A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Jailed in Mississippi, then again some 2,200 miles away in El Salvador, the "land of volcanoes."
How many American citizens can say they’ve been locked up in both of those places?
Hey, who knows? Maybe I'm the only one.
My adventures began while my friend Don Hill and I were students at Pomona College in California. We were into southern folk music and blues. When we read that two other enthusiasts were making tape recordings of folk musicians in the South, we decided to try it that summer in 1958 using Don's recorder.
We had some success during the cross-country trip.
An early break came in Arkansas, when we stopped at a country store in the town of Delaney and heard about John Lee Mounce. While we recorded, he and a friend played their guitars all of the next morning in a one-room elementary school – mostly old-time country music with a little Johnny Cash thrown in.
When we got to Mississippi, we went to Clarksdale, a well known center of blues music history. A black disc jockey at a local radio station told us about Wade Walton, a black guitarist/blues singer who owned a barbershop.
Wade was willing to let us record him there, but said it had to be after sunset. That evening, before he let us get started, Wade pulled the window shades down. He didn’t want the police to see white boys there.
We stayed in touch with Wade after that, and three years later one of Don’s friends helped him land a performance contract with a company in New York. We decided to drive him there from Clarksdale, as a favor.
We arrived on a Saturday and stayed overnight at the house where Wade and his wife lived in "the negro section" of town. The next morning, she took us to hear her church choir. We were surprised when we came back.
Some Clarksdale police officers were waiting there to arrest Don and me, apparently thinking we were "Freedom Riders." In fact, we had nothing to do with hundreds of northern civil rights activists, known as “Freedom Riders,” who were going by bus to some southern states to press for racial integration.
But we were taken to jail anyway. Don was left in a “drunk tank" and I was put in a cell with a pair of young men accused of robbing a bank.
After a couple of days of confinement, we were released with a clear warning -- I’m not kidding -- to “get out of town by sundown.” Many years later, Don found our arrest report online and it described us as "just a couple of crackpots.”
From Clarksdale, we moved on to other cities including Memphis, where we were able to find and record members of the Memphis Jug Band. That group thrived in the 1920s and 1930s and might have inspired popular rock performers in the 1960s.
Our story had an unexpected outcome about 30 years later, when a couple of events led us to think our old recordings might have some value if we could catalog, document and digitize them. We were able to do that after getting a $40,000 grant from the Grammy Foundation.
When that was done, we donated our collection to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and it remains there now in the American Folklife Center.
My experience behind bars in El Salvador was in 1969, soon after the country's "soccer war" with neighboring Honduras. It got that name because teams from the two nations had just played each other in a contentious World Cup qualifying match.
When fighting began, I was doing some freelance photography work in Costa Rica and I headed north to try to cover the combat. It ended before I got to Honduras. But I went to the border anyway to see where Salvadoran soldiers had invaded.
There were extremely disturbing scenes. In the town of Ocotepeque, I saw a mass grave with bones sticking out, and a teenager whose fingers on one hand were cut off by a soldier’s machete. I also saw a church desecrated by Salvadoran soldiers or civilians. A note, asking forgiveness in Spanish, was put in a Bible.
About a week later, I decided to take some time off over a holiday weekend at a modest beachside hotel. One night, while at the only nearby restaurant, I talked with a couple of the other customers and mentioned what I had seen in Honduras.
The next day, I went to the same restaurant for lunch, wearing only a bathing suit and sandals. When I came out, about a dozen campesinos (poor farmers) armed with machetes ordered me to go to my hotel and put all my belongings in my car.
Then, in handcuffs, I was taken to a jail in the nearby city of San Miguel. It was worse than the jail in Mississippi.
I was put in a "drunk tank" with about 15 men. As I heard the door locked, I remember thinking I was screwed. My biggest fear was getting sick from the food.
But I was released after only two nights in custody. I think I got lucky. Two young newlyweds saw my arrest and apparently reported it to the American embassy in San Salvador. A diplomat there knew me, and arranged for my release.
After working in Guatemala the next couple of weeks, I went to the El Salvador capital to ask for an interview with the country's president. I got an appointment to see him the next evening.
But soon Salvadoran police showed up yet again, ordering me to put all my possessions in my car and then making me sit in the back while two officers drove it to the border with Guatemala.
We arrived after midnight. Although I kept telling one of the border guards that I didn’t want to leave El Savador, it didn't matter. I was forced to drive over a bridge into Guatemala and I had to stay there for a few weeks,
When I finally was allowed to return to El Salvador, I also was given permission once more to interview the president. I never did find out why I was arrested and deported to Guatemala.
His career in photography has taken David Mangurian to all Latin American and Caribbean countries. .