After breakfast on Saturday, my mama would turn on the WDIA program All Blues Saturday and the blues would growl out of the cream-and-gold GE radio on the kitchen counter, eclipsing my cartoons. As Mama finished up her weekend chores, the throbbing, jagged noise of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Koko Taylor mingled with the scent of Pine-Sol and bleach. Sometimes, she would call to my daddy that one of his songs was on and they would share a low, private chuckle about old times. Grown-up times. Mississippi times.
At weekend card parties, there was usually fried fish and spaghetti or barbecue and slaw to eat. Aunties and uncles smoked Kools and drank from tall cans of Schlitz as they played spades or bid whist. There was plenty of grown folk talk to eavesdrop on. And always, always there was the blues.
Can’t we listen to something else? one of the tribe of cousins would ask. Please?
Y’all don’t like these blues? Keep living and see if you don’t start to like ‘em. Just keep living.
This instruction was always followed with laughter and shaking heads. Just keep living was a threat, a dare. Keep living because the blues were somewhere. Out there. Waiting to get you.
The smoky twilight of Saturday blues rolled over into the dawn of Sunday gospel.
When we didn’t make the drive down to Mississippi for church, we listened to a broadcast on the kitchen radio. The preacher’s voice trembled and boomed and warned against the kind of sin we could find in that Saturday music. When we were actually in church, we sang a song called “I Know It Was the Blood” for communion:
I know it was the blood
I know it was the blood
I know it was the blood for me
One day when I was lost
He died upon the cross
And I know it was the blood for me
The congregation responded in a low rumble that rose to a kind of wild shout in the middle and to a whispering moan by the end. My mama, in her white usher’s uniform, passed around a metal tray with little cups of grape juice. Jesus had died for me. The grape juice, the blood, was for me. This music was for me. But those crescendo voices made me fear salvation as much as sin. I had the same reaction to both the blues and the preaching. Each in its own way talked about something hidden and dangerous. I didn’t want salvation, and I didn’t want the blues.
What I wanted to belong to was the weekday music on WDIA—the music that we listened to on the way to school and activities: The Jacksons, Ray Parker, Jr., New Edition, Cameo, and DeBarge. As Mama and I scooted around Memphis in the family station wagon, these were the acts that poured out of the dashboard. At home, the TV generally set the rhythm of our days, but the station wagon was my personal boogie wonderland of slick, new sounds and huge orchestrations. The weekend blues music that came out of the kitchen radio was everything else.
During Black History Month, one constant was W. C. Handy. We were told that Handy was the “Father of the Blues,” but what did that mean? What I knew about the blues came from my father’s eight-tracks and grown-up house parties and the All Blues Saturday on the radio.
Sometimes our classes took box-lunches to Handy Park, which, at the time, was a crumbling outdoor venue named for the Father of the Blues. The park was overrun by pigeons and panhandlers, but boasted a bronze statue of Handy. Even in the disintegrating surroundings, the statue of a black man counted for something.
Still, that statue didn’t quite jibe with me. The Father of the Blues depicted in the statue looked calm and grandfatherly. He wore a suit and tie and held his horn poised to play. In every photograph of Handy I had ever seen, he was always dressed impeccably. How could this man be the father of the rough, untamed music that I knew to be the blues? He looked nothing like the “cafe,” juke-joint people my family described (and I suspected they used to be).
In fact, Handy was a formally trained musician who traveled all over the world. And though he wasn’t looking for the blues, the blues found him all the same. The story goes that he fell asleep waiting for a train and woke to find a man playing “the weirdest music” he’d ever heard on the guitar. This chance encounter with the blue sparked a passion in Handy that became his life’s work. But, at first at least, he didn’t create blues; be merely absorbed the raw, primitive sounds and wrote them down. Perhaps this tale planted a seed of storytelling in me, because what I learned from this was the one who writes it down get the power. That if you tell or write down stories, you can get a statue erected in your honor—even in Memphis, even if you are black. Children will be made to remember your name—if just for one month a year.
I liked hearing about black heroes. Marian Anderson and her opera. Garrett A. Morgan and the traffic light. Dr. Charles Drew and his blood transfusions. Even George Washington Carver with his many uses of the peanut was okay. But we all knew where this was going. Black History lessons had an inevitable destination: Civil Rights and slavery and all they represented. I felt embarrassed and pained when we were showed footage of sit-ins and Civil Rights protests and that Martin Luther King Jr., was killed in Memphis, my home. Memphis was a place so bad that men who were black like my daddy needed placards reading I AM A MAN. King had come to help and got killed for his trouble. How could I possibly repay that debt? Repay the blood that was for me?
