The Chitlin Circuit

AUGUSTA IS A THREE-HOUR DRIVE from Toccoa along the South Carolina-Georgia border on Highway 17, an endless strip of road connecting towns with names testi­fying to their isolation — Pignail, Black Well, Lost Mountain. The only thing that holds this monotony of farmland and pine forest together is the radio, a verita­ble House of Music down here, built from the bottom up: gospel, bluegrass, jazz, and Delta blues filling the 80s on the dial, rockabilly, early Stones, and Broadway show tunes in the low 90s, everything from Vanilla Fudge to Simply Red for the rest of the dial, a few staticky black sta­tions playing rap and funk at the top. Dotted throughout, of course, is coun­try — the music Brown grew up hating as the sound “playing on the radio of every white man I ever worked for” — every­thing from Hoyt Axton singing “Work your fingers to the bone/What do you get?/Bony fingers” to Charlie Daniels bragging how country boys survive.

If you drive around long enough, you find your way into the black sections of these pretty, dirt-poor towns, where you’ll find the only bar and liquor store open at this time of night, the only signs of life. In the ’50s these bars formed the chitlin’ circuit, the subject of James Brown’s 1962 hit “Night Train”: a swath of juke-joints from Washington, D.C., to Macon to Jackson to Miami. In cars like Guy Wilson’s station wagon, Brown put in tens of thousands of miles along High­way 17 and other roads during the six years he and his fellow travelers were refining and swapping their various strains of rhythm and blues. There was Little Willie John and fellow Georgians Little Richard and Otis Redding, but James Brown was the greatest of them, with a voice that screamed and crooned in coloratura range through songs like “Try Me,” “Don’t Let It Happen to Me,” and “Lost Someone.”

Pleas, Pleas, Pleas: The Tribulations and Trials of James Brown
Ivan Solotaroff
Village Voice, February 21, 1989