Louisiana: Killing time in Ferriday

By Jack Barlow

In the 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis shook our nerves and rattled our brains. Jack Barlow visits the Louisiana museum devoted to his legend.

Jerry Lee Lewis played the piano with fierce energy. Photo / Supplied
Jerry Lee Lewis played the piano with fierce energy. Photo / Supplied

Ferriday is one of those places that exists in its own unique, timeless universe. It's a small town with faded clapboard houses and a couple of general stores, right next to the Mississippi border but miles from the nearest city. A town that people pass through while heading to cities in the north or south, but not a town to stop in. There isn't really a whole lot to stop for.

But on this day we're heading there anyway. It's a few hours north of Baton Rouge, a drive past dark green fields and towering forests, through tiny, indistinguishable towns and over muddy brown rivers.

It's an oppressively cold and grey day when we set out, with low-lying cloud and a constant drizzle accompanying us along the two-hour drive.

A few miles out of Ferriday, as we're crossing a bridge, a huge, white, Mississippi steamboat looms out of the mist to our right. It's visible for a few seconds before slipping away again. Suddenly, the notion of an old, weird South doesn't feel quite so remote.

Aside from its delta blues museum, Ferriday has one main claim to fame. It's the birthplace of rock'n'roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, a stupendously talented, hell-raising pianist nicknamed "The Killer".

Today, myself and my photographer friend, Brian, are heading to his childhood home which, presided over by his sister, Frankie Jean, has been turned into a museum in his honour.

It's been like that for years now, although it's not quite as easy to get access to as it used to be. Visits are by appointment only, and the number on the museum's website doesn't work.

Later, Frankie Jean says she couldn't deal with the constant barrage of phone calls from rock'n'roll fans all over the world.

"The last one was a man from Sweden," she says as we walk through the house.

"He was, oh, very lovely. But he called at three in the morning."

The house is near the centre of town which, admittedly, is pretty indistinguishable from the outskirts. Frankie Jean knows we're coming.

"Oh, how wonderful. I can't wait to meet you," she'd drawled on the phone earlier, but she's not ready when we turn up. Instead, we're led inside by her partner, a burly, big chested man in a pair of tattered blue overalls.

We wander through a cluttered kitchen into a large room with a fireplace in the corner and a small TV beside it. He didn't know we were coming, but the awkwardness soon dissolves as we sit and watch a game of college football. He used to play football, he tells us, although he had to stop because of injury.

"Mah knees are totally shot," he says in a thick Louisiana accent.

"But it ain't from football. It's from workin' all mah life."

After 20 minutes Frankie Jean, a petite woman with curly brown hair, appears and ushers us up a small flight of stairs to The Killer's home. She opens the door and we step into a place frozen in time.

It's a small house - a lounge, a kitchen and three bedrooms crammed in close proximity to each together - that looks as if it was sealed off sometime around 1963. A fluffy tortoiseshell carpet flows throughout the house, which is lit by a series of ancient looking lamps that throw out a dim light.

It's less a museum than a shrine. Although it's technically the Lewis Family Museum, the walls are covered with framed photos of Jerry Lee, while the piano he learned to play on sits forlornly in a room out the back.

The rooms are as they were when he lived in the house which, it's easy to forget, was well over 50 years ago.

The bed in which he was born stands in the centre of his old room, and the closet at its foot is filled with his old suits.

One particularly sparkling outfit - that turns out to be from his high school days - hangs beside the bed as if he'd gently placed it there that morning.

Jerry Lee Lewis' sister, Frankie Jean, in the musuem dedicated to her brother.
Photo / Brian Baiamonte

Frankie Jean leads us from room to room, followed by two yappy Yorkshire Terriers. The star of the show hasn't come through for a year and a half, but his absence doesn't bother her.

"Oh, he's a wonderful man," she says.

"God has really blessed him. He has been blessed. He worked very hard to make a name for himself and we're all very proud of him."

The Jerry Lee Lewis of the Lewis museum is God-fearing and kind-hearted, the one who smiles for the camera - albeit with the constant hint of a sneer - and preaches the gospel. Not, certainly, the one who shot his bass player or married his 13-year-old cousin.

We wander about for an hour, peering through doors and listening to Frankie Jean spin her tales. She wanders over to her favourite picture of her brother, an ancient black and white matinee idol portrait that he gave her back in 1957.

"People used to come through here all the time," she says.

"You know, it used to be wild. I'd be stopped on the street and people would always say, 'You're Jerry's sister Frankie, aren't you?'"

She often has a faraway look when talking about her brother, particularly the older days when he was still around. She doesn't talk to him too much anymore, even though he lives just up the road, but she spends her time surrounded by him. Looking at his photos. Taking calls about him. Writing letters to his fans.

Jerry Lee Lewis, nearly 50 years after he left home and slowly faded from her orbit, remains Frankie's life.

"This old house has a lot of memories," she says as she looks around.

"As long as this house stands, the memories will live."

Instead of the house, she could easily have been talking about herself.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles from where local carriers connect to Baton Rouge, in Louisiana. From there, it's a 1hr 46min drive north to Ferriday.

Louisiana Rock'n'roll: To arrange a visit to the Lewis Family Museum, call 001 318 757 4422.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Louisiana.

- NZ Herald

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