I wanted Logie Meachum to live forever.
I wanted to see him always in one of his recognizable hats, anchoring center stage and making us all happy and warm to the bone.
I wish I was right.
When I got the news Saturday of his death, I broke down. He was the personification of Greensboro’s fist-clenched righteousness, its social justice bent, its love of history and its heartfelt soul.
Greensboro was Logie’s hometown, and he was so much a part of it like the oxygen we breathe. Logie was Greensboro; Greensboro was him.
Three decades ago, Logie helped create the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society. Afterward, he followed his artistic heart, left the security of higher education and took a risk making a living as a musician, poet and storyteller.
It paid off. He has won a shelf of awards and an ocean of fans. But he was more than just an artist and a performer to me. To so many of us.
He was a kind, beautiful man who gave so much of himself to so many of those around him. He represented to me, to so many of us, what is wonderful about being human.
That’s why it’s so hard to say goodbye.
I could’ve caught him onstage a week before Christmas, a Tuesday. He was performing with his friends from the House Of Dues band at a bed & breakfast two blocks from UNC-Greensboro.
I thought about going. I really did. I had seen Logie so many times – and I always loved it – but I figured I’d catch him again when I wasn’t swimming in so much busyness.
Then came Saturday, the news that he was taken down by prostate cancer, an ailment he had been fighting for two years. He was around 65 or so. But no matter his age, he always was forever young to me.
He had this mega-watt smile that could light up a room and a rich baritone voice that could embrace any stage.
Sometimes, he whispered. Sometimes, he sang. Sometimes, he shouted. But most of the time, he talked in a rhythmic cadence of a Sunday morning preacher.
That was music in itself.
He also could make up some diddy on the spot. I’ve seen him do it so many times. It was craaaazy. He’d get us moving or make us remember the importance of why we need to stay connected to our community, our family, our friends, our beliefs and what we stand for.
I know I’ll always curse myself for not seeing him perform that Tuesday night a week before Christmas. But it’s not just that.
He touched so many people. He touched me.
It was February 1998 when I first interviewed Logie. It was right after he took his leap of faith.
In 1993, Logie was teaching black studies at Virginia Tech when he heard in his head, “Fool, go home.” He moved back into his aunt’s house, within 20 steps from his parents’ front door. He renovated the place himself.
He started teaching drama at Winston-Salem State and began booking local storytelling gigs. When I asked about that, he told me about his family of storytellers and how in the ’70s his first wife, a teacher, convinced him to tell stories to her class.
He loved it.
In 1997, Logie left Winston-Salem State – and a secure job with retirement benefits – and became a full-time storyteller. He started touring nationwide and eventually went worldwide.
He told me he was scared. But he emphasized his urge to follow his heart helped him overcome his fear. He wanted to share with audiences the stories about his history and about one of the women who raised him. It was his grandmother, Mary Lilly Chavis.
He called her “Sweet Suga’ Meat Thang.” But mostly, he called her Miss Mae Lilly.
Miss Mae Lilly was a tall, stocky woman with a third-grade education. She could split oak logs, discipline rowdy children, run a corner store, nurse a bed-ridden college professor and recite poetry off the top of her head.
“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stare,” she often told her grandchildren, pausing between every word of the poem by Langston Hughes.
When claps of thunder scared her grandchildren, she calmed their nerves by reciting “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson.
When she heard someone say, “I can’t do that,” she’d quip, “Old Cain’t died when he was a baby.”
When her grandchildren spent the night, she’d wake them up with “In the Morning” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Walking around their bed, she’d say: “All dat daylight shinin’ in, and you laying dere sleep, now dat’s a sin.”
Logie told those stories with such relish, and as I sat with him on his front porch at his aunt’s house, I hung on his every word.
“She was our HBO,” he told me.
It was easy to see why.
Miss Mae Lilly died in the late ‘70s. She was 77. But for Logie, she was still so much alive.
Over the years, the more I heard stories about Miss Mae Lilly the more I realized she represented something that should be important to all of us – our connection to land and the need to remember how a patch of dirt can make a family and create a home.
For Logie, Woody Side was his home.
Logie’s ancestors settled in that stretch of land in western Greensboro right after the Civil War. They were freed slaves from Chatham County, and they moved to Greensboro to be close to the Quakers, people sympathetic to slaves.
Logie, the son of a nurse mother and truck driver father, created strong memories there, and he could make you see, hear and smell of wood smoke coming from that tiny enclave in the shadow of Guilford College.
He told me about playing baseball at Woody Side School and about buying sardines and pickled pig’s feet at Chavis Handy Corner, the neighborhood store that his grandparents ran.
He also told me about The Hut, Woody Side’s juke joint.
It had a jukebox – Logie called it a piccolo – and for a nickel, he could play two songs. Logie fed that piccolo with so many nickels because he wanted to hear Sam Cooke, The Platters, James Brown and any other music that coaxed him to close his eyes and sing.