Once we moved into slavery, things got worse. The line drawings in our textbooks of enslaved people dragging sacks of cotton and their ramshackle houses didn’t just hit close to home, it was home. I feared my classmates would know that I_ was_ that kind of country. The textbook, slavery-time country. To me, there was little difference from those line drawings to what I saw outside our car window every other Mississippi Sunday. (We only made the trip every other Sunday because, as is still the practice in rural churches, we shared a minister. Our church got him second and fourth and the church down the road got him first and third.)
On the drive to Mississippi, my mama would point out fields of cotton and beans and talk about when the whole family had to chop cotton to make a living. Even the kids. Now there was no overseer on a horse. The mule plow had been replaced by a John Deere and there were trailer homes instead of shacks, but there were still rows and rows of cotton and soybeans to be harvested. The title had changed—master/slave became plantation owner/sharecropper and later employer/employee, but the owning was still mostly done by whites and the work by blacks. Mama’s Chevy might as well have been a time machine.
My parents had lived on plantations as sharecroppers. Until they died, several of my maternal relatives lived in the same houses they had when they sharecropped. At my grandmother’s house in Mississippi, there was no running water. There was an outhouse and chamber pot instead of a bathroom. She lived there until the house burned in a fire, and then later with my great-uncle Moses, who lived in a house on the same plantation. Running water and indoor plumbing had been installed just a few years before my great-uncle’s death in 2005. He was allowed to stay on the land and in the house for as long as he lived, but upon his death, the house (and its new plumbing) and the land reverted back to the owners. Nevermind that he had paid taxes on the property. This was the blues. This was me.
I first thought I hated my parents’ weekend music because I didn’t belong to it. The blues, to me, was all talk of women leaving, men leaving, despair and gloom that made me resolve to never be like the people in those songs. Desperate, whining, complaining, country. Nobody cried for people who sang the blues. They did all of their crying themselves. This was all that I could hear in the blues, a past that was not past at all for me.
But then when I grew older and maybe smarter, I hated it because there was no denying that I belonged to the blues and the blues belonged to me. The weekend music was my dark skin pouring out of the radio. In that music, the shadow of plantations, poverty, and slavery caught up with me. The music made the horrors of what had been done to black people in my textbooks real. And ugly. And alive. I made the blues a convenient container for everything I was ashamed of. To avoid the nastiness, I simply stopped listening.
But just as the blues found W. C. Handy, the blues found me. I didn’t listen to them, but the blues found me in the literature that I loved. Who can read Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, or Gloria Naylor without hearing the blues? The blues found me in family stories and folktales. In books of photography. I even found the blues hiding in some of my favorite hip-hop records. The blues was in the Southern drawl that I couldn’t quite shake. The blues found me at the center of a few catastrophic heartbreaks. The blues found me again as I broke some other hearts in return. The blues were there when family members passed. When we lost almost everything in a house fire. I kept on living as my auntie instructed, and the blue found me, but together we survived.
Like a sinner who recalls her moment of salvation, I think the turning point for me was this: In my last semester of a graduate journalism degree, I stumbled into an elective on artist management with Bob Tucker (former road manager for Elvis Presley and a member of the Bill Black Combo). During class, he played a live recording he had made of B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland somewhere out in the sticks. They were four hours late for the show and, according to Tucker, Bland was well on the far side of drunk when he arrived. But when Bland approached the microphone and sang his apologies to the crowd, you could hear the roar of genuine adoration rise up from the audience. It was one of the most amazing thing I had ever heard. It still is. For the very first time, I heard and comprehended the power of the blues. It was about making a connection to people through heartache and pain. It was about using joy and strength to overcome misery, not indulge it. I finally understood that I had been mishearing, misunderstanding the blues all this time.
I had let my little-girl ears tell me that die blues was about powerlessness, about having no control of your own life. Instead, in that moment I discovered that the blues were about transformation. That my aunties’ imperative to “keep living” wasn’t a threat, but encouragement. All of those blues people who I thought were weak and sad were actually resilient. These blues people, my blues people, are triumphant for not only surviving to tell the tale but having the nerve to make it art.
Return to the 12th Annual Southern Music Issue.