Centralia, OK.

 

 

 

 

Centralia, OK Students of American popular culture are well aware by now that Jed Carroll, 60s folk troubadour and impresario, who has come to be defined as much by his dizzying transformations—from protest singer to counter-culture icon, to decadent poet of the hungover 70s, to born-again to “godfather of punk,” to rock and roll elder statesman—as he ever was defined by any one of those labels, and whose state of perpetual change, whose restlessness, whose continuous evolution seemed to mark him as a distinctly American artist was, in actuality, born Brian Hinshaw in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. For many years, though, Carroll’s origins were thought to lie elsewhere, for Carroll told us that they did, in the small town of Centralia, Oklahoma, roughly fifty miles from the Oklahoma-Missouri border.

When Carroll arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, he carried with him three items in a brown paper shopping bag: a hardcover edition of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems, a two LP recording of the third volume of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, and a scuffed and beaten AAA Road Atlas. And it wasn’t long after his arrival that, perhaps aware of what he would one day become, Carroll set about fashioning his own creation myth. He sat down at a lunch counter on West 4th Street and began slowly turning the pages of his road atlas, the vast expanses of the American Heartland passing before him until he stopped at a two-page map of the state of Oklahoma. “The name just sorta jumped out at me,” he would say later. “Centralia, you know. In the middle. In medias res. In the middle of nowhere.”[1]  But what he didn’t know then, Carroll, who by this point had still to even set foot in Oklahoma, was that, just as Jed Carroll could not be said to exist fully yet—that is, Brian Hinshaw had yet to be completely replaced by Jed Carroll—Centralia, Oklahoma did not exactly exist then either.

When cartographers draft maps with the intent to put them into wide circulation, they are faced with a unique dilemma. What, after all, is to stop a rival cartographer from simply purchasing that same map, copying it, and selling it as their own? The very objectivity of the discipline, which (seemingly) offers the cartographer little room for interpretation, makes such theft particularly difficult to spot. To safeguard against copyists then, mapmakers will often include on their maps some fictitious landmark, a town or street or secluded pond perhaps, so that, should that fiction appear also on a rival cartographer’s map, the crime would be definitively exposed. And Centralia, Oklahoma, which Jed Carroll sat looking down on from his perch in a Greenwich Village lunch counter in 1961, the place that he began to dream as his home, was just such a fiction.

As Carroll’s fame grew, American teens, and not a few older enthusiasts as well, folkies and musicians and poets and free-spirits, who already were beginning to identify Carroll as the standard bearer for some still-to-be-defined cultural movement, began setting out in twos and threes, on pilgrimages along the American highways and byways, to find the place where the elusive singer had been born. Aided by the same AAA map that Carroll himself had used, they criss-crossed the middle plain. They asked waitresses and service station attendants and shop-keepers for directions, pointing to the spot on the map, as if to justify or make real their delusion. “Yeah, I see it there,” the locals would say. “But I ain’t ever heard of no Centralia before.”

At this time, in Vinita, OK, a small town near the spot where the fictitious Centralia should have been, there lived a restauranteur named Clay Burton, who in the course of only a couple weeks had been approached no less than seven times by these now-familiar clutches of breathless pilgrims. An idea all at once planted itself in his mind then, and these Yankee tourists ceased to appear to him as a nuisance, but rather as what he would later call “a opportunity.”  Burton began building on a spot along a dusty county access road, roughly where the AAA Road Atlas had placed the town of Centralia, a little burger stand called Clay’s, which advertised Centralia’s Finest Cheeseburger and where, Burton told people, Jed Carroll worked as a short order cook afternoons after school and on weekends and in the summer until one day he’d lit out for New York City.

It was around this small burger joint that the town of Centralia soon blossomed, and Clay’s was later joined by Carroll’s childhood home, and the home of his first steady girlfriend—a woman named Cheryl Arter who claimed that several of Carroll’s early songs had been written either for or about her. The police station where Carroll had been locked up for a night and half a day after drunkenly kicking over a row of garbage cans. His old high school—the building itself had once served as the Middle School for a Duncan, OK school district, and had been moved to Centralia on the back of three semi-trailers in the late 60s after Duncan had built newer facilities. An ersatz canning factory “where the wrecked and retched staked their lives,” as his 1962 paean to the town puts it, was erected outside of town, its smokestacks burping long trails of acrid, alfalfa smelling smoke.

The town’s salad days visited it in the mid-1970s, when Centralia and its many Carroll-related attractions had become a kind of proto-Graceland. At its highpoint, Centralia boasted a Woolworths, two banks, a furniture and appliance store, several antiques malls, a McDonald’s—which would eventually force Clay Burton’s roadside diner to close—and a three-time State Champion high school football team, the Centralia Mustangs. Even after Carroll’s Canadian origins became universally known, Centralia still prided itself as The Birthplace of Jed Carroll, until the late-1980s, when The Centralia Council for Family Values, headed by the wife of a minister at the Centralia Church of Christ, launched an aggressive campaign to improve the town’s image by distancing itself from the degenerate rock icon.

Today, Centralia stands mostly in ruin. The roof of Carroll’s childhood home has fallen in, and the high school will soon graduate its last senior class—comprised of only eleven students. The ersatz canning factory no longer produces the haze of smoke that for so many years hung over the town and spoke so poignantly to visitors of the despair and desperation that helped forge one of America’s most distinctive and singular voices. The Save Centralia Committee, headed by Carroll’s high school sweetheart, Cheryl Arter, has arranged a festival and concert this summer, to coincide with his seventieth birthday, the proceeds of which will go towards, among other projects, restoring Carroll’s childhood home and re-opening the hamburger stand where he once worked. Centralia’s graduating seniors have each penned letters asking him to please come and help rescue their town, for his appearance at the festival alone would be enough, they say, to save it, but the increasingly reclusive Carroll has yet to respond.



[1] Ben Romanowski (editor). Jed Carroll Speaks: 30 Years of Interviews. New York: Bentley Press, 1991. p. 345.