I met Bob Brown in the winter of '62-'63, some night on the way towards spring, two AM or so, at the Carolina Coffee Shop, which everyone called "Byron's." I started going there in search of conversation, looking for poets, for politics for something--maybe a big brother, I don't know. The "Harry's" of the night. I had joined the Student Peace Union I think, or maybe that happened after I met Bob. I know I had already been passing out leaflets suggesting that the US "ban the bomb." Civil rights was already happening in other places in the South, and I had met a Freedom Rider at the Raleigh Trailways Station when I was still in high school and working as a copy boy and weekend gofer for the N&O. It seemed obvious to me that the South could and should change its ways. A practicing Methodist at the time, I had given a guest sermon on the theme of integrating Fairmont Methodist Church at the early service (at the later service, my female counterpart, a freshman at Duke, discussed the pressing issue of sexual abstinence). I was coming at this as a simple moral choice, with no inkling of economic theory or class dynamics, no clue even of the simple notion that keeping black working people and white working people at odds was a handy thing if you happened to be running a mill in the South, or a University for that matter. Bob had written a dissertation on such things, and delighted in talk.
Before long I was knee deep in the kindling Civil Rights struggle in Chapel Hill, picketing, between classes, the segregated restaurants that dotted Franklin Street. Bob was a leader, a voice with a real Left grounding, a man who'd been in the Korean War (33 combat missions his N&O obit says, something he never mentioned), had seen things, done things, out of grad school himself a couple of years but still engaged with the student scene. His energy was boundless and contagious. I was also, eventually, a member of the Reflections Magazine staff, spending hours in the cold downstairs office on Franklin Street, typing away at the fancy electric typewriter that was our typesetting machine, talking and talking with Bob, Mike Smith, Frank Blackford, Boyce Quinn, David Cheek, Kathy Strong and various others amongst the Reflections circle, sitting around the kitchen table with a cup of black Yuban instant, the oven door open for heat if it was winter. Bob was the person who taught me that even if you don't make a choice, that was a choice. That was what he understood as the core of Existentialism. Eventually I went on to Graduate School in Philosophy at UNC, and Bob was best man at my first wedding, the winter after my first wife and I had cat-sat out at his house on Smith Level (way before the fire) for most of the summer of '66, listening over and over again to "Blonde on Blonde."
Bob and I stayed in touch. That marriage broke apart in '69, and I went out to San Francisco with Boyce and David Cheek just to get some space (a high draft lottery number in my pocket), and spent the winter out there. When I came back I spent the first few nights at Bob's, and I recall sleeping through a total solar eclipse during that time, in mid-March 1970, because Bob and I had sat up all night talking. I remember I showed Bob a bunch of photos I'd taken out in San Francisco, and he pointed out that there were no people in any of them. Then I got my life going back here, and hooked up with Bobbie Thompson and became a part of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, and started working at Duke University Press, which was a lot like working at Reflections Magazine, but with pay. As my interest and involvement in fiddling grew Bob offered me a column in the Anvil, which he'd started by then, and for several years I wrote something called "Old Times," a variety of essays about people and things connected to rural southern music: an account of the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention for example, and a transcription of an old mountain lady's story about a Pet Panther.
After the Red Clay Ramblers got going I saw less of Bob, tho he'd come out to shows at the Cradle from time to time. I know he came to see Diamond Studs when we returned from the big city with it in the fall of '75, and I know he was not happy with the naive politics of the play--Jesse James was in truth closer to a Klansman than a Robin Hood, something we never really thought about because the success of the show was grounded in its music and fun. Bob always had his political/moral compass activated, and his fire was never quenched. He was certainly supportive of me throughout--glad to see me succeeding in music, getting that the Ramblers were more than a simple bluegrass band, having various conversations with Tommy Thompson (another Philosophy Grad student and another big brother) and me over one too many at the Cradle bar.
Through the years I always tried to drop by the Smith Level digs from time to time and have a chat. When I left the Blurs in '81 I know I went by there to tell him, and later I introduced him to Libby and our daughter Anna. Anna, in fact, got into a political argument with Bob during one visit, while she was still in high school. Made me proud. Life went on, I was doing a lot of stone work and playing music with Libby. We spent nearly 10 years, from '95 on, mostly on Ocracoke Island. Anna grew up. I suddenly got to be --goddamn!!-- 63 years old.
I never figured Bob would die. He was too damn alive, too tough. He'd poke death in the eye, break that scythe over his knee and toss the pieces into that old yaller pickup with the horns on the front, drive home and make a sculpture out of the metal and kindling out of the handle. I did wish he'd quit smoking, and I've always figured that the cigs just kept him slightly level, kept him from punching the wall. A trade off. And who knows. Bob had a fine life, and I'm sure he'd agree in the deepest sense with my favorite bit of philosophy--living well is the best revenge. Hell, I probably got the line from him.
I wish we'd all paid more attention to the things that really pissed Bob off, that made him want to punch walls, and to start a magazine and then a forchristsakes newspaper! I have to say, looking at the current situation, Bob was absolutely right. One afternoon in '63, after the big sit in at the Chapel Hill Chamber of Commerce (a choice of target that had a lot to do with Bob, who understood where the power was, that it wasn't in the hands of some cracker who ran a little sandwich shop), Bob went out in the intersection of Columbia and Franklin, on his own, with a sign that said "Justice." He sat down under the traffic light and was shortly arrested. That was in some ways his most elegant moment, a pure statement, as true as you could get, with no hassles about the price of ink and paper and the overhead of a building on Morgan Street in Durham, the complications of a staff, deadlines, bidness. But he also gets a big big tip of the hatlo hat for sticking with it, printing that damn paper week after week, year after year, about as bad a job for an idealist as running a dairy farm come to think of it.
We thought that we'd won. We were seriously wrong, and we went to sleep at the wheel. We are paying still, right now, with this darkening political climate, with a right wing supreme court and a government that thinks corporations and fundamentalist churches are the true citizens of the country--not people. Most of us got tired of listening to Bob. The paper folded, replaced by papers that looked like papers, printed on news print, full of sex ads to pay the freight. During the '90s it looked like things had finally settled down, and we could just enjoy life and not think about the big political issues, the economic underpinnings. Probably to some degree Bob settled down too. But I don't think his fire ever went out, and I think, looking back, that he was seriously ahead of his time, ahead of this time, right now. He kept pointing till his arm got tired, then he sat down under a maple tree, fired up another Carlton, and tried to enjoy the sunset.
Well, Robert V. N. Brown, we'll sure the hell be missing you down the road we're travelling, and I hope we can do you proud. Take a well earned rest. God Speed.
*photo by Margaret Brown