Logie grew up surrounded by music. Logie sang in the church choir, and his dad always had the radio or the family’s hi-fi going. Then on the weekends during the card parties his parents held, Logie met a man named John Surratt.
He played guitar, and he taught Logie how to play guitar.
Lot of richness in those stories. But Logie left that behind – for awhile.
He became a Marine, a Greensboro firefighter, an honor graduate at N.C. A&T who moved to the mountains of Virginia to earn a master’s and teach.
But when he came back home and took his professional leap of faith, he began telling stories about Miss Mae Lilly. He called his show, “Grandma’s Hands.”
I asked him about all that as we sat on his front porch back in ‘98.
Like always, Logie had an answer.
“We compete against the larger white culture and search to be brilliant and charming in their terms,’’ he told me. “Now, there is a place for that philosophy, but I think we have lost a lot of what we are as a culture, and that’s bad in my mind.
“Our Africanness becomes periphery, Europeanness becomes central, and when that happens, you lose your history and the soul of your history.’”
Then, Logie and I walked. We walked through Woody Side, past his old baseball field, The Hut and his grandparents’ store.
His grandparents’ store was now abandoned, his home plate was a fire hydrant, The Hut was no more and his woods where he once played was a forest full of orange survey flags.
Yet, as we walked, he told me he could still see those places in his mind.
“A lot of folks may say I’m so stuck in yesterday, but yesterday’s memories can be used in the future,” Logie said, pausing over each word. “Memories of love, community and truth.”
So Logie. So true.
I’ve watched Logie close down the last night of Ritchy’s in downtown Greensboro and serenade Helen Mills – Hurricane Helen to so many blues fans – on her 90th birthday.
I’ve watched him keep a class of third-graders spellbound at Peeler Open School for the Performing Arts – my kids’ school – and get a banquet room full of adults on their feet and clapping over what he half-sung, half-spoke from the stage.
It was like some revival. But that’s what Logie did. It never failed. He made any place he performed feel like church — on a good day. In doing so, he created so many good memories for so many of us.
That includes me.
In the beer-soaked light of bars, Logie and I danced with Hurricane Helen, and we danced with Naomi Alexander, another blues fan. We also started a call-and-response between one another on more than one occasion — Logie onstage, me in the audience, wide grin across my face, toasting him with whatever I had in my hand.
Three years ago, we shared the stage at the Greensboro Historical Museum and read our contributions to the book, “27 Views of Greensboro,” the publication from Eno Publishers in Hillsborough, N.C.
Afterward, we sat elbow to elbow, signing books and sharing stories. Well, Logie shared stories. I just listened.
But really, it’s the moments far from any stage that I remember. Whenever we ran into one another, we hugged and caught up with who, what and where in our lives.
Our worlds stopped — at least for a few minutes. It was just Logie and me, talking about sons and daughters, politics, religion, school, the heartbreak of his recent divorce and the pursuit of his PhD.
All the particulars from our roller coaster of life.
But there is yet another moment from May 2006 I’ll always remember. It was before Logie’s divorce from his second wife, Tomi, the mother of his two sons. His personal and professional world was full of verse and music, and I was back at his aunt’s house on his front porch once again.
I lassoed Logie for another interview. It was for his upcoming gig at the inaugural — and only — North Carolina Storyfest.
He fixed me breakfast – scrambled eggs with a touch of blackberry jam and smoked salmon – and he talked about his recent storytelling tour through Alaska. He then walked me back to his cramped back office, where he kept his books, his hats and a vat of his homemade wine.
And yes, I did have some of his homemade wine. Some kind of good.
Anyway, on a window sill between two plaques was an old canning jar half full of red dirt. To Logie, that red dirt was a comfort, a blessing, a connection to his past. It was the red dirt from the grave of Miss Mae Lilly.
“I keep her with me,” he told me. “In the African sense, she may be dead. But not gone.”
He recited from memory a somber African poem. But when he finished, he looked over his glasses — a look I saw a lot — laughed deep from his gut and said: “You know, country people eat red dirt when they get irregular. And you only have to eat a little bit when you’re back in the bathroom, quick as you know it.”
Then came yet another conversation about Woody Side.
“People ask me what I think of African American culture or American culture, and a lot of times, I’m not sure,” he told me. “But what I am sure of is growing up around these oak trees, making homemade wine from that grape arbor and playing baseball over at ‘The School.’ ”
Logie told me that as we were standing across the street from a garden where he and his relatives grew string beans, peppers, watermelon and squash. A car passed by. He waved. Another car passed by. It was his dad, Joseph. He was pulling in.
“I’ve said to people, that’s the dynamic folks don’t know anymore — living on ancestral land, next to your mom and dad,” he said. “It’s so human, but we do so little of it in American culture. And that is my greatest gift to my sons (Isa and Ishmael). Making those family ties, next to two people who still love each other.
“Other than God’s grace, there’s nothing better.”
