St. Louis Art Museum)

It wasn't, as the lyrics go, 2 below in Tupelo, Elvis Presley's birthplace in central Mississippi, last month; but it was cold enough for a sweater.

As I walked from the simple wood-frame house where Elvis was born to the nearby auditorium where a rollicking concert by blues star Memphis Joe and his band awaited, the cool, dry night and deep blue sky presented a scene in which nature imitated art, a brilliant dance of dramatically-mutating clouds and a klieg-light moon that brought to mind the apocryphal sky in Southern regionalist painter and New Orleans resident John McCrady's dramatic painting, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Some critics have viewed McCrady's fantastical skies as elaborate fabrications; but the late-night sky in Tupelo proved more incisive writers correct.

In October 1937, exactly 76 years ago, a writer for Time magazine described for readers the scene that confronted him in Philadelphia's Boyer Gallery:

"Outside a Delta shanty, hound dogs are baying, and an empty model-T Ford rests heavily on its tires. Within, prayerful and curious relatives cluster around a dying Negro. Dusky arch-angels, towing a chariot, hover in the luminous blue sky overhead. Gabriel blows his horn. Another angel gleefully grabs Satan by the tail.

"This isn't a religious nightmare; it is a painting."

The competing critic of the New York Herald Tribune was more direct in his appreciation of the artist and his work, which, he claimed, "steals the show":

"Seldom is one permitted as much unreserved appreciation of a picture. Mr. McCrady [1911-1968] combines fantasy and realism with a quiet humor in his work, which suggests that he enjoys immensely the people and the scenes he paints. The dramatization is whimsically moving."

 Caption 2: A McCrady sky over a wintry Tupelo, Mississippi, October 2013 (Photo by Keith Marshall)

Caption 2: A McCrady sky over a wintry Tupelo, Mississippi, October 2013 (Photo by Keith Marshall)

It's easy to overlook the artist's accurate observation of landscape and sky in his transmutation of the Southern landscape into art. But the dramatic Tupelo heavens that night took the process a step further, a case of nature imitating art imitating nature.

Swept up in the Elvis mythology on the threshold of the Mississippi Delta, it was easy to recreate in my mind the scene that opened above that simple cabin near Oxford, Mississippi, in McCrady's imagination. What surprised me once again was the artist's fidelity to the natural scene in his fervid creation of a soul departing this Earth in this visual interpretation of the spiritual Swing Low.

Connoisseurs of the artist's work lovingly refer to such dramatic evocations as "a McCrady sky."

The dramatic highlights of the moonlight sweeping across the percolating clouds. The palpable texture of the evanescent, ghostly shapes above the auditorium that anchored the celestial performance above to terra firma below as precisely as the cabin and Model-T Ford do in the painting. Even the small shimmering orb, to the right of the Tupelo clouds and the left of those above the Oxford cabin.

There was artistic license in one and heavenly theatrics in the other. But each was magnificent, art and nature on a par.

And then there was the delirious sound of Memphis Joe, drawing us into the black hole of a darkened theater that pulsated with dynamic rhythms and synchronized lights.

A night of stars, heavenly and terrestrial.

How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.