The Oxford American’s 2016 Southern Music Issue will present articles, profiles, and essays
about the South’s most storied and influential musical heritage: the blues.
One of my tasks as curator of the Alan Lomax Archive is to manage its YouTube channel. Several years ago, I noticed a particular strain of commentary recurring on the five clips that compose the recorded output of an utterly obscure and equally affecting singer-guitarist named Belton Sutherland, whom Lomax met in rural Madison County, Mississippi, in 1978.
Because the house on Durwood Road did not have air-conditioning and because three seasons in Little Rock seem to be mostly summer, Bob Palmer was practicing with his bedroom window open. He sucked on the reed of his Army Band Selmer saxophone and wondered if he might someday sound like Stan Getz on the albums his dad played. No, he’d never sound like Getz, but he didn’t have to. He just had to sound like what he sounded like, and he was still figuring out what that was. He had time. He was only in junior high. His little sister, Dorothy, said he sometimes sounded “like an elephant with its trunk caught in the door. Scree! Scree!” He didn’t mind the comment. It didn’t necessarily sound good, but what did “good” mean? It was sound. And sound was interesting.
Willie Mae Thornton was one of the crucial donors in the transfusion of black Southern blues into two separate veins of white rock & roll in America. Born in southern Alabama in 1926, she was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame the same year she died, in 1984. Although she could not read music, she was a respected colleague of Robert “Junior” Parker, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Clifton Chenier, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Cotton—everybody who was anybluesbody. But Big Mama’s name comes up today mostly in discussions of two songs that tethered her to white rock & roll history.
When Prince sang “Soft and Wet” from a 45 on my record player, the lyrics were hidden beneath the funky beat. My grandparents never knew what I was listening to. Prince and his doe eyes and big Afro and glistening lean body stared back at me from the pages of Right On! magazine. We lived far out into the woods, on a gravel road. My grandparents were farmers. Books and magazines and television told me that normal black girls did not live like this. But I did. Prince was the sex I knew nothing about. Prince sealed my fantasies about a larger world.
Ethnomusicologists have continued to do necessary and significant research, both in the field and beyond, but it’s difficult to muster up a modern analogue for Lomax. No other single figure is as invested in the American musical canon, or as influential. In part that’s the result of a global shift towards self-mythologizing: we all maniacally catalogue and broadcast our lives now, ensuring our legacies to both transcendent and humiliating ends. Who needs Lomax when we have YouTube?
Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach on Junior Kimbrough’s influence.
“It’s proven most of the time to be true: some of the music that I love the most, that I want to live with forever, are records I didn’t quite get at first, and that was definitely true for Junior. I didn’t understand it at first. It took a few listens. I had to come back to it a couple of times before I got it. And once I got it nothing was ever the same.”