A church house, gin house,
A schoolhouse, outhouse.
On Highway number 19.
The people keep the city clean.
They call it Nutbush (a little old town)
Oh, Nutbush. Nutbush city limits.
So opens the song that made everybody dance. When it was released in 1973 Tina Turner’s song Nutbush City Limits found a place in the feet, spinal cords and the brains of millions of bodies. Its stomping rhythm and wild synthesizer riffs moved you irresistibly. Tina sang aggressively and you wanted to know why. The words took a hold in my 11-year-old mind like sprouts in mud from a riverside willow tree.
I chewed over song lyrics. I was always a wordy girl. I had a mildly religious phase when I was 13. I went to church camp (hoping to meet a boy, really) and came home and did Bible study for half a year. I felt better educated, but unsatisfied. That unsatisfied feeling was due to settle in.
At school dances Nutbush was always on the playlist. Why did they put a church and the gin house in the first line? The people keep the city clean, well, that’s good isn’t it? Is it good if they go to church? I thought. What was this Nutbush place? It made us dance. That was the main thing. Out of our heads, out of our beds, strutting around the wooden floor of the school floor.
And there on t.v. was Tina, magnificent. Her powerful long legs below a shaggy fringed dress with a shaggy razor cut hairstyle. Pounding African steps in impossible heels – American tension personified.
By 1977, one of the boys I adored at school had left and got a job as a window dresser at the mall. Then he got a job at a record company. It was all too impossibly glamourous. A lot of the cool kids left school: some married, some took up trades. I was never a cool kid. I was plain looking and bookish, but I was impatient for a more interesting life. Being told that my whole future depended on these two years of high school did not help to motivate me. I had to get out somehow.
In my second last year in High School I sent an application to be an exchange student to the USA. I went to an interview on Sydney’s wealthy North Shore without telling my parents. My poor father responded to my declaration of my acceptance into the exchange program with a weary concern about how much it would all cost him. I don’t know how many hours of overtime he had to work to pay for me to be able to go. Mum was apprehensive about me being away for a year with strangers. ‘I’ll always try not to get in your way,’ she said quietly. My Aunty Sadie gave me a keyring with a miniature gun on it, ‘Because they’ve all got guns in America.’ Aunty Maureen bought me a deadly pair of high-heeled cowboy boots.
I was dreaming of New York and San Francisco. But like most exchange students (and many Americans) I ended up in a small town in the Midwest – the sprawling, agricultural middle of the continent.
I found myself in a place of open fields. People grew corn, soybean and rape. Some raised hogs.
The town in Tina Turner’s song, Nutbush, Tennesee, was built by slave labour. The small town I went to in Illinois was not; it was built by German immigrants.
That town was established in 1858, the year Abraham Lincoln (who came from Illinois) made a speech saying, ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free.’
That was ten years after Illinois specifically banned slavery in its constitution. So my town was different to Nutbush. Even so, Turner’s lyrics had a familiar rhythm: ‘You go the fields on a weekday. You have a picnic on Labor Day. You go to town on Saturday. But go to Church ev’ry Sunday.’ (At least Labor Day made it to Nutbush – some kinda progress.)
In the Blues tradition, the song implies a lot without saying much. As a young teen I had trouble processing the references. How can you have a town where motorcycles aren’t allowed? You get drunk no bail -- sounds harsh. How about salt pork and molasses is a-a-all you get in jail? My time growing up in the Midwest helped me understand. Now, there’s a whole story playing out in my mind when I hear those lines, that starts with a sheriff running a motorbike rider off the road. The rider ends up in the cell being called, ‘Boy’. You could make a movie out of it.
There were similarities between our town and Nutbush. As Tina said (twice) in the song there was no avoiding church ev’ry Sunday. We had a small Protestant Church, the kind of preacher-made small business community church you see all over in America. I looked around wondering who believed. Had a pretty strong sense that some people were there for social approval.
I was disappointed in the town overall. Where were the Black people? If I had to go to church, why couldn’t it be all that vibrant call-and-response and Hallelujah music?
We did have some theatre at our little church. There was a square pond at the front to baptise people in. And we drank grape juice and ate bits of cracker for Jesus’ blood and body. I hadn’t done that before. Sometimes I went to the Catholic Church, too, with my friends -- where they let Jesus blood have alcohol in it. All the getting up and down at the Catholic Church was a more active thing and the priest had flashier outfits. Overall though, church was very boring. I went because I was told it was expected of me.
Our train was a dry town, like Nutbush. The bar sat at the town limit two-miles out. They called the bar Two-Mile. Of course, I never got to go there. Legal drinking age was twenty-one. Life was meant to be pretty quiet for a girl still at school.