So Logie. So true.
After his death Saturday, I surfed cyberspace to find the other stories Logie imparted and the other snippets of wisdom he shared.
So much was there.
In December 2008, in an interview published in the News & Record right after he won Greensboro’s coveted O Henry Award, he told freelance writer Jennifer Bringle this about his philosophy about life:
“I’m very conscious in my life that when I sit down in the evening, and I have my last meal, and I kiss my children goodnight, I fully intend to wake up the next morning. But I have come to a place that I have a peace in my head. I try to be as nice to people as I can ‘cause it may be my last day.
“I live with death in my back pocket.
“Zora Neale Hurston called it old three toes with the padded feet, because you can’t hear it. And he lives in every man’s backyard. And he goes out every day and preys on his requirement, which is the life of somebody.
“What we have to pray is that every day when he goes out, he finds something to fulfill himself. Because if he doesn’t, when he comes home, it’s on.
“I’m always mindful that old three toes lives in my backyard. I never let interactions with people go by that I’m not mindful, because it could be the last time.”
In March 2016, in an online story published at Our State, he told Rosalie Catanoso, the magazine’s digital content editor, this about his link to his home state:
“I’m a Carolinian. And this state has been (revolutionary) in the definition of humanity and the definition and manifestations of American culture. My interests and my stories – and my reason to tell stories – are all about my hope that North Carolina will once again be (revolutionary).
“I don’t expect change to come from New York or Boston or Chicago or even California. Great things have happened here in Greensboro, and they will happen again. That’s why I’m here. North Carolina. Tobacco Road. Red dirt and sugar, honey.”
Seven months after Our State published that interview, Logie’s legion of friends started a gofundme.com page for Logie. It was to help him raise money for the treatment he needed in California to beat an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
That was like a punch in the gut. Logie was wrestling with death. Damn cancer to hell. Just … shit. Once again, the impermanence of life became real.
That rallying cry was the first of two fundraising efforts on gofundme.com for Logie. The second one was started last month. Both fundraising campaigns were created by Logie’s longtime friend, Sheila Klinefelter.
On the first gofundme campaign, created right after the 2016 Presidential campaign, Logie wrote:
“All across America today, people are engaging the idea of having a new President and what it means for America. Some are delighted, and some are afraid of the possibilities for further division and marginalization in what is increasingly an indifferent and callous culture.
“Unfortunately, Good News is never good news. We pray all the time, ‘Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.’ The Good news is, for the last two weeks, it has been my experience to be the recipient of God’s Kingdom manifesting itself on earth.
“People from all walks of life and all directions of the globe and community have formed that “Kingdom” of which Jesus speaks, and from that loving cup of kindness, have poured into my life, healing, care, prayer, money and love.
“You, my family and my friends, have brought that heaven to my earth, and I thank you and love you for my life.”
So Logie. That’s why it’s so hard to say so long.
With today being New Year’s Eve, a time when we look back before we move forward, I remembered an interview I had with Logie a few days before New Year’s Eve 1999.
I searched for it because of something I discovered Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When I found Logie’s comments in the archives of the News & Record, my old professional home, I knew she was right.
Logie’s comments resonated then. Nearly 20 years later, they surely resonate now.
Here’s what he said.
What would you put in your time capsule?
A container of all the tears shed this century as a result of rifles, pistols, cannons and guns. That container would surely become one of the top five largest bodies of water on the face of the Earth.
What is your New Year’s resolution?
To listen more carefully to the divine whisper. God can do much with a willing spirit.
What invention or innovation would you like to see in the 21st century?
I would like to see an innovation more than an invention.
My greatest prayer would be to experience in my lifetime an American commitment to the redevelopment and restructuring of public education and public opportunity. Without these, we will continue in the darkness of regionalism, racism, sexism, ageism and, in the future, information exclusion.
We face a global polarity between the haves and have-nots that is information-driven. Without inclusive measures that will allow the rest of the world to share in the technological expansion of our time, we are certainly writing the beginning of our end.
What is your prediction or hope for the future?
It is my hope that we will rise spiritually to the level of our technology and stop acting like caveman in Hart, Shaffner & Marx check suits with cell phones.
Nietzsche believed that the aristocratic society should resemble the oak tree and the sun-seeking vines of Java. They are called Sipo Matador. They enclasp themselves to an oak tree with their tendrils until eventually, high above it but supported by it, they can unfold their crowns in the open light and display their happiness.
Hopefully, we too shall realize that government and the powerful of our culture should provide a scaffolding or foundation on which the people are able to raise themselves to their higher task and a higher state of being.
It is my belief that this task can be accomplished globally with the United States as a model. If we fail to accept this challenge of brotherhood, I fear the road to hell will be our home.
Nelson Mandela often quotes the African proverb “Umuntu Ngumuntu ngabantu,’ which translates, “A person is a person because of other people.’
A person is a person because of other people.
God bless that man.