January 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
“The woods were silent until the first squeak of cricket, followed by young frogs in the creek below and the rising drone of cicadas. He inhaled the heavy scent of summer earth, a loamy musk that settled over him like a caul. He was home.” — Chris Offutt in The Good Brother
“I fancied I could smell the Mississippi, which for me is southern America in a liquid form, signifying fried catfish, roasting ears dipped in butter, and watermelon in the cool of the evening, washed down with corn liquor and accompanied by the blues.” — Alan Lomax in The Land Where the Blues Began
“They have thundered past now and crashed silently on into the dusk; night has fully come. Yet he still sits at the study window, the room still dark behind him. The street lamp at the corner flickers and glares, so that the bitten shadows of the unwinded maples seem to toss faintly upon the August darkness. From a distance, quite faintly, he can hear the sonorous waves of massed voices from the church: a sound at once austere and rich, abject and proud, swelling and falling in the quiet summer darkness like a harmonic tide.” — William Faulkner in Light in August
November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
To his everlasting credit, Governor Hayley Barbour exercised his executive prerogative and installed signs at the entranceways into Mississippi with the legend, “Birthplace of America’s Music.” Indeed.
It’s no secret that Mississippi — and the Mississippi Delta in particular — is where America’s quintessential music was born, took hold, and grew into an irrepressible force. It was the blues, the music of heartfelt pain, that was born out of the oppression and destitution of a people. It was the blues that made its way down the river to New Orleans, cross-bred with barrelhouse and ragtime and grew into Jazz. Jimmie Rodgers melded the blues with the music of hill whites and gave birth to country music. The blues directly spawned rock-a-billy, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and soul, and almost every form of popular music in the past 100-plus years has a blue tinge.
The Land Where the Blues Began is Alan Lomax’s engrossing portrait of the Mississippi Delta, its culture and history, its blues artists, its oppression and exploitation of black people, and how this region of contradictions, savage racism, plantations, and juke joints gave rise to such formidable music.
Lomax ranged across the south from the 40’s through the 70’s, recording not only the music of original blues artists, but also their stories and recollections in their own words. The author continued the work of his father, who had begun the project in the late 20’s and 30’s.
What emerges from the stories he captured is a picture of the struggles and suffering of poor blacks in the Delta, and how they found release in music. Here are the stories of the cruel levee camps, the muleskinners, plantation life, the escape to Memphis and the factories of the north, Parchman farm. It becomes plain to the reader that the civil war did not end slavery, but merely transformed it into other forms of enforced servitude and destitution for blacks in Mississippi.
The main focus of this book, though, is the music. Lomax expertly analyzes the music’s African genes and the religious and early American musical strains that influenced and deepened it.
Lomax was a Texan who died in 2002. He is renowned as one of the great field collectors of indigenous music, particularly American music, although he did field work in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa as well. He had Mississippi roots that helped his understanding of the tortured Delta folkways. At page 186 of the book is this passage: “My father’s people were ‘peckerwoods’ from Meridian, Mississippi, ‘from the upper crust of the poor white trash,’ he used to say.”
If you want to understand Mississippi, you have to understand the blues and the music’s astonishing breadth of influence. The blues is merely one manifestation of Mississippi’s disproportionate impact on American literature, music and entertainment, dramatically belying the state’s stereotypical backwardness and reactionism. Lomax’s book is an excellent starting point.
If you want to understand the blues, you have to experience the Delta. Steve Cheseborough’s Blues Travelling is a travel guide that will open doors and by-ways to the region. Here you will find the towns and villages, grave sites, joints, monuments and historic locations, restaurants, museums and venues of the blues culture. There are maps and suggestions, along with articles telling the story.
If you are a Mississippian, you can explore the Delta in several easy day trips. This book will enrich the experience for you, telling you the stories of the places and people you encounter. You will probably find yourself stopping to explore places you would have bypassed.
As a bonus, the book includes forays into Memphis, Jackson, north Mississippi, and even Meridian.
Lisa and I have found this book particularly helpful in our blues explorations. I recommend it to you.
September 16, 2011 § 4 Comments
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
This next prayer comes from Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began. He recorded it at a black Baptist state convention in Clarksdale in 1942. The sentiment, especially with its reference to a “war coat,” could not be more appropriate for the litigation gladiator.
You know I can’t help from loving You.
Because You loved me myself,
Long before I knew what love is.
And when my time have come
I’ve got the king’s crown in coming glory.
And when I come down to the river,
Help me to pull off my war coat and enter.
I’ll enter in the name of the Lord,
Make my enemies out a liar,
Make us able to bear our burdens.
September 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
“I worked on levee camps, extra gangs, road camps and rock quarries and every place, and I hear guys singing uh-hmmmm this and mmmmm that, and I want to get the thing plainly that the blues is something that’s from the heart — I know that, and whensoever you hear fellows singing the blues — I always believed it was a really heart thing, from his heart, you know, and it was expressing his feeling about how he felt to the people.” — Big Bill Broonzy
“We’re blues people. And blues never lets tragedy have the last word.” — Wynton Marsalis
“I fancied I could smell the Mississippi, which for me is southern America in a liquid form, signifying fried catfish, roasting ears dipped in butter, and watermelon in the cool of the evening, washed down with corn liquor and accompanied by the blues.” — Alan Lomax