I was full-figured already then and there were not many clothes made for young women my size. In the Australian summers I wore fine cottons from Asia. In the Midwest the farming men would sit outside the town café with their baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. They slowly turned their heads to watch me walk up the road in my Indian and Indonesian cotton clothes. Guess there wasn't much for them to do in town, either.
Some of my school friends were Native American, some Spanish, I now realise. We never talked about our differences then. Some of the houses had walls as thin as cardboard. My friend’s Dad, who raised hogs, was a sharecropper all his life. I learned that not everyone in America was rich. Being an exchange student, my difference was inescapable (and part of the point of me being there). That was one of the interesting things, but none of us could have articulated that at the time.
My host father, a socially insecure and ambitious white man, was uncomfortable when I talked about my mixed-race heritage. There were tense discussions between him and his wife, a kind-hearted white woman from Arkansas. The little girl of the house, my only child companion, was cheeky. She had reason to rebel.
When she danced to Soultrain on Sunday mornings before her parents were out of bed she was scolded for it. ‘Now don’t you be learnin’ those sort of dance moves those people do! I don’t want you comin’ under their influence,’ her mother said, with a move to slap her. At 8 years old, she was obese, round as a barrel. I thought to myself that it was great that she wanted to dance. She didn’t move much ordinarily. And who could watch Soultrain and not want to be one of those people?
School was fascinating. No uniforms and strange cooked lunches. A staple was sloppy joe: mince in a sweet watery sauce on a white bun.
I enjoyed most of my teachers. A flamboyant history and civics teacher, who I loved, told me that the CIA had to get rid of the Australian reforming Prime Minister Whitlam in 1975 because he was way outta control. (That was something that was kind of a secret in Australia then). My chemistry teacher was a pink, ineffectual man the kids were rowdy with, but I did learn some chemistry. They let me go to Future Farmers of America meetings, even if I was clearly not one. I got to go to a Science Fair and to travel to Washington DC with the 4H Club. I went to every school show and dance.
There was this one boy who was a fabulous dancer. He and I could dance together for hours and we did. But he was older and wasn’t a candidate to go to the prom. I wore an ugly yellow dress to the prom, had no date. Just being in America did not create teen heaven.
I was restless. I wanted to learn. I would have gone to the opening of an envelope.
As always, Nature gave us all respite. I loved my walks to and from school, observing the seasons there. It was the first place I saw orange-pink sunsets over snow-covered fields, where the air seemed to be breathable molecules of changing colour. There was a whole new set of skills to learn in the Illinois winter. I never slipped on ice again after my first crash in my cowboy-boot heels.
At school sports events, I enjoyed cheering – shouting my lungs out -- for our team. Basketball was fun. One of my friends was the team mascot, bouncing around in a red devil suit with a plastic pitchfork. The cheerleaders themselves were that classic contradiction of disciplined and dreamy. I found them much more attractive than the basketball players but a couple of them were handsome too. I was in the school play, worked on the yearbook.
On Saturday nights me and my friends would drive around in circles looking for something to do. My best friend understood that just getting in a car to drive was a gift sometimes. We might have gone to the mall, or thought about stopping by the Dairy Queen.
We’d pull up in the middle of the road to talk to other people driving their cars around, in case something happened. When I got home there was Saturday Night Live coming from New York, putting a twisted perspective on all our American lives.
Come the Spring, the meltwater nourished miraculous flowers. The brilliant green winter wheat was under the snow. I could wear my cowboy boots in the mud.
Then one afternoon when I went to the Post Office on my way home from school there was a crowd standing around the entrance to a house next to the town's small row of stores. A Black family had come to town to look at a house. A crowd of nasty old white people came to watch them look at the house. Later I learned it was something the Klan did sometimes to scare people off. The family never did come live there.
It was 1979 and my host-father became apoplectic when the news showed people in Iran burning the American flag. There was an unpleasant volatility under the surface. In hindsight I realise that despite our differences, my host-parents -- strangers in the town themselves -- tried to protect me from that. It was part of the reason they made me go to church.
With all the contradictions, I'm grateful for my time in Illinois. I still have good friends there. I know some of my love of wide-open spaces and spectacular sunsets comes from the time I lived there. Our town was 98% white, but still diverse -- full of all sorts of weirdos and wonderful people. I learned to adapt to many different types of people. The years I spent in the desert as an adult were another aspect of the same of experience I had in rural Illinois -- being in a place where Nature unambiguously dominates.
The people in Nutbush have honoured Tina Turner for her aggressive and driven song. I thought about all this after hearing her interviewed on the radio in the car this week. Her 80th birthday is around now. She lives in Switzerland not far from here, happily married, part of the community. She’s probably not missing Nutbush at all.
Thumbnail pic shows Tina Turner in Norway, 1985. Photo by Helge Øverås